St. John’s Hermitage is an amazing testimony of what happens when Christians listen to the voice of the Divine and connect their suffering to Christ’s suffering, where the “what ifs” can become what is needed, and God’s call on our lives as individuals can lead the Church and her leaders to greater health and wholeness.
St. John’s Hermitage – it’s also the story of how lives intersect in what the secular world might call random coincidence. But it’s the very real story of the Holy Spirit intervening in the world to transform tragic loss into a beautiful, blessed — and very real — peace-filled place.
Jonathan Henderson was only 22 years old when he died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Jon and his parents, Jerry and Janet Henderson, walked through that difficult time with the love, care and support of friends, family, and, especially, the Priests from their Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio.
Jon established a precious bond with one of those Priests, Father Stephen Virginia, who would con-celebrate the Mass of Christian Burial for Jon in November 2006. “The Priests were there for us,” Jerry remembers. The Priests were a very real presence and reminder that the Spirit is and was with us, continuing to provide care, comfort, and help to the whole family after Jon’s death.
In the midst of Henderson’s darkest days, Father Stephen Virginia would face his own struggles, first when his mother died after a long illness, and then his own heart attack, open-heart surgery, and prolonged recovery. Those events prompted the Henderson’s to ask some critical questions: Who takes care of our caregivers? Where do Priests go for care and support? What happens when our caregivers are face to face with the same challenges of illness, grief and loss that each of us must confront in the course our lives?
Those questions led to a series of conversations, months of fact-finding, days of prayer, and hours of labor – physical, emotional, intellectual, and mostly, spiritual — conversations that opened the door for Father Virginia to share his vision for a place that would help keep healthy Priests healthy.
The fact-finding led to some sobering truths about the Catholic Church in America. In the last ten-plus years, the number of Catholic Priests and Parishes has declined while the number of Catholics in America has continued to increase. The needs of growing Parishes and the demands of pastoral care and parish life are staggering – larger Parishes, many serving multi-lingual congregations, and more Masses.
Yet the number of Diocesan Priests has declined by 11% in the last decade, and many more Priests will reach age 70 and retire in the next decade. There have been about 500 Priestly ordinations per year in the last 25 years, but that number is far fewer than needed to replace an aging clergy population who are facing ever-growing demands to provide pastoral care and spiritual leadership. The number of permanent Deacons in the US has grown in response to the decline in numbers Priests.
And the most heart-wrenching fact that emerged? There are no programs or facilities in the US dedicated to keeping healthy Priests healthy…..None!
St. John’s Hermitage is the convergence of two dreams and a Spirit-led, Spirit-filled mission. The Hermitage is the result one family’s desire to find a way to support and encourage the Priests who answer God’s call to ministry in the Catholic Church, and one Priest’s hope of building a sanctuary where Priests could go for ongoing pastoral care, spiritual direction, and confraternity among brothers in Christ.
Prayerful discernment, following the leading of the Spirit, has brought St. John’s Hermitage closer to reality. Ten days was all it took to find the right place — 62 acres of some of the most beautiful, serene, secluded land in the hills of southern Ohio has been gifted for building the Hermitage. A board of directors comprised of ordained and lay Catholics was formed to manage the necessary legal processes and provide the framework for capital funding and continuing endowment funds.