A vibrant center of faith celebrates 50 years

For 50 years, the Christian Life Center in Frenchville has been bringing people closer to God and changing lives.

“It’s a place for fellowship and building your relationship with God in an intimate way,” says Barbara Pelletier, parish catechetical leader at St. John Vianney Parish in Fort Kent.

“This place has been a powerhouse for not only me but for everybody in the [St. John River] Valley. It feeds us,” says Linda Raymond of New Canada.

“It is so vibrant and wonderful,” says Barbara Hale from Cross Lake.

“It provides hope during a time when there is too much turmoil in the world,” says Gale Rioux, St. John Vianney Parish’s office manager.

The Christian Life Center (CLC) offers a wide range of programs, retreats, and events for people of all ages, as well as eucharistic adoration and Mass. The center draws people from throughout Aroostook County and beyond.

“There are many, many Catholic families that found healing, were empowered, and received graces from attending events here,” says Rioux.

The CLC was established in 1973. Originally located in Caribou, it initially served teens, but such was its success that the demand grew for adult programming as well. Msgr. Paul Stefanko, who served as director from 1979 to 1983, says that because the Caribou location was ill-equipped to serve adults, a new site was needed. He found it in Frenchville, at the former convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.

“It had great possibilities to expand programming, especially for adults who were calling for things,” he says. “I looked at it, and I thought, ‘This would be perfect.’”
And that is what it turned out to be. Msgr. Stefanko says the center’s schedule was full from September until June. In addition to holding retreats for elementary, junior high, and high school students, the center offered programs such as Catholic Engaged Encounter and Worldwide Marriage Encounter. It also hosted Cursillo weekends.

“Cursillo is really focused on personal conversion and transformation in Christian life, so people would go back to their parish supercharged, and they would get others to come,” says Father James Plourde, who served as director three times during the CLC’s 50-year history and is still involved there today.

Diane Landry from Frenchville says a Cursillo retreat was a life changer for her and her husband. She says he was suffering from depression but hesitantly agreed to attend a Cursillo at the CLC after she and their parish priest mentioned it.

“I didn’t think he was going to make it. Before he left for work, he turned around and said, ‘Would you pack my suitcase?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes. I will.’ And the man who walked out that Thursday night and the man who came back on Sunday from that Cursillo weekend was a totally different man. He had found God. So, this building was a lifesaver for me and my family,” she says.

Landry says her own Cursillo a short time later helped her move on as well and led her to then reach out to others.

“That’s when I understood that what I had lived through with my husband was meant for me to help others going through the same thing,” she says.

About 15 years ago, ACTS retreats, centered around adoration, community, theology, and service, began being offered at the CLC and became a staple there.

“Besides spiritual enrichment, I think ACTS gave participants some kind of energy to get involved in parish life, so I think it directly fed the parishes,” says Father Plourde.

Through the years, the center’s offerings and the lives touched as a result continued to grow.

“It is a blessing. It changes your life. The only way you can change your life is through that connection with Christ, that prayer life, listening to Him. If you don’t take time to nourish your faith, you will never grow spiritually. You need Christ,” says Raymond.
          When the center was forced to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the faithful feared its doors would remain shut for good. A leaking roof and the need for repairs and renovations did nothing to alleviate those concerns. However, last October, Bishop Robert Deeley appointed Father Antony Alexander Maria Doss, HGN, to be the center’s new director and to serve as a parochial vicar at St. John Vianney Parish. Father Tony has been committed ever since to bringing the center back to life.

“We want the center to be a place of spiritual nourishment like it used to be,” he says. “We are bringing back everything. Before we introduce new programs, we want to bring back the old ones like Men’s ACTS, Women’s ACTS, Teen ACTS, day retreats, weekend retreats.”

“It makes me excited to feel like the CLC is going to have a purpose again,” says Raya Ringuette, the center’s youth ministry coordinator.

Ringuette says, for example, that she knows from personal experience how impactful a Teens ACTS retreat can be.

“We touch kids' hearts every year. They walk away, and they’re like, ‘Wow, I really learned more about God than I had ever known before,’” she says. “It shows the youth how to bring out their faith in different ways.”

During the month of May, the Christian Life Center plans to hold a marriage enrichment program, a Knights of Columbus Men’s Retreat, and a Charismatic Retreat Weekend. Other recent programs have included a marriage preparation weekend, a women’s retreat, and a retreat for college students. During Lent, Father Alex offered Bible study every Wednesday and eucharistic adoration and reflections on The Imitation of Christ on Fridays.

“We are so thirsty for teaching and getting closer to God, so when Father Alex started the Bible study here at the CLC, we wanted to come,” says Laura Roy from Cross Lake.

“People are yearning. They want to know God,” says Serge, her husband.

“You just feel wonderful to be in the presence of Christ,” Hale says of eucharistic adoration. “It helps me to be humble and to grow in my faith.”

“I find such peace, listening to God. He is there, present in the Blessed Sacrament, and when I heard that Father Alex was going to do this, I was excited about coming,” says Raymond, who attended both eucharistic adoration and the Bible study group.

Father Alex also started to hold bereavement gatherings on the last Wednesday of each month. It’s something that Rioux says was needed but wasn’t offered elsewhere in the St. John River Valley.

“There are bereavement gatherings that bring families together who have lost loved ones. His goal was just to provide guidance for them and support,” says Rioux. “It’s really healing for a lot of them.”

That includes Landry, whose husband died two years ago from COVID-19.

“You realize that you’re not alone, which I already knew, but we get to share our stories, and it’s uplifting. And you’re with people. This allows me to meet people and to share my faith,” she says.

The center’s offerings are consistently well attended. A Valentine’s Day dinner drew twice as many couples as anticipated. When Father Alex held Christmas midnight Mass at the center, the chapel filled up.

“I set the chapel up for 40, and all of a sudden, I look in the hallway, and there are a bunch of people standing there. So, I grabbed 10 more chairs. Then, I came back out of the chapel, and there were 10 or 15 people more,” says Carlos Sousa, who has served at the center for years, doing cooking and maintenance work.

“If you build it, they will come, and they do,” says Rioux. “Put the programs forth, invite people to come, and they do. And the word spreads and more come.”

Father Alex has numerous ideas for the future of the CLC, which receives crucial funding from the Catholic Appeal, along with support from Aroostook County parishes. He would like, for instance, to make the center available for private, silent retreats. There are plans to turn some rooms into mini suites to accommodate that. Other improvements include a newly renovated dining room and expanding bathrooms to make them accessible for people with disabilities. The chapel was also recently repainted and given a makeover, thanks in large part to Carlos and his wife, Peggy, who did much of the work. Peggy, who has done housekeeping at the center for years, says it is her way of helping others come to know Christ.

“A lot of people have met the Lord here, so I wanted to be instrumental in growing in my own faith but also in helping somebody else come to faith in the Lord. I just feel that is an important part of our faith journey,” says Peggy. “We all need a place to go where we can feel safe, feel welcomed, feel loved, and the CLC offers that.”

She has this advice for anyone who hasn’t participated in a retreat there: “Give yourselves a gift and come.”