New Director, Book Collection, and Justice Programs Highlight N.C. Retreat Center’s Year

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

STONEVILLE, N.C. – Although the pandemic forced it to suspend all programs and close its doors for several months to thousands of visitors, 2020, despite all its abnormalities and enormous challenges, has been a positive year for St. Francis Springs Prayer Center – the interfaith retreat facility established 15 years ago by Louis Canino, OFM, on 140 acres of forest preserve.

St. Francis Springs Prayer Center now features a new director, enhanced social justice programs for the dozens of groups it hosts annually, and a new African-American Resource Room – perhaps one of the most comprehensive of its kind, with more than 1,100 books on Black history, from biographies and poetry to fiction and religion, some dating back to 1860.

The center, located 30 miles north of Greensboro, even improved its internet service – courtesy of the efforts of Patrick Tuttle, OFM, who – while visiting before going to his new assignment in Macon, Georgia – not only raised enough funds to provide a stronger internet connection but also to purchase a much-needed new tractor to maintain the grounds.

After taking the reins as the new director on Jan. 6, Steve Swayne had to close the center – as most non-essential facilities were forced to do in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But the pandemic-pause didn’t spoil the enthusiasm, creativity, and vision that he brought to his new position.

He and his staff used the break to develop new programs and augment existing ones, perfectly timed for the center’s postponed 15th anniversary – whose celebration will now be held in 2021. Swayne says his inspiration comes from the center’s founder.

“Part of what appealed to me about this job was following what Fr. Louis had begun. He is a remarkable human being and an outstanding leader – highly accomplished, yet so humble. He poured his life into the center,” said Swayne, who apprenticed with the friar for several months before fully assuming the director position.

“The facility is a beautiful and natural environment for prayer, reflection, meditation, and learning. It offers so much. This place is a blessing,” added Swayne, a Raleigh resident with a professional background in non-profits and public relations who often attended retreats at the center.

David Hyman with Bob Zellner, a marcher with Martin Luther King in the 1960s, in the center’s new library. (Photo courtesy of Ann Bauer)

Treasure Trove of Books
The center, located just 12 miles from the Virginia state line, has overnight accommodations for 40 guests in the main building, two cottages, and three hermitages – all of which have scenic views of the grounds. The facility also has conference rooms, a dining room, labyrinth, garden, meditation room, and outdoor and indoor chapels – the latter with large windows overlooking the natural surroundings.

When things return to full capacity, Swayne is eager to properly roll out the newly configured Madonna Room, now a learning space and library-like environment to the 1,100 African-American books gifted to the center by David Hyman, OFM, from his personal collection.

“Fr. David has donated his life’s work to St. Francis Springs so that many have the opportunity to learn, grow and develop a deeper understanding of the rich history of African-Americans,” said Swayne, noting that there are three shelves of books just about religion.

“He had this treasure trove of books that was just sitting in storage,” he added.

The collection helped advance Swayne’s vision for the center. One of the first things he did as director was to create new programming that focuses on social justice and African-American culture – including partnering with several initiatives and organizations to offer opportunities, he said, “of learning and unlearning.”

He asked David, who served on HNP’s African-American Committee, what he thought about making his collection available for all to read – which then led to the creation of the resource room.

David, who has been stationed at the center since 2014 as a sacramental minister, said he tried to collect as many books about Black Catholics and African-American history during his travels and wherever he was stationed in ministry over the past 40 years.

“I am honored that Steve made this collection part of our mission at the center. Until now, the books were sitting in storage in Greensboro,” said David, who said he developed an interest in black culture while stationed at Tennessee State University in the 1970s and continued this pursuit while living in the South in Province ministry assignments.

He began “mildly collecting books” when scouring the shelves of used bookstores while stationed in Greenville, South Carolina, from 1982 to 1987. But he admits that the mild interest escalated into an obsession.

“After I began collecting, I got greedy and wanted more books. One author would lead to another, and sometimes a book by one author would lead me to buy more of the same writer,” explained David, who cited as an example the 15 books by John A. Williams, as well as many works by Chester Himes and “of course” James Baldwin in his collection.

“These books can introduce readers to events and people they probably don’t know about. It’s surprising that most people know very little about African-American history,” said David, who was involved in organizing the books in the new resource room.

The resource room is becoming so widely known that “people are actually now wanting to donate books to us,” said Swayne, who estimates the collection to be worth over $50,000.

Some Normalcy with Programs Returning
Things have returned to a semblance of normalcy at the center, but with several restrictions in place. While closed to the public, Swayne and his team set up new cleaning systems to assure that the center would be safe and sanitized when it reopened with, of course, capacity limits and mask-wearing and social distancing requirements. Since reopening, programs are held outdoors when weather permits.

“We want guests to know that all surfaces are cleaned and sanitized regularly,” said Swayne. “The center is spacious, so guests can feel safe and comfortable.”

In September, the center sponsored two events – Christian author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s presentation about his most recent book, Revolution of Values, and a weekend discussion, “Christianity Deconstructs Racism,” about the Bible and race led by Keith Daniels. In October, a combination of 40 in-person and Zoom participants attended a two-day racial equity class. Last month, 30 participants attended a weekend devoted to lessons from Bob Zellner, the first white man to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement.

“Before the racial equity class, I had always thought that civil rights took care of equity-related issues in our country. All white people should take this class, or they will never understand the depths and, frankly, the sinister ways that the very system we live in creates division. That is not normal and it surely is not the Kingdom of God,” Swayne said.

“There is no greater mission in the Church in America than to break down the race barrier, to allow people to see who they are in God and that all people can walk hand-in-hand,” he added.

Louis praised Swayne for keeping the center afloat during the challenges and difficulties posed by the pandemic.

“Steve’s managerial and financial skills enabled him to network and identify solutions during this unusual year,” said Louis, who now lives in Greensboro, where he operates the Franciscan Center – the urban ministry he launched 30 years ago in the center of the city that provides interfaith and retreat programs, 12-step meetings and spiritual counseling.

This month, the St. Francis Springs Prayer Center is holding several Advent and Christmas events and programs, whose information can be found on its website.

As Swayne looks ahead to 2021, he’s planning a 15th-anniversary celebration event tentatively scheduled for July 11 – either at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro or on the grounds of the center, depending on the COVID-19 situation. It had originally been set this fall but needed to be postponed because of the pandemic. He is also embarking on a strategic plan for the center’s future.

“Knowing Steve, I’m sure the center will offer even more social justice programs in the new year. He’s already offered outstanding speakers,” said Louis, a native of Buffalo, New York, who once described the genesis of the center in an article in the December 2007 issue of “The Anthonian,” the magazine of St. Anthony’s Guild: “This is not my project. It is the Lord’s project and I knew he would provide for us.”

Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.