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Celebrating the past while embracing the future at Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center

After hosting weeklong painting classes at the Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center for over a decade, Diane Santarella Lawrence says the same feeling of anticipation comes over her every time she pulls into the center’s steep entrance off Marriotsville Road.

“You drive up the driveway, unload your car and leave the ordinary world behind,” says the artist, who arranges retreats twice a year for students of her husband and fellow artist Skip Lawrence. “It’s a magical place.”

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The center on 313 acres, which is a ministry of the Sisters of Bon Secours, will launch a months-long celebration of its 50th anniversary on Monday, Jan. 29 at an event that is free and open to the public, though pre-registration is required.

Archbishop William E. Lori of the Archdiocese of Baltimore will celebrate Mass, and a reception and display of historic artifacts and photographs will follow. Anniversary open houses are planned for April, June and September.

A commemorative oil painting by Paula Regan, a Sykesville artist who believes the pond’s bridge is “the pinnacle of the property,” will be unveiled at the event.

The facility was first opened to the public in 1968 by the Sisters of Bon Secours, who sent three nuns from France to Baltimore in 1881 at the invitation of Archbishop James Cardinal Gibbons.

But the site’s metamorphosis into a conference and retreat center for hundreds of thousands of religious and non-religious guests was not part of their original vision.

The nuns, whose name is French for “good help,” had been living in cramped quarters on West Baltimore Street and were in desperate need of more space for their convent. They envisioned the land as the future site of their home in the country when they purchased it in 1962.

Within three years of moving in 1965 into what was then called the Provincial House and Novitiate, the first group of 12 sisters realized that the number choosing to enter religious life had dropped dramatically and one wing of their cross-shaped building stood empty, according to an account in the center’s magazine “Bridges” by special collections archivist David McAllister.

After hosting 136 nursing students for a one-day conference in October 1968, more conferences and retreats were arranged for the following year and the number continued to grow as a new purpose for the facility was embraced.

Sister Mary Margaret Burger was chosen as the director of the renamed Marriottsville Spiritual Center and she oversaw tremendous change until her departure in 1977.

Sister Rose Marie Jasinski, who recently turned 75, has been there from the beginning.

She has been an eyewitness to what she termed the facility’s “Dramatic transformation” over the decades, one that she categorizes as “unique to us.”

“The Sisters of Bon Secours still think of this place as our home,” she said of the 12 nuns who reside there, “and we maintain a sense of healing and peacefulness on the grounds and in the building.”

Operated by a staff of 50, the center currently hosts more than 350 conference groups each year and sponsors more than 150 retreats and events, said Jennifer Murphy, manager of retreat services. There are 10 meeting rooms and 70 private lodging rooms.

“Our overall mission is to bring people to wholeness, in terms of spirituality and hospitality” with no restraints on religious affiliation, said Sr. Jasinski, who attended the Bon Secours School of Nursing for two years before joining the community in 1965. She resides in Ellicott City

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The American Sisters of Bon Secours reside in Baltimore, Virginia and South Carolina. International Sisters of Bon Secours live in France, England, Ireland and Peru.

“We have 29 locations in the U.S. and 200 worldwide,” Jasinski said.

Kevin Cassidy currently serves as director of operations at the center, whose name was changed to Bon Secours Spiritual Center in 1981 and then to Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center in 2012. The Bon Secours Health System is also headquartered on the property.

Cassidy, a West Friendship resident, is in charge of the center’s Pathway to Peace fundraising campaign, whose theme was chosen “because of all the shootings and violence in the news.”

Since the center already maintains a Peace Garden where guests can “tune out the noise,” the plan is to replace a paved pathway from the main building to the garden with engraved red bricks, he said.

“It’s a Zen-type garden with bamboo, raked gravel and large boulders to sit on,” Cassidy said, noting it’s also the location of the Worldwide Peace Pole, where guests are encouraged to pray for world peace.

“Adding the engraved bricks will allow people to donate in honor of a loved one and also make more people aware of this place, where they can enjoy peace and tranquility,” he said.

Santarella Lawrence said the center has become home base for the Skip Lawrence Art Workshops, whose students also enjoy the labyrinth, pond and garden on the grounds.

But the center is more than the sum of its parts, and the staff has become like family, she said.

“They all know what we need and tell us they love it when we come,” she said, praising the staff’s willingness to cover the floors with plastic each time they visit.

Jennifer Cathro, manager of The Leadership, a leadership development program that is connected to the Greater Baltimore Council, said the center is a perfect fit for the group’s conferences.

“Reflection is part of our programming and the center is such a serene environment,” Cathro said. “From the tadpoles and ducklings in the pond in the spring to the volleyball nets they set up for, the entire arrangement is so welcoming.”

Cassidy attributes the center’s modern day success to the foresight of his predecessors long ago.

“The 50th anniversary is a result of the wisdom of the Sisters’ advisers,” Cassidy said. “So many great people who have gone before have put us in a position to celebrate.”

To register for the Jan. 29 event, set for 11 a.m.to 1 p.m., go to rccbonsecours.com or call 410-442-3120.

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