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.


News briefs for the week of May 25 2020

An act of kindness

Representatives from Children First Inc., a childcare provider, recently visited Our Mother’s House, a program of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice Inc., with a chicken dinner for each mother from Paradise Grill. The mothers were so grateful for their generosity! Our Mother’s House in Venice provides housing and support for mothers and their children who would otherwise be homeless.

Catholic Charities Responds to Pandemic

If you need help

If you need assistance from Catholic Charities for food, financial assistance or tele-mental health counseling, please call the number for your area listed below 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday:

  • Sarasota/Manatee/DeSoto/Hardee/Highlands counties: 844-385-2407,
  • Charlotte/Lee/Hendry/Glades counties: 844-385-2423,
  • Collier County: 844-385-2404.

Food distribution

Catholic Charities food distribution will take place only at the following times and locations. Please call the regional number for more information.

  • Mondays and Wednesdays, 9-11 a.m., Guadalupe Social Services, 211 S. 9th St., Immokalee;
  • Tuesdays, 9-11:30 a.m., Judy Sullivan Family Resource Center, 3174 Tamiami Trail E., Naples;
  • Thursdays, 9 a.m.-noon, St. Margaret Parish, 208 Dean Duff St., Clewiston;
  • Fridays, 9-11 a.m., St. Leo the Great Parish, 28360 Beaumont Road, Bonita Springs;
  • Fridays, 9 a.m.-noon, Elizabeth K. Galeana Pantry, 4235 Michigan Avenue Link, Fort Myers;
  • 2nd and 4th Fridays of the month, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., St. Paul Parish, 1208 E. Oak St. Arcadia;
  • Saturdays, 7–8:45 a.m., St. Michael Parish, 408 Heard Bridge Road, Wauchula.

How to Help

Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc. is in urgent need of your financial support during its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To help, please visit or send a check to: Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice Inc., 5824 Bee Ridge Road, PMB 409, Sarasota, FL 34233-5065.

Online Prayer Resources and Live Mass

A special coronavirus webpage is located on the Diocese of Venice website homepage at

Resources include links to the Mass, the prayer for Act of the Spiritual Communion, videos of the Stations of the Cross, Divine Mercy Chaplet and Pray the Rosary by following the links for the Diocese response to Coronavirus included on the Diocese homepage. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website,, also posts the daily Mass readings.

While the celebration of public Mass has resumed (effective May 18, 2020), Bishop Frank J. Dewane announced that for those who are at greater risk or anxious about returning at this time, that the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass remains in effect until June 28, 2020. The Faithful ought not to worry about remaining home if they are concerned for their wellbeing or that of other parishioners. Of course, those who are sick or have symptoms associated with COVID-19 are to stay home.

While Parishes have been asked to continue live streaming until the dispensation is lifted, the Diocese of Venice Mass live stream will continue from the Catholic Center in Venice 9:15 a.m. daily through June 28, 2020, and is available through the Diocese website and Facebook pages.

In addition, the Televised Mass for the Homebound is available throughout the Diocese each Sunday. In northern parts of the Diocese (Manatee, Highlands, Hardee, Sarasota, DeSoto and Charlotte counties) the Mass airs on television at 9:30 a.m. on the CW Network. In the southern portions of the Diocese (Collier, Lee, Glades, Hendry, Charlotte counties) the Mass airs at 10:30 a.m., on WFTX-TV (FOX-4). This same Mass can be found on the Diocese of Venice website at any time during the week, Please check local listings for channel information.

Parish donations

During this challenging time in the life and mission of the Diocese of Venice, our Parishes face increased risk of financial shortfalls due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its effects on everyday life. Parishes depend on weekly financial gifts to continue their ministries, especially in this critical time of crisis.

The Diocese of Venice is providing an online platform and encourages the Faithful to support their Parish. Please visit to donate to your Parish.

The Faithful may also contribute through their usual channels (e.g., envelopes, and through the Parish online giving option). Together we will navigate through this crisis, provide assistance to those in need, and secure the road ahead for the Parishes within the Diocese of Venice.

Please continue to pray for the repose of those who have died, for the recovery of those who are sick, for the strength of healthcare workers and caregivers, as well as for an end to this health crisis. Thank you for your generosity.

Act of Spiritual Communion

It has long been a Catholic understanding that when circumstances prevent one from receiving Holy Communion, it is possible to make an Act of Spiritual Communion which is a source of grace. Spiritual Communion means uniting one’s self in prayer with Christ’s sacrifice and worshiping Him in His Body and Blood.

The most common reason for making an Act of Spiritual Communion is when a person cannot attend Mass, as is the case during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Acts of Spiritual Communion increase our desire to receive sacramental Communion and help us avoid the sins that would make us unable to receive Holy Communion worthily.

For all who will not be able to receive the Holy Eucharist in person, consider this special prayer, an Act of Spiritual Communion:

My Jesus,
I believe that You
are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,
come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You.
Never permit me to be separated from You.

Year of St. Joseph

On the Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19, 2020, Bishop Frank J. Dewane consecrated the Diocese of Venice to the care and protection of St. Joseph in the context of the coronavirus. The Bishop announced a “Year of St. Joseph” beginning March 19, 2020 through March 19, 2021. St. Joseph, often referred to as the Protector, can be our protector during this time of the pandemic. To pray a Novena to St. Joseph please visit the Year of St. Joseph webpage at

Online Preached Retreats

During the current health crisis, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice is offering online 3-day, 5-day, and 8-day retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In these online retreats, Father Mark Yavarone, OMV, or Father Lino Estradilla, OMV, trained spiritual directors, will meet with you for an hour each day via a link provided to you, to help you to pray and to recognize how God is speaking to you. A Bible and journal should be available for your use. Participants will be emailed any additional materials needed as the retreat unfolds. The cost is as follows: 3-day online retreat, $132.23; 5-day online retreat, $203.98; and 8-day online retreat, $306.48. All information will be confidential, and password protected. If you would like to participate in an online retreat, please email Denise Riley at and a code will be provided for your online registration as well as an application. For planning purposes, please allow 7 days from your completed application until the beginning of your retreat.

Modern take on Lourdes found in Venice

On the quiet banks of the Myakka River in Venice is a hidden gem of the Diocese of Venice, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center.

Surrounded by giant live oaks with a cool lake at its center, the Retreat Center, known by most as OLPH, offers a place full of God’s peace and beauty which encourages guests to develop a deeper relationship with the Lord, improve prayer life, and perhaps meet a new friend with whom to walk the spiritual journey of life.

In its illustrious 25-year history, tens of thousands have flocked there for retreats, conferences and prayer. The goal of OLPH is to give people the time and place to briefly “leave the world behind” and return to daily living refreshed and renewed.

To help enhance that experience, a Shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help is currently being installed. Well along in the construction process, the Shrine sits next to the Bell Tower and is along a path which leads in one direction to nearby St. Joseph Chapel, another to the outdoor Stations of the Cross and is a short distance from the bridge which leads to the main conference areas.

OLPH Director, Father Mark Yavarone, Oblate of the Virgin Mary, said the concept of the Shrine Project “began with several donations made to memorialize Redemptorist Father Charlie Mallen, the founding director of the Retreat Center. The Diocese of Venice added to these donations so that the construction could be done in a beautiful and enduring way.”

Father Mallen founded OLPH in 1995 at the direction of then-Bishop John J. Nevins. With the assistance of Sister Carmella DeCosty, Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, Father Mallen developed an overgrown piece of land into a refuge.

Although there will be a plaque to memorialize Father Mallen, when completed, a large marble statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is going to be the centerpiece of the Shrine.  While the statue is being made, another statue of Our Lady is temporarily in place.

The backdrop of the statue consists of a single large piece of limestone and several Italian cypress trees which produce a vaulted cathedral effect, Father Yavarone explained.

“There is a small waterfall at Mary’s feet which is stunningly lit at night,” Father added. “What I like most about the shrine is that it makes Mary the center of the Retreat Center property in a very visible way.  Let’s hope that it will foster devotion to Mary and many fond memories and prayers for Father Charlie!”

While the shrine is not finished yet: the plans include an area for votive candles that will be enclosed to comply with fire regulations and sidewalks which will lead to the steps of the shrine.

The main feature of the Shrine, the monument is made of 15,000 pounds of Oolitic limestone quarried in Coral Bay Florida by Epic Stonework. The same material was used to créate a series of benches, each weighing 4,000lbs. The stairs and floor of the Shrine are made of keystone, and the ramp Access is made of travertine.

Features include a variety of landscaping such as assorted bromeliads, two Montgomery palms, 14 Italian cypress, five Adonidia palms, three European fan palms, and three Ligustrum trees.

Following the completion of the Shrine, a blessing and dedication will take place.

Fondly known as “The Miracle on the Myakka,” OLPH hosts more than 8,500 guests each year. The Retreat Center has villas for overnight visitors and the St. Joseph Chapel for Masses and Eucharistic Adoration. Activities at the Retreat Center include weekend retreats for families, catechists, pastoral ministers and various parish organizations, as well as day retreats, days of reflection, workshops, and seminars for many Diocesan organizations, schools, churches, and leadership teams.

The Oblate Fathers also offer a number of preached retreats that are in varying lengths from three days up to one month.

To learn more about Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center, please visit

Retreat Center offering online Preached Retreats

On March 25, 1811, Venerable Bruno Lanteri, the founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, was placed under house arrest by Napoleon in the Italian countryside.  During this time of persecution of the Church, he was to remain imprisoned and under surveillance for three years until the fall of Napoleon in 1814.

These three years were a time of almost complete solitude for Father Lanteri. Rather than lamenting his house arrest, Lanteri used this time to pray, attaining the highest levels of contemplation.  Ironically, he would later say that the favor of his house arrest by Napoleon was “one of the most beautiful of my life.”

During the current health crisis, many people who would like to make a retreat must remain at home for an extended period of time. As long as the crisis lasts, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice will offer online 3-day, 5-day, and 8-day retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Like Father Lanteri, we can all use this time for our spiritual growth.

In these online retreats. Father Mark Yavarone, OMV, a trained spiritual director, will meet with you for an hour each day via a link provided to you, to help you to pray and to recognize how God is speaking.  You should already have a Bible and journal available for your use.  Participants will be emailed any additional materials needed as the retreat unfolds.

The cost will be as follows: 3-day online retreat, $132.23; 5-day online retreat, $203.98; and 8-day online retreat, $306.48.

Participants must have the ability to communicate by a computer, phone or laptop equipped with audio and camera.  Your home should be quiet enough to allow for prayer. You are also responsible for making sure that your sessions are in a place in your home where you will not be overheard if you do not wish to be.

All information will be confidential, and password protected. If you would like to make an online retreat, please email Denise Riley at and a code will be provided for your online registration.  You will need to fill out an application for approval. Please allow 7 days to arrange from your completed application until the beginning of your retreat.

Aging Retreat Center bridge in need of replacement

Staff Report

Anyone who has ever had the pleasure to visit Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center (OLPH) in Venice for a retreat, conference, Mass or to reflect along the peaceful shores of the Myakka River, either saw or crossed a simple bridge which spans the large lake at the middle of the Retreat Center.

The bridge is a lifeline at the heart of the 54-acre OLPH which was built in 1995, nearly 25 years ago. During those 25 years the bridge has carried thousands of people back and forth from the conference and dining area to the St. Joseph Chapel and Villa side of the grounds. It has endured several floods and still stands as a testament to the resilience of itself.

In preparation for the 25th Anniversary, OLPH is undergoing a campaign to raise the funds to build a new bridge, explained Denise Riley, OLPH Business Manager.

“We are asking our benefactors, friends and family of OLPH to help rebuild it,” Riley said. “In recognition of the upcoming 25th Anniversary of the Retreat Center, a $25 donation would enable us to rebuild the bridge, plank by plank and replace the railings.”

Remembering the words of Father Charles (Charlie) Mallen, C.Ss.R., the founder of OLPH, “if you build it, they will come.” The rebuilding, continues the vision, so all can come to this place of grace and encounter God… and bridge the outside world to our faith.

OLPH brings in more than 8,000 visitors each year, not only from throughout the Diocese, but around the U.S. and world. They are the laity, priests, religious and even Bishops using the facilities. Those visitors come to OLPH for a variety of reasons, either for individual or group retreats, perhaps a conference, youth gatherings or even the monthly Luncheons 4 Life meetings. Each guest adds to the use of the bridge and other facilities.

Riley stressed that the bridge is safe, but instead of waiting for emergency repairs, now is the time for a replacement bridge with a structure that will last the next quarter century and beyond.

“Without this bridge, the walk around to each area, while beautiful, would however prove to be a hardship for some of our guests,” Riley added.

There are also plans to update the villas with new furniture and other cosmetic improvements and eventually upgrade the aging septic system.

OLPH Director Father Sean Morris, OMV, said the facilities are being booked/reserved non-stop throughout the year, a priest retreat and Parish Spanish Emaus group retreat were both held within the past two weeks, OLPH is starting to show its age.

“OLPH is a treasure which belongs to the people of the Diocese of Venice,” Father Morris said. “It is for all. Therefore, we are asking for everyone who has encountered the Lord here at a retreat or during a quiet visit, to prayerfully consider giving their support.”

While not everyone can provide financial support, Father Morris noted that OLPH is always seeking those who not only wish to offer their treasure but also their time and talent in support of the Retreat Center.

“We are always seeking volunteers to assist our guests,” Father added. “Perhaps someone has a talent they want to share, or time that they want to give in support of our work. We need support of all types.”

Volunteer opportunities run a wide range, such as assisting at annual events, groundskeeping/gardening, set-up and service in the kitchen and dining areas, clerical help that might include answering phones or helping with paperwork or mail, assisting with the gift shop or even someone who can assist with maintenance projects.

“All of this support helps us live up to our mission as a Diocesan Retreat Center, helping people of Faith grow closer in their relationship with the Lord,” Father Morris said.

The groundbreaking ceremony for OLPH took place in January 1995, and eight months later the Retreat Center became a reality. A conference center and two villas were the first buildings completed. In a short span of five years the two villas increased to four, a dining center and chapel were added to complete phase one of the master plan.

In addition to the seven buildings on site, retreatants have 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 river bank.

Events Commemorating the 25th Anniversary OLPH are in the planning stages and will be announced before the end of the year.

To help support the OLPH bridge building campaign or to learn more about other giving or volunteer opportunities, please visit, or contact Denise Riley at or call 941-486-0233.