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 | By Marissa Nichols

A School of Tenderness

The Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos Approaches its Centennial Milestone

Boasting acres of tranquility in the Los Altos Hills where the director of development, Dyane Hendricks, commonly encounters deer peering into her office window, the Jesuit Retreat Center (JRC), El Retiro, nicknamed the “Hidden Jewel of the Peninsula,” has been bringing peace and beauty, aesthetically and spiritually, to retreat leaders and participants alike for a century.

While a comprehensive history is available on their website, Father Kevin Leidich, S.J., one of the center’s pastoral ministers, also graciously furnished a quick overview of its origin story. El Retiro of San Ignacio, the name recommended by then Archbishop of San Francisco, Edward Hanna, was purchased by the Jesuits in 1925, and retreat work commenced soon after its dedication. Over time, a few parcels of land were gradually added, and the grounds have been a serene retreat for tens of thousands of people ever since.

Run by the Western Province of Jesuits, at its centennial anniversary, the retreat center has become a home of solace and new beginnings for those who visit and those who care for and work there, like Dyane, who hope its mission will continue in perpetuity.

A Place for All People

The demographic of both participants and staff of the JRC reveals how the place brings people together from all walks of life, and this is fundamental to the center’s Ignatian spirituality, grounded in St. Ignatius’ call to “find God in everything,” especially in others.

Dyane comes from a Messianic Jewish perspective, yet she was completely comfortable when she met Father Chi Ngo, S.J., the center’s executive director. “Our first discussion focused on what we had in common rather than our differences. The Jesuit Retreat Center is for people of all faiths, no faith, along with Catholics.” Before becoming director in 2013, Father Chi served as the formation director for the former Jesuit California Province and hails from Ottawa, Canada.

According to him, various faith groups utilize the space, which is an excellent ecumenical opportunity for anyone with questions about Catholicism or Ignatian spirituality. Dyane sees the fruits of this welcoming-to-all environment. She remarked, “Every gift that the Retreat Center receives has a special story, and I get to read or hear all the stories of gratitude for this center.” She counts herself fortunate to encounter the gratitude of retreatants daily, which adds a more profound significance to her role's logistical and fundraising aspects.

The Jesuit Fathers

True to the Ignatian “contemplatives in action” charism, Fr. Chi participated in our interview on his cell phone while in motion, running an errand for the busy center. “Such is the nature of the place!” he reported joyfully, referring to the fact that something always seems to be occurring at JRC. He further commented about what he witnesses consistently on site, “I see it all the time. People come to the retreat center, whether just a weekend or longer, with one attitude or view, and by the end of their time, the Holy Spirit has gotten in there, and they are completely different.” Transformation, in some way, is a guaranteed experience at the center.

Father Kevin Leidich, S.J., has been serving full-time as a pastoral minister at JRC since 2014 after teaching for more than 30 years in various Jesuit high schools and adult spirituality programs throughout California. His experience with teens, adults, and JRC retreatants alike has proven to him that all groups share the same longing: to experience themselves loved, which is at the heart of the Ignatian exercises.

He explained what that means: “As a young man, St. Ignatius experienced a profound conversion himself. He was put in a position where he began to experience the movement of God, of a loving God towards himself. It is that same movement that nearly everyone experiences when they come here.” This aspect of Ignatian spirituality, for him, makes it a place of welcome and of profound personal change for both the retreatant and leader alike. “As the ‘human director’of a retreat, recognizing that God is the true director through the retreatant’s personal experience of being surprised by God, brings everyone consolation.”

A Place for Turning Points

Two lay retreat leaders cited participating in the exercises as a turning point in their lives. Both Rita Morton and Annette Venables spoke of an encounter with God’s love during the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, which changed their lives.  In a June 2023 web exclusive article published by The Valley Catholic, “Encountering the Sacred Through Sorrow,” Rita shared that during a 30-day silent retreat in 2020 following the accidental overdose of her eldest son, she found consolation that would have lasting effects. “It did not take long to realize my new mission: to help create healing programs for grieving mothers.”

Since then, Rita has founded and run Sacred Sorrows, which offers retreats at the JRC and other programs that allow the bereaved to process their deep grief through encounters with the mystery of God's grace. She herself continues to grow and heal by serving the spiritual needs of others.  “It’s a privilege to journey with women on a weekend retreat and make space and plan experiential activities to help them encounter the grace of God and watch their faces change from the beginning to the end of the weekend.”

Experiencing a similar seismic shift in understanding one’s life’s mission, in March of 2017, Annette Venables and her husband Paul attended a five-day silent retreat that transformed their marriage and their lives. “My husband and I were just about to become empty nesters. We had already been together about 30 years at that point, but this retreat dramatically changed our marriage.” She related that another significant change was her founding Tribe Rising India. This organization builds schools for children of the Santal Tribe in India.  Her husband, who at the time of the 2017 retreat was returning to his faith, now conducts the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and is a spiritual director.

For her, this is a testament to the power of the place, “I cannot even begin to explain how there is just something very, very holy about being there.” She also helps lead the Ignatian spiritual exercises. “Many people have come here because it's a turning point in their lives. Or they haven't practiced any faith for a long time. And they're looking for peace and consolation.” This is precisely the new beginning she and Rita, and many, have found at JRC following a retreat. In Annette’s words, “It ended up being a fresh start in every way.”

A School of Tenderness

Of the Los Altos center, Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J., founder of Homeboy Industries, is quoted as saying, “The Jesuit Retreat Center is a school for tenderness.” Both Father Chi and Father Kevin agree with this assessment completely. “It’s a school of consolation.” Father Kevin adds that ‘consoling’ is the word he would choose to describe his experiences with JRC.  For Father Chi, the word that sums up the center for him is ‘surprising.’ He explained, “We hear it all the time that the place changed people's lives, especially from those who visit for the first time. Even those who come frequently to make retreat, who wish to continue their formation on an ongoing basis, still report being surprised nearly every time they stay with us.”

Father Chi humbly considers it a privilege to lead, direct, and listen to participants: “They always leave with what they need, even if they came not necessarily knowing what they need.” For him, this shows that being open to being led by the Holy Spirit allows God to surprise them with whatever message He has for them.

In a world filled with so many distractions, retreats may be one of the emerging necessities for all Christians who wish to stay rooted and formed in their Faith. The point of withdrawing briefly from the demands of the world is to quiet oneself to experience the love and tenderness of God.  Whether it’s a Jesuit retreat or a retreat through another spirituality in the Catholic Tradition, JRC is rich with diverse options. Father Kevin concurs, “Everyone needs to make an intentional effort to spend alone time with God in some way. It may not be at an Ignatian retreat or even a silent one. All Catholics need to spend time alone with God.”

An Invitation to All

An upcoming open house will be taking place at the Jesuit Retreat Center in April, both in celebration of the 100-year milestone and as a special invitation to those who have never visited. It is a unique opportunity as the center is typically busy with retreats. “Guests will tour the grounds and trails and learn about its wonderful 100-year history. There will be Jesuits available to answer questions about Ignatian Spirituality. There will also be an opportunity to register for retreats.” Dyane emphasized that, indeed, all are invited, regardless of faith background or any background. “Whether as a first step or well into a journey of faith, a retreat is vital for anyone.” MN

Father Chi Ngo S.J. is the current Executive Director of the Jesuit Retreat Center.  He is an experienced spiritual director and has given numerous retreats and Ignatian spirituality workshops. He received his training in The Spiritual Exercises at the Jesuit retreat center in Guelph, Canada, outside of Ottawa. 

Fr. Kevin Leidich, S.J. has been a member of the JRC pastoral staff since August 2014. Before this, he taught high school theology throughout California and regularly conducts programs for adults on The Spiritual Exercises.  

Rita Morton founded Sacred Sorrows, a ministry to grieving mothers. Visit to read more of her story or to learn more about resources for grieving mothers. 

Annette Venables founded Tribe Rising India, an organization that builds schools for the Santal tribe in Kolkata, India. Visit to learn more about their work, and check back with The Valley Catholic soon for stories about their outreach. 

Dyane Hendricks is the Development Director for the Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos.

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