In heart of Pikesville, a bucolic retreat center is run by a 12th-century order of priests

Community Times
In heart of Pikesville, a bucolic retreat center is run by a 12th-century order of priests

Mere minutes from bustling Reisterstown Road in Pikesville — where cars zoom, parking lots are full, and people mill in and out of stores and offices — you can head up a private driveway that's twisty and tree-lined, and you'll soon arrive at a campus that feels like time forgot.

The campus, at 8400 Park Heights Avenue in Pikesville, is home to the Holy Trinity Spiritual Center. Here, groups including but not limited to high school students, church members and recovering addicts have been coming for three decades to pause, reflect and find spiritual nourishment. The retreat center is not unlike the Trinitarians themselves, the Roman Catholic order of priests dating back to the 12th century that runs the center and previously housed a thriving seminary on the same campus: Though the campus is aging and its residents are dwindling, the fierce loyalty of those who remain is evident.

"We are always receiving power, consolation and strength from God. The human spirit needs food and energy. With that, we can face any situation," said Father Joshy Abraham, director of the Holy Trinity Spiritual Center.

The Trinitarians, one of the oldest orders of Roman Catholic priests, date back to 1198, when the order was founded by John De Matha in Paris, France. According to literature on the subject, De Matha created the Trinitarians in response to a desire to support persecuted Christians.

Today, Trinitarians focus their work primarily on institutional ministry. Trinitarian priests can be found working as missionaries, social workers, counselors and chaplains in institutions such as prisons, hospitals and residences for people with disabilities. And, explains Father Abraham, all ordained Trinitarian priests take a vow of obedience, chastity and poverty.

Over the years, the number of Trinitarians has continued to decline significantly. Each year, Trinitarians from around the country gather at the Holy Trinity Spiritual Center for a conference. About 35 ordained priests, the only remaining Trinitarians in the U.S, attended last year's meeting.

It's easy to imagine the pastoral campus' heyday. In 1955, it opened the current retreat center as a seminary, where men interested in becoming Trinitarian priests received their training. On the grounds is a prayer garden featuring all the Stations of the Cross — a series of images and corresponding prayers set in stone that depict Jesus prior to his crucifixion. Also on the property is a small cemetery where Trinitarians from around the region are buried.

In 1984, the site began to transition from a seminary to a retreat center for outside groups, whereby visitors from all over the region likely found the peaceful setting a respite from everyday life, just as they continue to do today. But the groups that visit today tend to be smaller, says the center's general manager, Debra Ragon. And the campus, approximately 40 acres, shows its age. A shed on the property is crumbling. On a basketball court outside the retreat center, weeds poke through the asphalt.

Small but dedicated staff

The current campus staff may be small, but they're a dedicated group. Only six people are employed to maintain and support the large campus, which includes a provincial house; the 59-bed center for retreats, conferences, workshops and meetings; and a retirement residence for retired Trinitarian priests — currently home to just one priest. Three nuns work in the kitchen of the retreat center (they also live on-site) preparing meals, sometimes three a day for groups that can be as large as 50 or so. Also on staff are two maintenance workers and one housekeeper, and a general manager who provides administrative support.

Some 32 years ago that general manager, Debra Ragon, answered a newspaper ad for an office worker at the center. She is still employed there today. As general manager, she is the de facto 'go-to' person at the center. Although she is Jewish, Ragon has soaked in the traditions of the Trinitarians over the years and is comfortable reeling off esoteric terms and practices associated with the religion. She knows well, and shares her insights, regarding the retreat center's administrators.

Of the retreat center's director Father Abraham, who left his homeland in India after training as a Trinitarian priest to serve on the Pikesville campus, Ragon says: "He is a wonderful man. He's very spiritual, very loving. This job is very new to him, and people seem to really like him."

Perhaps it is the spirit of those who work on the campus, despite its aging infrastructure and the dwindling number of people who both visit and reside there, that allows the retreat center to continue operating in a self-sustained manner. Other than the addition of central air conditioning in 2000, thereby allowing the retreat center to operate year-round, few changes have been made to it in recent years. But the center continues to welcome groups of all religious affiliations. And in today's hectic fast-paced world, the prospect of a bucolic setting that provides space for quiet and prayerful reflection remains appealing to many.

"We get calls all the time," Ragon said. "We have no weekends available for months out."

She suggests that the simple and stable nature of the campus is what appeals to those who visit. Asked about the future, Ragon says, "I don't see any major changes coming. I see us staying the same."

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