On a crystal-clear morning in the waning days of summer, Bernice Parker-Jones headed out from her Upper Marlboro home to spend part of her 66th birthday in silence with strangers.
About a dozen people came together Tuesday at the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours, on 313 acres in northern Howard County, to devote an hour to stillness in a free program called Quiet Mornings.
"There is something spiritual, something serene about this place," said Parker-Jones, pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Washington. "I like being with people, but also being separate, and there are so many places to hide here."
The Marriottsville center, located off Interstate 70, is a ministry of the Sisters of Bon Secours, an order established in Baltimore in 1881 at the request of Archbishop James Cardinal Gibbons after he witnessed the sisters at work in France.
Opened in 1968 — after it was originally established as a novitiate four years earlier — the center flies the flags of the six countries where the Sisters operate: Ireland, France, Peru, Scotland, South Africa and the United States.
Joanne Cahoon, an Arbutus minister who founded and leads the program on the third Tuesday of each month, opens and closes each session with prayer.
"It's identifiably Christian, but that doesn't turn anyone off," said Cahoon, who spent the hour praying silently, reading from her Bible and checking messages on her phone.
"The idea is to provide a consistent oasis of silence, a regular opportunity for people of various religious traditions to check in and get recharged," she said. "Whatever people need to do in the silence is fine. It's very open-ended."
Kevin Cassidy, director of operations at Bon Secours, said the center extends an open-door policy "to all who come here to escape the everyday distractions of life and who want to take time to listen and to enjoy the tranquillity.
"There is beauty in diversity," he said. "We all share similarities, but the real beauty is in the contrasts."
A variety of Christian-based programming is offered at the center, including retreats for which 70 guest rooms are available for overnight stays, Cassidy said. The conference and dining facilities are used by community groups.
After the opening prayer, group members quietly disperse to reflect in their own way. In past sessions, one woman has regularly claimed a spot on the meeting room's floor to work on a collage, while others have prayed with a rosary or written in their journals, Cahoon said. On Tuesday, a couple who had moved to Maryland six days earlier sat on a bench, silently soaking in the scenery.
While participants spend time together before and after the hour of silence, those brief interludes set a tone for the time they are apart. Some choose to sit by the koi pond, explore the peace garden or visit the chapel; others stake out more private spaces.
Valerie McManus, an Ellicott City psychotherapist, usually gravitates toward the labyrinth, a circular stone path intended to encourage mindfulness.
"I find there is a lot of power in sharing silence with others, and through that sense of community we feel unspoken caring for one another," McManus said, even though there are no introductions or name badges.
Philip Forte, a Catonsville resident and teacher at Archbishop Curley High School, said his first experience with Quiet Mornings in July "was exactly what I was looking for."
"It's a great opportunity to be still and meditate or pray and do whatever you want to do," he said. He spent the hour on that hot summer day in the air-conditioned Rocking Chair Room, which has a couple dozen wooden rockers.
"It's me time and time with God," said Forte, who is in his 38th year of teaching and is a former principal of Cardinal Gibbons High.
"The attraction here is doing this in a community setting with a group of people coming together to spend time devoted to prayer," he said. "People pay good money for retreats, and this particular mini-retreat is offered free of charge."
Cahoon said the communal time sets a tone, "and if you're able to recapture a Zen-like moment sometime later in your day, that's great."
"There's no spirituality kit that you can buy at Lowe's, and there's no one way to pray right or do silence right," she said of Quiet Mornings. "You can't fail at this."
If you go
Quiet Mornings is a free program held the third Tuesday of each month at the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours, 1525 Marriottsville Road. Sessions begin with an opening prayer at 9:30 a.m before participants move into silence anywhere on the grounds from 9:45 a.m. to 10:35 a.m. The program closes with prayer. The next session is Oct. 20. Registration: rccbonsecours.com or 410-442-3120.