While driving along Cleveland Road one spring day over 30 years ago, Rick Miller-Haraway glanced out his car window and saw that a vacant, old school, pushed back from the road was to be sold at a public auction. He immediately called then Fr. John A. Wall to discuss a possible future for the 12-acre property in Smithfield. So begins the intriguing history of Cardinal Gibbons’ recently acquired Short Journey Retreat Center - a school turned retreat center turned retreat center owned by a school – that has guided and will continue to guide the spiritual and educational formation of generations of students.
The year was 1983 and both Mr. Miller-Haraway and Fr. Wall were involved in youth ministry for the Diocese of Raleigh. Both men also knew that the search was on for a new and larger retreat facility to take the place of the aging one the Diocese was using in Kinston. They soon realized that Short Journey represented a wonderful opportunity and their spotting it just seven days before the auction was more “the will of God than happenstance,” recalls now Monsignor Wall.
The two men informed several other people in the Diocese of the property’s availability and a few days later the entire group traveled to see the center for themselves. They marveled at its spacious rooms, pastoral setting, kitchen facility, and central courtyard, which was conducive to quiet solitude and reflection. It also boasted an ideal location, central to congregants throughout the Diocese. In the 1980s, notes Monsignor Wall, “buying the Short Journey property was an answer to our prayers.” The Diocese operated it as a retreat center through 2016 and sold it this year to Cardinal Gibbons.
Today, Monsignor Wall sees the 1983 purchase as a foreshadowing to Gibbons’ 2018 acquisition of what he describes as a sacred place that has been used successfully for retreats for years. “It is logical and farsighted on the part of Cardinal Gibbons … to designate this space specifically for retreats and use it to enhance the school’s spiritual formation program,” he adds.
Principal Jason Curtis adds that the center will welcome the more than 1,000 students each year who go on the multiple overnight spiritual retreats for each grade level (Prism, Mosaic, Quest and Kairos) and provide a permanent home not only for those, but also for retreats for clubs, teams, educators and parents.
The center will welcome the more than 1,000 students each year who go on the multiple overnight spiritual retreats for each grade level (Prism, Mosaic, Quest and Kairos) and provide a permanent home not only for those but also for additional retreats for clubs, teams, educators and parents, notes Principal Jason Curtis.
Before the Diocese purchased the Short Journey Retreat Center its buildings, constructed in 1926, served as a school for African American students for 44 years. It closed in the 1970s due to desegregation. More than 20 years earlier, amid the ongoing integration of schools in North Carolina, Cardinal Gibbons became the state’s first integrated high school.
Gibbons Director of Outreach Agnes Penny, who retired this year, was a student at the Short Journey school in the 1950s, albeit only through the second grade. She said her memory of her time as a youngster at Short Journey, though fuzzy, instilled in her a passion to serve others, ultimately as an educator and servant leader in the Diocese. Over the years, she has returned to Short Journey, where she served as a Gibbons retreat director, leader, and participant, and where there is a room, appropriately enough, the Agnes Penny Room, honoring her and her work.
“At Short Journey, I learned about sharing, compassion, service, and to go out in society and make your mark,” Agnes says and adds: “I never really left that place.”
And in many ways either has Cardinal Gibbons. The Diocese operated the center from 1983 until the end of 2016, when it suspended operations there. Before it closed last year Gibbons consistently used the center for its retreats. Initially, it was where Gibbons students went for day retreats. Over time, however, the school, and by extension its retreat program grew, requiring Gibbons to utilize other retreat centers to accommodate the growth. Today, Gibbons offers overnight spiritual retreats specifically designed for students in each grade.
Looking forward, the plan is to renovate the center and in true Gibbons fashion the initial cleanup work started this month with a service day at Short Journey. Early on a sun-soaked June morning, a group of 25 student-athletes and coaches - though out from school on summer break were all in to give back to their school. After a group prayer the group, armed with gloves and masks, spent the morning at the center working side by side, removing mattresses and carpets, and setting the stage for the cleanup to continue and the renovation to begin.
“I am grateful to the coaches and athletes for spending their day serving our school community and building our future,” Principal Curtis says, adding that there will be more opportunities to help as the Cardinal Gibbons Short Journey Retreat Center takes shape. The center, he notes, is perfectly suited to our retreat program, and gives us room to develop even more formational opportunities for students, educators and families in the future. Most importantly, he adds, “our school community has committed to a home for our retreats. Many future generations of Crusaders will grow in faith, surrounded by a joyful community at the Cardinal Gibbons Short Journey Retreat Center, and we can’t wait to see the traditions formed and memories made in this new home.”