New Retreat Center Director Comes Full Circle

When Father Bernard Baris, M.S., was named director of La Salette’s Retreat Center in Attleboro, MA., in May of 2016, he found himself back in familiar territory.

“Ever since I could remember, I wanted to become a priest,” recalled Father Baris. “My grandparents used to come every Sunday to the shrine, be part of the Liturgy processions and all that, and so I grew up hearing nothing but La Salette. When it came time for me to make a decision to follow my vocation into the priesthood, it was natural that I would be part of La Salette.”

Father Baris entered the seminary out of high school and found himself back in Attleboro after being ordained in 1969, when he was assigned to the shrine’s retreat center that had been built five years earlier in 1964.

His First Time ‘Round

Untitled 1Fr. Bernie Baris, M.S., stands to welcome visitors; Photo: Becky Aubut
Of his time at the Retreat Center, Father Baris said, “It was a whole different world. We had high schools coming, having retreats one after another; all would be coming in for two-night retreats. We had five priests here and the retreats were all our own retreats, our own programs. There were a lot of Catholic High Schools — from Worcester, from Boston — and they were all coming in for their retreats. We had Cursillos; it was a very busy place.

Father Baris was only at the Retreat Center for nine months before being assigned to a High School in Enfield, New Hampshire to become its Admissions Director and part of its summer camp staff. Additional assignments of Father Baris included becoming pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Lebanon, N.H., for nine years, and pastor of Our Lady of the Cape Parish in Brewster, MA. for 17 years.

He also spent two years at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in La Salette, France, where in 2015, he was named its Director.

“We are Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, and I think being there where the apparition took place, for two full years and seeing the thousands of people who come there from all over the world, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “Even the staff and volunteers; at any given time we’d have 100 volunteers there from 11 different countries.

“My first month there was in March. This was 6,000 feet up in the French Alps, and there was some snow. We looked out the window and there were two buses out there from Indonesia. When I think of Indonesia, I think of Moslems; but there are some Catholics, apparently. [Even though we were closed] we welcomed them in.”

One More Time

Father Baris returned to the United States in December 2016, and is not only the Director of the Retreat Center, he is also serving as Director of Fundraising of La Salette Missionary Association.

Untitled 2Retreat Center Chapel; Photo: Justin Richardson, used with permission
“This is new,” said Father Baris, of seeing the Retreat Center almost 48 years after his initial nine-month assignment back in 1969, and values his Executive Secretary when she guides him through the day-to-day aspects of the center.

“Thank goodness for secretaries,” he said, laughing.

He knew the Retreat Center had seen a shift in its design. Groups now come in with their own programs and presenters, and simply rent out the retreat’s facilities.

In comparison from how the Retreat Center was during his initial run shortly after he was ordained: “There aren’t as many Catholic High Schools. Those that still exist, they come for day retreats,” said Father Baris.

“More people come in now with their own priests. Like for instance, last week we had 33 diocesan priests from Fall River, and came here for a workshop. A couple weeks from now there will be deacons from the Diocese of Providence.”

Father Baris also has a foothold in the Shrine, and appreciates the philosophy of the Retreat House and Shrine: “It’s not just Mass, it’s Confessions. We do a lot of Confessions. Last December we heard 2,500 Confessions. It’s unbelievable.”

The Challenge of Taxes

Untitled 3Our Retreat Center Complex with Chapel, dining, lodging and program rooms
Having spent more than half his priesthood in fundraising and finances, Father Baris has a wealth of knowledge he’s bringing to his role as director, including the unresolved matter the Shrine faced with the city of Attleboro over paying taxes.

“We want to be good neighbors with Attleboro, there’s no question about that,” said Father Baris, who kept an eye on the court battle, and stated it’s still not settled yet. “Attleboro still owes us $300,000 from taxes we’ve already paid. They still haven’t paid and we may have to go back to court to settle it. We don’t have that kind of money, and when you’re talking about $100,000 a year for taxes, and we have to beg for money. We live on our donations.”

Keep the People Coming Back

Father Baris said the Retreat Center hasn’t been immune to the daily struggles of covering rising costs: “You cannot charge [a lot] for a weekend. What we charge for a weekend doesn’t cover our costs. That’s why a lot of retreat houses are closing. You have to keep it full. It’s not just booking rooms but it’s presenting good, Spiritual programs that are attractive to people.”

“It’s a different world,” he said, adding that his small staff had an upcoming meeting to discuss new ways to approach 2018, with new retreats that had a more Spiritual direction. Along with a Religious Sister, Father Baris has two lay people who work full-time, and have been an invaluable resource.

New Programs and Lay Leaders

Untitled 4Our Shrine Church nestled alongside our scenic Rosary Pond
“Forty-eight years ago we didn’t have the lay people trained in theology,” said Father Baris. “That was rare that a layperson would do theology. Today, we have staff members who are excellent. This is the age of the laity.”

Some of the ideas for new programs include a mother/daughter retreat; a focus on Scripture; facing the challenges of parenthood using faith as a guide; and there will be more day programs, instead of overnight retreats, said Father Baris.

“We’ve been brainstorming things we can possibly do and offer for 2018,” he said. “I think there were only two weekends free during 2017, and that’s part of the problem. Weekends fill up because people don’t work, but to find things during the week, [it’s hard] to find groups free during the week. We listen to people and their needs. It’s easier for people to come for a one-day experience.

During a recent trip to a Retreat House in Maine, Father Baris scooped up different brochures to see what that Retreat House was offering: “We’re no competition; they’re up there and we’re down here. It was interesting to find out what they were doing, and the name of presenters they have coming in. If it’s good for them, it’s probably good for us too.

“It’s probably going to take me a whole year to digest all this. You have to listen to the people. Right now we’ve revamped the questionnaire we give out, [asking] what do you want? What do you need? What are your suggestions?”
Untitled 5Our Rosary Pond during our yearly Christmas Festival of Lights

For a list of current and upcoming programs at the La Salette Retreat House, see their website.

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