LODI — In 2004, Donna Wieand and her husband, Jim, purchased a 2.3-acre property on Seneca Lake. The Buffalo-area residents planned to build a summer cottage there, based on their love of vacationing in the Finger Lakes.
But God had other plans, as Wieand was to discover.
She recalled that in 2008, her home parish held a stewardship campaign that stressed using one’s gifts and talents to give back to God.
“That planted a seed. God has you when the seed doesn’t go away. It gets stronger and stronger,” Wieand remarked.
Over the next couple of years, Wieand felt a growing call to build a retreat facility rather than a cottage. On Divine Mercy Sunday in 2010, upon returning from a kayak ride, she came across two worn strips of wood on the ground, bound together in the shape of a cross. That discovery, she and her husband agreed, signaled that it was time to launch the retreat ministry.
Branches Christian Rest and Renewal Centers Inc. opened in 2011. Over the past 12 years, it has grown in popularity, offering a series of retreats during the warm-weather months that draw Catholics from across the Rochester Diocese and from neighboring dioceses.
“I’m so grateful. Everything’s provided through the hand of God, there’s no doubt about it,” said Wieand, who serves as president of the nonprofit ministry.
Setting on Seneca Lake enhances spirituality
The Branches property is located in southwest Seneca County, near the Schuyler County border overlooking Seneca Lake’s eastern shore. Its scenic, heavily wooded grounds are enhanced by numerous religious objects, including Stations of the Cross; an outdoor altar; large statues of Jesus and Mary; and a rosary garden.
On a sunny mid-July day, approximately 35 people gathered for a Eucharist-themed retreat, in conjunction with the ongoing National Eucharistic Revival. The event was facilitated by Lena Shipley, a parishioner of St. Francis and St. Clare Roman Catholic Community in Seneca County. During the closing Mass — celebrated by Father Anthony Amato, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Ontario County — the lake’s calm, blue waters provided pleasant background scenery behind the altar.
Wieand noted that Branches is completely operated by volunteers and offers private as well as public retreats — primarily daytime events — from May through mid-October. Branches also features active prayer and rosary groups.
Branches’ next public retreat is set for Sept. 9 from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a theme of “Consecration to Jesus through Mary.” Wieand will serve as a facilitator, and the 11:30 a.m. Mass will be celebrated by Father Augustine Chumo, pastor of Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception Parish.
Participants enjoy peacefulness, presenters
Barb Innes and five others from Tioga County’s Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes attended the mid-July retreat. She noted that Branches’ scenic setting greatly enhanced her spiritual experience that day.
“It really takes me back to nature and our creator,” she said.
“It’s just the most beautiful place,” agreed Jayne Badano-Bidwell, who has been a regular retreat participant dating back to Branches’ first year.
“It really eliminates distractions. You appreciate God’s creation, and it really helps you focus,” added Badano-Bidwell, a parishioner in the Schuyler Catholic Community. On Aug. 24, she served as a facilitator for a retreat focusing on the history and parts of the Mass. Her pastor, Father Jeffrey Tunnicliff, celebrated the closing liturgy.
Meanwhile, Kelley Peron of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick said she enjoys connecting with “the faith-filled people who come here from different dioceses” at Branches’ retreats as well as the “amazing presenters.”
Center’s president hopes to expand
Wieand said Branches is currently looking to launch three large-ticket projects: a center that would provide indoor meeting space; two new, larger hermitages to add to the pair of small ones currently on Branches’ grounds; and a dock for the center’s kayaks. These additional facilities would allow for expanded, year-round programming and help meet Wieand’s objective of serving all ages through faith-related events as well as such recreational activities as kayaking, hiking and swimming.
How quickly those goals are realized will hinge on grant funding as well as private contributions for Branches, which in 2022 became listed for the first time in the Official Catholic Directory. In the meantime, Wieand — a retired art teacher in the Lancaster Central School District — is thankful that the calling she experienced many years ago has been realized so fully.
“I feel blessed, blessed,” she said in a hushed, emotional voice. “Humbled and blessed that we got here.”Seneca County News, Tioga County News