Retreat Center weathers pandemic while marking 25 years

Sitting on the lazy, peaceful banks of the Myakka River in Venice is Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat and Spirituality Center (OLPH), the primary retreat center for the Diocese of Venice.

It was some 25 years ago when the groundbreaking on the 250-acre property took place with the first buildings opening within a year. Since that time in 1995, untold thousands have visited the OLPH grounds either to visit or to take part in one of many retreats.

For a time, early in the global pandemic, there was a question on whether OLPH could maintain its operations restrictions that included social distancing, the wearing of masks and the sanitizing requirements needed for a facility that can host dozens of overnight visitors.

Father Mark Yavarone, OMV, OLPH Director, explained how in the midst of a great deal of uncertainty, something amazing happened.

As people began to work from home, Father Yavarone and the staff at OLPH figured out a way to transition to give individual retreats online, meeting one-one-one for an hour each day with each retreatant by video. The question was would people be willing to discuss their relationship with God over the computer?

“When the pandemic hit, we knew our retreats would drop some 40 percent,” Father Yavarone continued. “You know what happened, the individual one-on-one retreats – where you meet with the person every day for 3 days. 5 days, 8 days – they went up 50 percent because people from all over the country, and even the world, were desperate to find an open retreat center. We were able to do it safely.”

The applications for retreats came from across Florida and beyond, including California, Australia, New Zeeland and the United Arab Emirates. This created a problem with trying to figure out time zone difference. Each retreatant was provided with instructions on how to best set up their home space, away from distractions, so as to focus on the retreat. While these were helpful to many, there were limits as the lack of access to the Mass or the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the absence of these were deeply missed by all.

This online option continued for a time, even as OLPH reopened to in-person individual retreats. Men and women came to OLPH desperate for time alone with the Lord in an era of stress and anxiety, finding the peace that only Jesus can give, Father Yavarone added.

One retreatant remarked: It helped me clear my mind and give me hope for the future.” Another said, “I lived the story of the Prodigal Son by coming here, and I was welcomed home.”

“It was an amazing thing to get to ministering to so many people on a very deep level who were struggling with COVD,” Father Yavarone explained. “It is something for which I am very grateful to God.”

Of course, the number of large groups using OLPH remained low for much of 2020 and into early 2021 as retreat size restrictions were necessary due to social distancing and other safety guidelines for all retreatants. Even when in-person retreats returned, the retreats were different, as the Sacrament of Confession was necessarily from a greater distance than was normal. “We adjusted to create an environment where everyone was comfortable,” Father noted.

As 2022 moves forward, the long-awaited celebration of the 25th Anniversary of OLPH is nearing. Necessarily postponed because of the pandemic, “The Butterfly Ball,” will take place from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 19, at St. Thomas More Parish Chelsea Center, 2506 Gulf Gate Drive, Sarasota. The evening includes a cocktail hour, formal dinner, musical entertainment, dancing, and a silent and live auction. Tickets are $150. each. For more information, or to purchase tickets, please visit our website at or call 941-486-0233.

Shortly after the establishment of the Diocese of Venice, Bishop John J. Nevins asked Father Charles Mallen, C.Ss.R., to begin the process of promoting the development of a retreat center for the young diocese.  The groundbreaking ceremony took place in January 1995 and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center became a reality.

The site includes a conference center, villas for overnight guests, a dining center and chapel. In addition to the seven buildings on-site, there is the newly dedicated Shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, all laid out to allow retreatants the opportunity to spend time enjoying the beautiful grounds which include the Way of the Cross, the Rosary Walk and the prayer decks located along the riverbank.

Regardless of the 25th Anniversary celebrations, OLPH is back and hosting groups of all sizes.

Retreat Offerings

Of course, OLPH continues to offer 3, 5, and 8-day individual retreats. Each retreat begins with a meeting with a priest spiritual director, and dinner. Mass is offered each day, as well as a meeting with the director, spiritual reading assignments, and peaceful time for introspection and contemplation. The final day concludes with a meeting, Mass, and lunch. For those with less time, OLPH also offers a 1-Day retreat (often referred to as a Desert Day). There are also Ignatian Preached Retreats (the next one is May 20-23) which are silent and introduce participants to the Spiritual Exercises in a group setting.

Another popular offering is the Monthly Day of Prayer, with the next Wednesday session is on Feb. 9 and the Sunday session is on Feb. 13. The day begins at 9:30 am with continental breakfast and includes two conferences, lunch, Eucharistic Adoration, Mass, and opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, private meditation and prayer. The day concludes with Mass, ending at 3:15 pm. The cost is $40. Note: the conference topics are the same for the Sunday and Wednesday sessions in each respective month, so please choose the day that is compatible with your schedule.

OLPH is also hosting a Couples Retreat from Feb. 25-27.  This is a chance to open our hearts to the grace of the marriage vocation. Couples are invited to spend some time with each other to explore God’s grace. What has our marriage meant to us? What has God taught and what is left for us to learn? Scripture, prayer, papal teaching, fellowship, and the Eucharist will help us grow closer to our Lord and each other. The cost is $450 per couple, which includes private room and meals.

The Easter Triduum Retreat is also very popular. The weekend begins with dinner on Holy Thursday (April 14) and ends with Mass and breakfast on Easter Sunday (April 17). The liturgies of the Lord’s Supper, Way of the Cross, Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, Easter Vigil, and Sunrise Easter Liturgy are celebrated. A series of six 1-hour conferences on varying topics is offered throughout the retreat. In addition, the opportunity for Confession or spiritual direction is available.

To learn more about these retreats go to or call 941-486-0233.