A pack of seven-year-olds tumble off a school bus and squirm into chairs to hear their plans for the day. The first order of business: donuts. Thus begins another daylong First Communion retreat at Heart of Jesus Retreat Center in Santa Ana. This year the Sisters of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of the current facility which has become somewhat like a rite of passage for local first communicants, confirmation candidates, teens, adults, couples, families and religious.
According to Sr. Joanna Strouse, SDSH director of the Retreat Center, “When the Diocese of Orange became its own Diocese, separate from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1976, Bishop Johnson was interested in making Holy Family the Cathedral of the new Diocese and to have the convent be his residence. At the time our religious community was teaching religious education at Holy Family Parish and living in the convent. In exchange, the Bishop offered us the opportunity to purchase the 2.9-acre property that had been donated to the Diocese, including the original Borchard family farmhouse built in 1933. Seeing the potential of the property, the Sisters converted a three-car garage into a conference room and began hosting retreats for children and adults. This is how the Heart of Jesus Retreat Center began in 1978.”
A bit of history first. Sister Ida Peterfy was born to devout Catholic parents in Kassa, Hungary (now Kosice, Slovakia) in 1922. She was a pretty and lively girl, active in scouting and from the age of 16 ran a youth camp. While on an Ignatian retreat, she had a profound religious experience where she realized the depth of God’s personal love for her, and His call to catechize children. On her 18th birthday, October 7, 1940, she pronounced private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience before the Blessed Sacrament, and immediately she began to live in total dedication to the Sacred Heart of Christ.
Sr. Ida and a few friends, who called themselves the Community of the Sacred Heart Sisters, became well known for their work in the city of Kassa, particularly for their role preparing thousands of young people for spiritual renewal in preparation for the bishop’s plan to consecrate the city to the Sacred Heart. Despite enormous challenges and persecutions during the Nazi occupation in World War II, Ida continued her ministry underground, pursued her education and worked to support her small community.
The post-war Soviet occupation of Hungary presented even more challenges. In 1948, Cardinal Mindszenty, Archbishop of Esztergom (Budapest), was imprisoned and tortured for his opposition to Communism. Ida, who had a friend who was a secretary for the KGB, warned her that she and her sisters should “disappear.” She resisted and continued her work, however, and by 1949, the auxiliary Bishop urged her to go to a free country and develop a community there. She could return someday when it was safe. Trusting the bishop, she and one of her companions, reluctantly escaped with a “smuggler.” She was offered a teaching position in Innsbruck at a new school established for Hungarian refugees. One by one the other sisters left Hungary.
It soon became clear that the sisters would not be able to establish a permanent home in Europe. When sister Ida learned that Canada accepted refugees from the Eastern Block, provided the refugee worked as a domestic for 12 months, she and the sisters moved to Toronto.
In September 1956, Sister Ida attended the U.S. National Catechetical Congress in Buffalo N.Y. By the time the Congress ended, nine U.S. Bishops and a few from Western Canada had invited Sister Ida and her community to set up shop in their dioceses. Eventually, the sisters settled in Los Angeles.
Fast forward to 1978, some of the sisters moved to Santa Ana, cleaned out the dusty three-car garage at their new home and began again. The sisters taught at the Holy Family Cathedral school and offered retreats from their renovated garage. The ministry grew quickly and by the late 1980s the sisters had raised the money to begin construction on a fully equipped retreat center.
Sister Ida was heavily involved in every step of the process. For the retreat chapel, she commissioned acclaimed liturgical artist Isabel Piczek, whom she had known since her days in Hungary, to create the altar murals and stained glass. Piczek worked closely with Sr. Ida to craft a vision of the risen Christ drawn from imagery from the Book of Revelation. Titled “Splendor of the Cosmic Heart,” Isabel Piczek often said this was one of her favorite works, not so much because of the importance of the installation, but because of the collaboration with her lifelong friend.
The groundbreaking occurred in August of 1990, and the grand opening celebration was held in January of 1992. Today there are a total of 11 sisters living on site at the Retreat Center. Seven of the sisters work there and 4 serve at other diocesan parishes. In the years since, the sisters have also opened a camp in Big Bear, offering a fun-filled getaway retreat for parishes and schools. Sister Ida passed away in February of 2000. Recently Archbishop Gomez named Sister Ida “Servant of God”, the first step in canonization.
In the retreat center chapel is a quote from Sr. Ida that encapsulates both her faith and the underlying confidence in her mission. “With our minds and hearts anchored permanently in Jesus our Lord, we surrender ourselves to Him to be filled with His transforming love.” Words to live by.
Sister Ida’s 5-step Illustrated Method
Sr. Ida developed a five-step program designed to explain even the most advanced aspects of faith to children and adults. She often said, “If you can’t explain a concept to a third grader, you don’t know it yourself.”
Step 1: Attract Attention. To make sure the student is “present” the teacher must involve their imagination. Depending on the age of the students this may mean beginning with a story, props, puppets or some other tool to get their mind engaged.
Step 2: Illustrated Explanation. Teach not just with words, but by demonstration. Lead students by involving their intellect and hearts. It can be as simple as drawing stick figures to help students focus on what is being taught.
Step 3: Correlation with Life. Once the imagination and intellect are captivated, make the lesson relevant to the student’s life. Help the students see how the message applies to their own life.
Step 4: Practice. This can be daily or weekly, but it is a necessary part of effective teaching. Show the students how to put their faith into action.
Step 5: Summary and Conclusion. This reinforces and helps the students to remember what they have learned. The goal is not rote response, but digging deep into their understanding and convictions that have changed as a result of the lesson.
More information on the sisters and the retreat center is available online at sacredheartsisters.com.