St. Anthony Retreat Center

Franciscan Bell

Our History

Discover the history of St. Anthony Retreat & Conference Centers  

Purchasing and Surveying the Land (1954 – 1958)

Construction Crews Arrive (1958 – 1963)

The First Retreats (1963 – 1968)

The Retreat House Grows (1968 – 1973)

Farewell to the Franciscans (2003)

Purchasing  and Surveying the Land (1954 – 1958)

In 1954, Fr. Gregory Wooler, O.F.M., was comissioned by the Franciscan Friars of California to find an attractive and suitable area  in the San Joaquin Valley for a retreat house to serve the Catholic men of the Central Valley.

Fr. Gregory searched for months looking for property that offered scenic views and that was affordable.  One day while visiting the Three Rivers Post Office, he began to talk with two eldery gentlemen who were locals to the Three Rivers area.  He explained to them his reason for being in Three Rivers.  One of the men, Dan Alles, invited Fr. Gregory over to look at his family property.

The next morning, Dolpho Beam, Dan Alles son-in-law, took Fr. Gregory to the property which consisted of 35 acres.  The land was mutually available and found to be attractive for retreat house use.

The land was described as rising 500 feet above Hwy 198 into Sequoia National Park, offering a panoramic view of the valley.  With the exception of a few terraces, it forms an 8 acre plateau, while the rest of the acerage is in varying grades so that gullies and sloped form natural privacy and seclusion.

On March 29, 1955, the Franciscan Friars of California purchased the 35 acres from Mr. and Mrs. Dan Alles and Mr. and Mrs. Dolpho Beam.  An additional three acres was purchased on January 7, 1956, from the Craig-owned land to allow room for a reservois and a parking area.

The land was purchased and between the months of Sept and Dec 1955, a 70 ft road was surveyed and blasted, bulldozed and graded for the retreat house development.  Around this time, Jean Tibbesaux of Dinuba donated an almost new house trailor to the Franciscans for a religious program.  The mobile home was parked along side St. Clair Mission Church where Fr. Gregory lived for 2 years while supervising the development of the retreat house and to minister to the Catholics of Three RIvers.

During March 1956, the property lines were surveyed and marked with a sturdy 4-strand barbwire fence.  In April, the excavation for the 225,000 gallon reservoir began.  This reservoir was to be used both for living facilities on the hill, and as fire insurance.  It was a slow process to blast the massive rock formation and to make room for a 60x60x12 foot crater. The reservoir was to be lined with wire mesh and then cemented.

After purchasing the property, building the road and reservoir, the development of the retreat house came to a halt.  There was no money left to continue construction.  So, Fr. Gregory went out looking for possible benefacotrs to invest in and fund the construction of the retreat house.

He was successful and in 1957, plot surveys were made, elevation levels discovered, and foundation anchorage’s probed.  Then on March 14, 1958, general excavations were made and grading was done to start the first unit of motel rooms called the riverside.


Construction Crews Arrive (1958 – 1963)

On August 25, 1958, the Franciscan Brother’s Construction Crew arrived from Mesilla Park, New Mexico, where they had been delayed in finishing construction of the Holy Cross Retreat House.  Brothers Antonio Herrera, Justin Honda and Maurince Pelier were the first to arrive.  A week later, Brs. Gerard Valentine, Ivo Toneck, Jan Honchosky and Benedict Schlickum arrived next.  The first incomplete unit was gradually made habitable.  Soon the building was completed- for the simple reason that it was possible to put al the money into materials and not a cent into wages.

During the next four years (1959-1963), the friar’s building crew was augmented by the arrival of Friars Fabian, Cassian, and Emmanuel, bring their total number now to eleven.  During these years, under the supervision of Friar Benedict Schickum, the friars started and completed construction on the reception hall, the lounge, dinning room, kitchen, the refectory, the friary, and the hillside motel rooms (know referred to as the St. Anthony Wing).


The Retreat House Opens: The First Retreats

The charter retreat at St. Anthony Retreat Center was held on September 20-23, 1963.  It was lead by Friars Conrad Wear, O.F.M. and Gregory Wooler, O.F.M.  The retreat was held for 18, Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus members from Visalia, Tulare, Exeter, Delano, Ivanhoe, Tipton, and South Pasdena.

The system was adopted of a retreat master giving a retreat every weekend for a full year.  The next year there would be a new retreat master so that if a person were to return the following year for a retreat, it would not be a repeat of the previous year.  (This was the same format used at many other Franciscan retreat houses in the Western part of the United States).  A typical retreat would start on Friday every with dinner around 7pm and conclude on Sunday with coffee at 4pm.

During the first five years of the retreat center (1963-1968), 8,507 men, women, married couples, teenagers, and young adults came for St. Anthony’s for weekend or midweek retreats.

Although run by the Franciscans, the retreat center was open to people from all denominations.  In November 1965, Rev. William Drew, a Methodist minister, brought the first Methodist group for a retreat.  Three years later, Bishop Rivera brought the Episcopalian clergy for a renewal.  In July 1969, Rev. Stewart Campbell came with his Presbyterian parishioners from Pismo Beach.


The Retreat House Grows

From 1968-1973, St. Anthony’s Retreat continued to grow and it’s number of retreatants increased due to two main reasons.  The first reason is the construction of a chapel which was dedicated on December 20, 1970. The architects of the chapel were Chaiz Johnson Associates of Los Angeles.  The contractor was Hutchins Construction Company of Merced, with Jene Henderson of Hanford as foreman.  During 1968-1973, a total of 12,614 people had “come to the mountain.”  The second five years shows an increase in use of 50%.


Farewell to the Franciscans

In the Fall of 2003, the Franciscans announced that they would be leaving St. Anthony Retreat.  A few months later the Diocese of Fresno took over the retreat center, allowing for it to continue meeting the needs and serving everyone looking for a quiet place to come for retreat.



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Located on twenty-five acres at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Sequoia National Park.


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