Appalachian 'working retreat' goes local this year

BILLERICA -- The group that stayed at St. Thecla Retreat House from July 27 through Aug. 1 were not from a single parish, or even from the same diocese. But they all had one thing in common: each of them had participated at least once -- some of them many times -- in Father Ed Riley's annual "working retreat," and wanted to continue that service even at a local level.

Every year since 1995, Father Riley has led a group of volunteers on a weeklong trip to serve the poor in eastern Kentucky, primarily by assisting in home repair projects. But they were unable to make the trip last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, instead of making the roughly 16-hour drive, Father Riley and about a dozen retreatants spent several days at St. Thecla Retreat House, a cloister-style facility operated by the Daughters of St. Paul.

To maintain the service aspect of the retreat, they directed their efforts to cleaning and landscaping on the premises. They pulled weeds, trimmed the hedges, power-washed the outer walls of the buildings, washed the large windows overlooking the courtyard, painted some of the bedrooms, and tore down a wall between two rooms.

Retreatant Kim Tow, a parishioner of St. Mary's in Dedham who has gone on three of the previous trips, said that this year they were able to spend more time together because they were all working in the same location. In past years, they would split up into small groups and were assigned various tasks in different places, repairing trailers, houses, or schools.

"This experience was a little bit different, but it also gave us a way to connect in community," Tow said.

They tried to "unplug" from the media during their time at St. Thecla's. Each day included a Mass and ended with one of the retreatants leading a group prayer or reflection, giving them a chance to learn and try different methods of prayer. Father Riley was also available for confessions, though he also pitched in with the manual work.

Lee Colombo from St. Theresa Parish in North Reading described the retreat as "a very concentrated spiritual experience." She said she goes on the trip "to step away from the world and enhance my faith and do good work."

"You can go on vacation and rest next to a pool and all that, and that's good, too, but this is so much more than that for me. And they always pick projects that feel important. Like this retreat house is opening up after the pandemic, so hundreds of people will come through here, and they'll walk up and the weeds will be gone and it will look beautiful and it will enhance their experience," Colombo said.

Ann Nicholson from St. Michael Parish in Bedford washed the outdoor statues free of dirt and tree sap. She said washing the statues, touching Jesus' face and side and feet, made her feel like St. Veronica in the Stations of the Cross.

Although this year's working retreat does not involve direct interaction with "the poor, the orphan, and the widow" in the same way it normally would, it was still an act of service, this time benefiting the Daughters of St. Paul and the people they serve.

"It's a nice way to give back to them for all the good things they do in our diocese and beyond," Father Riley said.

One of the retreatants, Christine Dufresne, is a Pauline Cooperator -- a layperson who lives out the Pauline mission of evangelizing through modern media. She said she thought it was "very cool to be able to give back to the sisters," and reflected on how the retreatants' work at St. Thecla Retreat House will benefit both the Daughters of St. Paul and the people who come for retreats there in the future.

"Knowing how the projects that we're doing this week are going to affect the people that are coming for the following retreats is pretty incredible," she said.

Father Riley's "working retreat" grew out of his own experience as a full-time volunteer for the Christian Appalachian Project, working under its founder, Msgr. Ralph W. Beiting. Father Riley originally went there in 1990 to spend a few weeks volunteering in their home repair program, but he then returned and spent four years there. During that time, Father Riley discerned his own call to the priesthood.

He was greatly influenced by Msgr. Beiting's example of a missionary priest. Having grown up in northern Kentucky during the Great Depression, Msgr. Beiting understood well the effects of poverty. Most of the people in the area he pastored were Christians, though very few were Catholic. He kept a daily Holy Hour, celebrated daily Mass at far-flung churches, and did "street preaching" once or twice a week.

"The dynamic way in which he was living his life slowly worked on me," Father Riley said.

As a seminarian, Father Riley was allowed to return to Kentucky and continue his service at the Christian Appalachian Project during the summer months. So, in 1995, he led his first group of volunteers, which Msgr. Beiting would come to regard as the "Boston crew." A talented preacher, he would tell them stories about how their work during their brief time there would serve the long-term mission.

Father Riley said Msgr. Beiting always challenged them to think about their lives and consider what God was calling them to do.

"Even if they never came back again, they were looking at their lives in a more faithful, devout, Catholic way. And I think a lot of people have carried that with them," Father Riley said.

Over the years, several retreatants met their future spouse on the trip or discerned a call to the priesthood or religious life. Msgr. Beiting eventually vested Father Riley at his ordination in 2000.

Msgr. Beiting died in 2012 at the age of 88, just days after the Boston group arrived for their annual service retreat. Several of those on retreat at St. Thecla Retreat House recalled visiting Msgr. Beiting in the hospital for the last time and hearing him talk about his plans for the Project.

"The whole program is definitely blessed. You can feel God's presence where we are," Vinny Vignaly said. He met his wife during the service retreat 16 years ago, and he now coordinates the trip.

Dufresne commended Father Riley, who she said is "a great spiritual director" and "a lot like Father Beiting."

"It's nice to see a priest that not only talks the talk but walks the walk. He won't ask you to do anything he won't do himself," Dufresne said.

Those interested in learning more about Father Riley's service trips may contact him at or contact coordinator Vinny Vignaly at Information about the Christian Appalachian Project is available at