Below is the extended version of our Q&A with Fr. J.P. Hough, SJ, that appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Jesuits Magazine.
Grand Coteau, Louisiana, is a beloved place for Jesuits and others who have found consolation in its quiet beauty. Jesuits have served the people of the area since 1838, when St. Charles College was established as the first Catholic school for boys in the state of Louisiana. Retreat and spiritual ministries have been central to that work through Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House and the Jesuit Spirituality Center. In the past year, the Jesuit novitiate and the pavilion for senior Jesuits were moved out of Grand Coteau.
Now, Fr. J. Patrick Hough, SJ, has been tasked with reimagining the Jesuit presence in Grand Coteau and creating a new retreat center on the two campuses, one that offers the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in both preached and individually directed formats. Here’s what he has to say about his new assignment.
What is your vision for Grand Coteau?
We are trying to be of service to the Church in the context of our own charism. We want to help the local dioceses by offering a large facility they can use for retreats. The vision is that Grand Coteau becomes more available as a place of encounter with God and God’s creation, the Church and each other.
The decision to bring the two retreat facilities together is really inspired because the overlap between the two places means that the way for us to grow is to unite the two operations. In this way, we can offer a facility of over 150 bedrooms, making it a real place of destination not only of the South but all over the country. We’ll have retreats for ACTS (Adoration, Community, Theology and Service) groups, parish confirmation groups and priestly formation. Parishes have come forward wanting to bring their retreats there. It seems like this new mission has already caught fire within the local community in the local church. We anticipate encounters to go from about 800 people a year to about 6,000 a year.
(Provincial) Fr. (Thomas) Greene said he wants it to be a place where priests, seminarians and scholastics can go and have a reliable, beautiful, restorative retreat, and that’s going to happen.
The provincial has assigned a number of Jesuits to work there. So, we can offer groups our presence as confessors and spiritual advisors, and we can provide spiritual sustenance for a parish group.
We have a new mission, a new retreat center – and probably one day a new name – because we have a new reality.
Why are these changes necessary?
There is a new invitation from the Lord through the provincial. It is to be open to a new kind of giving retreats and being open to others. We also need to become financially solvent.
Are structural changes required to accommodate this change?
One of the great things is that 10 years ago, we finished the major renovation of the facility, so the building is in tip-top condition. Every room has its own bathroom, the A/C units are in great condition … people are just amazed at the level of quality of the facilities.
Where the Infirmary was is going to be the residence for the Jesuits going forward. I hope that helps our supporters realize our commitment to the place.
What are the challenges?
We’ve got a 200-year-old building, and we’ve got about 140,000 square feet that has to be maintained. We need people to come to support us. I think the quality of our rooms is second to none and rivals hotels, and yet it’s in a historic old building. It’s very beautiful.
What kind of support are you looking for?
Thankfully, our friends and benefactors of the province have approached me with their desire to create a sustainable plan through fundraising. So, one of the things we’re hoping to do in the fall is have a gala – something like a retreat under the oaks. We have those beautiful trees, and the idea is to have an annual gala just like many nonprofits do to help defray the cost.
It’s really clear I need to find a means to help more and more people – especially younger people – afford to come on a silent retreat. I believe that we can do that not only through fundraising efforts but also by spreading the word that Grand Coteau exists, and that people are welcome to come. For a long time, Grand Coteau had to be a private place, because it was a place of formation for Jesuits. In the old days, people weren’t really allowed in. Now, we need people to see this amazing place and want to go inside.
I’m working with a great team of experts from all over the province who are offering their time to help me. I personally believe God has already blessed us in this mission because people have come forward wanting to help.
As a province, we did the tough thing of being willing to let go of Grand Coteau. That was not easy for many of us. It’s like in the scriptures when God asks tough things of people only at the last moment to say, “I have decided not to ask that of you, but I needed to know that you’re available to let it go.”
That’s obviously a core aspect of Jesuit spirituality, the ability to be open to what God is inviting us to. And it seems that God is now inviting us to have a fresh new look at what our mission is going to be in Grand Coteau. I’m really excited to be part of that future.
For the people who’ve gone on retreats in Grand Coteau in the past, what will change?
I commit to doing my utmost to ensure that silent retreats continue for those people who want to come. We want you to keep on coming! Just bear with us as we restart and strategically plan how to make it financially viable and sustainable going forward.
What’s the timeline?
What we’re doing right now is coming up with a financial plan that allows us to keep the doors open and to offer as much as we can in the next six months. Then the idea is to confer with my colleagues who are assisting me about a plan going forward for scheduling silent retreats separate from more active retreats.
You entered the Society of Jesus at Grand Coteau. What does this assignment mean for you?
I did! I’m going back to the place where I made my own novitiate from 2002 to 2004. It feels very much like a homecoming for me in many ways. I grew up on a Jesuit farm in the north of England which had next to it a college where Jesuits were educated and young men who were not Jesuits also went to be educated. Now I find myself the custodian of several hundred acres of land with a now disused dairy farm next to a major college. It’s really quite amazing.
Are you still going to be involved with the advancement team? Will you still be leading pilgrimages and tours?
Yes, I am still going to be the executive director of advancement. The province is committed to saving Grand Coteau, but it requires participation by our friends and benefactors. I also know that as the director of the retreat center, it’s a really great thing to offer days of reflection. I want Grand Coteau to be a center that has an outreach throughout the province. I also want to offer people from all over the province the chance to go and walk in the footsteps of Saint Ignatius in Spain and Italy or – please, God – the Holy Land. Or to visit my home country of England and walk in the footsteps of the Jesuit martyrs, or even go to Paraguay and see the great works that so many of our Jesuits did in South America.
I think that’s a great job, and I’m confident that the Lord is going to show me the way with the team around me that helps me do both of these jobs.
I want to ask our friends who read this is to pray not only for the means to do this, but also the people that we need to help us complete this beautiful but challenging mission to create a sustainable plan for the next 200 years.