Jesuit says brotherhood is ‘about finding God in all things’

By Sam Lucero | The Compass
November 8, 2021

Br. Lee Colombino says Jesuit formation allowed him to discern life as brother

OSHKOSH — As a member of the Society of Jesus religious order (the Jesuits), Br. Lee Colombino’s vocation focuses on one of the precepts introduced by his order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Jesuit Br. Lee Colombino holds up an icon depicting St. Francis of Assisi, one of two icons he recently completed. Br. Lee is one of five Jesuits, and the only religious brother, serving at Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh. When considering a vocation, Br. Lee suggests that young adults consider, “What is your heart telling you and where is it calling you in terms of your spiritual life?” (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“I love the life of a Jesuit brother and, for me, it’s about finding God in all things, or the sense of sacramental awareness,” said Br. Lee, who serves as a spiritual director at Jesuit Retreat House. “So it’s more about the ordinary experiences — how does God’s creative action unfold in our lives and being present to that. It’s beautiful to watch unfold.”

While his ministry focuses on spiritual direction, Br. Lee is an accomplished artist. He taught in the Fine Arts Department at Loyola Academy, a Jesuit high school in Wilmette, Ill., for four years prior to earning a master’s degree in spirituality with a focus on spiritual direction from Loyola University in Chicago. He was then “missioned” to Jesuit Retreat House in July 2020.

After arriving in Oshkosh, he set up an art studio/gallery in the lower level of the St. Ignatius Chapel building. Here he spends time exploring the relationship between his spiritual life and his life as an artist.

A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Br. Lee first learned about the Jesuits while he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

“I got involved with a liberation theology reading group and that was in the late ’80s,” he said. “While I was part of this group, we were reading Jesuit authors. That’s what kind of piqued my interest in the society, but it really was Ignatian spirituality which got me.”

After completing his undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology in 1991, Br. Lee moved to Chicago, where he first met members of the Jesuit order. He took a course at Catholic Theological Union taught by Jesuit Fr. Ted Ross and spent one year volunteering with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Kentucky.

When he entered the order in 1998, he was sent to Fordham University in New York City to study philosophy. “It was there when my superior at the time said, ‘Lee, you need to get out of your head. Have you ever thought of taking an art class?’ I was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to do pottery.’ So that’s actually when I first got started.”

While creating art on a pottery wheel, he uncovered other life lessons.

“There is a very rich confluence between the life of the spirit and the life of art. Even before you start throwing on the wheel, the clay needs to be centered,” he said. “Otherwise, if it’s not centered at the get-go, it will be off-kilter all the way through. 

“So, like the spiritual life, how am I centered and how am I not being centered? How does that affect the shape I take? That was like the further hook, if you will, for art and spirituality for me, those sort of life lessons,” he said.

Br. Lee said the retreat house does not offer programs related to art. “It’s a hope I have for the future,” he said. “We need to figure out what it would look like. How it would happen because, in terms of what we do here now, we have weekend retreats in the fall, winter and spring months and then summer months we are in our directed retreats. We have a packed program going on already.”

His life as a brother gives Br. Lee opportunities to share the story of his vocation and to promote religious vocations.

“It’s interesting because, in terms of a brother, oftentimes people are like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize there were Jesuit brothers,’” he said. “We are such a priestly order, it’s like, ‘No, we exist.’ Everybody knows what a priest does, they have a  definite idea of what a priest is supposed to do. So there is more of an opportunity to have a conversation of discovery” about brotherhood.

Formation in the Jesuit religious order can last more than 15 years and encompasses five stages:

  • Novitiate: A two-year period where men get to learn about the community and Ignaitan spirituality. At the completion they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
  • First studies: During these three years, the Jesuit studies philosophy and theology while serving in the community.
  • Regency: This three-year period focuses on active ministry.
  • Theology studies: This three-year period is the final step before priestly ordination or continuing formation as a brother.
  • Tertianship: A five-year period in which the priest or brother reflects on his formation. He then professes a fourth and final vow: to serve the pope and the Society of Jesus.

“When you take vows in the society, you take vows as either a scholastic or a brother,” he said. “Scholastics are the ones who go on to become priests.”

Br. Lee said he considered the scholastic path during his novice years.

“It was the sacrament of reconciliation that was really drawing me to the priesthood,” he said. “One of the really beautiful things about Ignatian and Jesuit formation is that it’s so long. So I thought, ‘Well, since it is so long, I have time to just grow into the rest.’ Well, as I am going along, it was becoming apparent, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to be growing into the rest, or I’m not going to grow into it very well.’ That’s where it became a time of really good discernment.” 

During theology studies, Br. Lee discerned that he was called to religious life as a brother. “So if I remained (on the priesthood track), the art stuff would not have happened,” he said.

Br. Lee’s message to young people today about discerning a vocation is found in a question: ”What’s going on in your heart?”

“This is what I love in terms of Ignatian spirituality — the principal foundation from the spiritual exercise: we are all created to love, reverence, serve God and praise God,” he said. “And we have these gifts that we ought to develop for God’s greater glory. So I think that’s more my take, and it might be my ‘brother’ take on it — whether they become a religious or not. What are your God-given gifts and how are you developing them?

Having worked with high school students at Loyola Academy, he knows that young adults are encouraged to pursue material success and not explore other paths to fulfillment.

“We are becoming much more utilitarian in our thought process and that’s a great sadness for me,” he said. “I’m an old school, liberal arts type guy. So I think, ‘Where is your passion, what brings you joy and how are you developing that?’ There’s sadness for me how that change has happened, in terms of how education is more about getting a job now than learning and becoming a well-rounded human being and learning different perspectives.”

The same goes for discerning a vocation, he said.

“Within that question, ‘What is your heart telling you and where is it calling you in terms of your spiritual life?’ It’s tough and not just for kids,” said Br. Lee.

Jesuit Retreat House transitions include new registrar

Jesuit Retreat House transitions include new registrar

By Sam Lucero | The Compass October 5, 2021

OSHKOSH — The recent transitions at Jesuit Retreat House not only include retreat team members. Trish Neuman, who has served as administrative assistant and registrar at the facility since August 2010, has retired. Her successor, Tanya Hielke, started July 19.

Neuman said her desire to be with family, and the complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, were behind her decision to retire.

“My mom (June Olk) is 94 years old. I want to spend more time with her,” she said. “I have grandkids and want to spend time with them. Especially because of COVID, there’s been so many changes and disruptions, and it’s like, ‘This is the time to do it. It’s the right time.’”

Hielke, a member of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish, said working at Jesuit Retreat House is like an extension of her past parish ministry roles.

“While it’s not parish work, I feel it’s a part of church,” said Hielke, who served as a youth minister and religious education coordinator for high school and middle school youth for 15 years.

“Being part of a retreat center, it’s not a job,” she said. “We are ministering to people, even when we are registering people, when we listen to people on the phone. There’s just so many different personalities. We know that they are coming here to seek God and that’s a real treasure to be part of that. That’s the feeling I got right away when I was talking with staff.”

In addition to the friendly staff, Neuman said the retreat center’s setting on Lake Winnebago will be missed.

“When I started here, you drive through the gates and it was like, ‘Aah,’” she said. “It was this sense of peace. I loved working here. I’ve learned so much, I’ve grown so much. The people here are so unbelievable. The staff are amazing and the people who come for retreats are loving, caring and kind.”

Hielke, who previously worked in a corporate office setting, said the behind-the-scenes work of planning and scheduling retreats is surprising. “I don’t think people understand the amount of detail and work that a retreat staff does,” she said.

She was happy to learn that Neuman would continue on a part-time basis until the end of the year. Hielke lives in Pickett with her husband, Darryl. They have five children and eight grandchildren.

Neuman, who has three adult children, six grandchildren and two great-granddaughters, said she plans to get back into quilting and reading books. Lots of visits to Hortonville are also in her future. “That’s where my mom lives,” she added. “She watches Bishop (David) Ricken’s TV Mass every Sunday.”

New faces greet guests at Oshkosh’s Jesuit Retreat House

By Sam Lucero | The Compass
October 5, 2021

OSHKOSH — Just as parishes are welcoming people back to church this fall, the Jesuit Retreat House is opening its doors to new and returning retreatants. There to greet guests are two new faces, Jesuit Frs. Mark Carr and Jim Shea. 

Fr. Carr succeeds Jesuit Fr. Chris Manahan, who served as retreat house director for seven years. Fr. Carr began his new role on June 22. Fr. Shea serves as a retreat team member and also arrived in June.

With the addition of the two priests, the retreat house now has five Jesuits living in community in Oshkosh. The others include Fr. Jack Treloar, Fr. Eugene Donahue and Br. Lee Colombino.

“We have a beautiful place here,” Fr. Carr told The Compass Sept. 29. “We have a wonderful team and we really do operate as a team.”

Ordained in Milwaukee in 2005, Fr. Carr, who was born and raised in Wheaton, Ill., said his main work since ordination has been in secondary education and campus ministry.

In his brief time in Oshkosh, Fr. Carr said he has come to understand, from their comments, the love people have for Jesuit Retreat House.

“So, every Thursday afternoon, September through May, a new group of retreatants arrives here,” he said. “They pull up and walk into the lobby and pretty much everyone says, ‘I’m so glad to be here. I’m looking forward to the silence,’ or ‘I’m looking forward to reconnecting with God.’”

These comments, he said, “are a helpful, sometimes needed reminder, to never take the JRH for granted. It’s a special place.” 

Like all other institutions and businesses serving the public, Jesuit Retreat House was forced to close in early 2020 due to the pandemic. From mid-March 2020 to mid-June 2020, no retreats were offered. It reopened its doors in September 2020 for preached weekend retreats. However, strict COVID regulations were put into place. 

Fr. Carr said the facility operated at reduced capacity and split retreatants into two groups to allow for social distancing. It meant that retreat directors would give the same talks twice and back-to-back Masses were celebrated. There was also an option to participate virtually via the internet.

“In late June, we went back to whole group gatherings, so one Mass for each retreat group and one seating at each meal,” he said. “In July, we had maybe a three-week period where we were maskless, before the Delta variant, and we started opening up some retreats to full capacity. 

“So right now, we have whole group gatherings through the end of the year,” said Fr. Carr. “Retreats are open to full capacity and we have private bedrooms for 60 people. Right now, we are masked during retreats and we are asking people to share vaccination status when they arrive. Right now, we are 97% vaccinated in terms of our guests who come here. I think that’s a safe environment for people to come to for retreat.”

Fr. Shea, who was ordained in 2015, said his last assignment was in Chicago, working at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

As part of his Jesuit formation, called “tertianship,” he spent one semester last year at Jesuit Retreat Center in Parma, Ohio. “It was like a preparation for coming here,” he said.

According to Fr. Shea, he enjoys the reconciliation services offered at the retreat house.

“People often come looking for some reconciliation, whether between themselves and God or other people, or simply within themselves, to be at peace with themselves,” he said. “The moments when they find that, whether it’s in the reconciliation service or in the sacrament of confession, that’s very satisfying. I get to be a part of that and it really doesn’t have much to do with me at all. It’s really between them and the Lord.”

The opportunity to encounter the Lord is what makes Jesuit Retreat House a special place, said Fr. Shea.

“I remember one retreatant was here and he wanted to talk to me and we were by the lake. He said, ‘Let’s just sit down here for a minute.’ He closed his eyes and he began to listen. Soon, all you heard was the sound of the waves, the sound of the water. 

“It was a new experience for me, maybe because I’m a city kid and I don’t stop and listen much,” added Fr. Shea. “That’s why this is a special place, because people come here just to be able to have an experience that they generally don’t have in their ordinary, everyday life. I think that’s true for me, too. That’s why it’s such a gift for me to be able to work here.”

This year, the Jesuits are celebrating a special Ignatian year, from May 2021 to July 2022. The year celebrates the 500th anniversary of the conversion of the religious order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

“One thing the retreat house is doing to mark (the anniversary) is offering another form of the spiritual exercises to people,” said Fr. Carr. “It’s a series of eight Thursdays … called ‘Meeting Christ in Prayer.’ It’s the first time, at least in recent years, that the retreat house has done this.”

While about 75% of those who visit Jesuit Retreat House are repeat retreatants, Fr. Carr welcomes those who have never been to the retreat house located on the shores of Lake Winnebago.

“JRH seems to be a little local gem in the diocese that a lot of people don’t know about,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place to pray, to grow in one’s faith and we are open. We have beautiful and comfortable grounds and facilities for people. We welcome folks here to grow in their faith life.”

To learn more about the retreats offered at Jesuit Retreat House or for more information visit jesuitretreathouse.org or call (920)231-9060.