More than 400 members of the Catholic laity came to Fordham on June 19 for a weekend of immersion in Ignatian spirituality.

What many did not know, however, is that they were walking on historic ground.

Nearly 100 years ago, the lay retreat movement in the United States began at Rose Hill, when 18 men gathered for a weekend of conferences under the direction of Terence Shealy, S.J.

More than 400 attendees pack the first-floor auditorium in Keating Hall to open “The Principle and the Foundation.” Photo by Joseph McLaughlin

In an address that opened the three-day conference, “The Principle and the Foundation: Who We Are Before God,” Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, guided the attendees down a century-old path, to the days when Fordham provided the cradle for America’s retreat movement.

The first retreatants moved into vacant summer dormitories at Rose Hill on July 9, 1909.

“What I’m saying to you is this is where it all began—in Dealy Hall, Queens Court and the second floor of the Administration Building,” Father McShane said. “The movement soon picked up momentum, and by the end of its first season, it had sponsored 10 retreats attended by 179 men.”

Father McShane noted that he was particularly impressed with the vision of Father Shealy, who largely developed and championed the idea of lay retreats.

“He explained that his desire to offer retreats to laymen was born of his conviction that the 20th century ‘promised to be, in a large measure, the laymen’s century,'” Father McShane said.

An essential aspect of Father Shealy’s plan was that lay retreats should aspire to more than mere personal spiritual reflection.

“Although retreats had an undeniably contemplative dimension, they had to be apostolically oriented,” he said. “They had to prepare lay workers who could bring the church’s message and influence into an increasingly secular world.”

Father Shealy’s two-part plan was to develop retreats as quickly as possible and to establish a school of social studies. This school would train Catholic men and women for posts as lecturers, writers and workers who would bring Catholic principles to bear on the social and economic life around them.

It took shape as the Laymen’s League for Retreats and Social Studies.

After 1916, the number of men who attended Mount Manresa on Staten Island, the motherhouse of the retreat movement, was roughly 1,000 annually. By 1920, Father Shealy said more than 6,000 men had attended.

After Father Shealy’s death in 1922, however, the movement splintered or otherwise lost its way, Father McShane said.

Successors in organizing the retreat movement viewed the experiences merely as time away from the business of life, but not as apostolic training for reinsertion in the secular world. Moreover, the league’s School of Social Studies died out quickly and quietly in the 1920s.

“The Fordham School of Sociology—now the Graduate School of Social Service—was born of the league’s school and rightly acknowledged Shealy as its founder,” Father McShane said.

But over the years, the school placed more and more emphasis on accreditation, professionalism and career preparation. As such, its students bore less and less resemblance to the apostles that Shealy dreamed of creating.

“However lofty its dreams and farsighted its methods, and however generative of innovative apostolic endeavors it was, Shealy’s work with the league was a failure,” Father McShane said. “A noble failure, but a failure nonetheless.”

The Conference on Ignatian Spirituality was sponsored by the Jesuit Collaborative, a professional association of Jesuits, laypeople, clergy and religious who share in the spiritual tradition of St. Ignatius Loyola.