By Katrina Genereux/Associate Editor, OND
Lake George, Minn. – On May 25, St. Francis Lodge near Itasca State Park celebrated 20 years of showing gratitude to those who give their lives in service to the Lord.
“We have never called this our place,” Sal Di Leo said to those gathered for the celebration which included Mass and a picnic. “It’s God’s place and we share it with people because people need rest. There’s not an agenda here except to find some time in nature to be with God.”
Sal and his wife, Beth, founded the lodge as a place for religious sisters and priests to come for rest. In 1999, they started with a camper on a hillside. Now the campus includes a cabin, bunkhouse, chapel, grotto and trail with hand-carved stations of the cross.
The lodge has three bedrooms and three bathrooms – one set on each floor. Sal said this was done to provide privacy for those who stay.
“We could put a lot of bodies in here, but we tell the priests and nuns who stay, keep it simple and keep it really special,” he said.
St. Francis Lodge was borne out of his desire to give back to the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate based in Joliet, Illinois. The sisters raised him in their orphanage the Guardian Angel Home. His story is shared in his book “Did I Ever Thank You, Sister?”
The anniversary celebration was Franciscan Sister Albert Marie Papesh’s 12th visit to the property. She traveled from Joliet with Sister Dolores Zemont, President of the community; Sister Rose Marie Surwilo and Sister Peggy Quinn.
“We really appreciate the quietness and the beauty that we see here. It is very conducive to retreat and very enjoyable for vacation,” said Sister Albert Marie. “There are other sisters who have come here from other communities, but he always says the Franciscans have the first choice!”
She said the sisters were taken aback that someone would want to do something like this.
“He’s grateful to us, but I think a deeper gratitude is to God,” said Sister Rose Marie. “He’s always thinking of ways to give more.”
Everyone is called to gratitude said Sister Dolores, whether they have religion or not.
“Sal is a perfect example to me of how we are called to live,” said Sister Dolores. She said he chose to do all he could do with his life. “He’ll credit the sisters, but it is up to each person to make the choice,” she said.
Sister Dolores praised his seemingly boundless energy, deep faith and love of humanity, as well as his sensitivity to people experiencing pain and suffering.
A few years ago, John Petron of Rice, Minnesota, and his wife Pam, purchased a cabin next door to St. Francis Lodge. At the time, they did not know what it was. They got to know the Di Leos, and it became a place for peace during a very difficult time.
“About a year ago, my wife was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer,” Petron said.
He said the Di Leos arranged for prayer services, inviting the neighbors to pray for Pam and Sal asked the Franciscan sisters in Joliet to keep Pam in prayer.
“Pam used to, when she was fighting it, she used to sneak over to the chapel and it was one of the places she came for peace,” Petron said. She died in October.
“About a month after we lost her, we had a memorial service for her up in the chapel here. It really brought us a lot of comfort,” he said. “Some of the toughest days of our life were spent up here when she was fighting, and we also knew, toward the end, losing the battle, but it brought us some peace.”
Sister Peggy said people of different faiths, or even no faith, find peace through time spent there.
“We have lots of wonderful neighbors up here on this lake and people in this community who have helped us, and they weren’t Catholics,” Sal said. “They were just so happy we were doing this mission.”
He credits the sisters for building relationships with people in the area during their visits to the lodge.
Father Duane Pribula celebrated Mass for the anniversary. The retired priest of the Diocese of Crookston has been part of the life of St. Francis Lodge for many years.
“This is one place among many places that is holy ground in your hearts Sal and Beth, and everybody else who comes here to spend time in prayer, conversation, worship and enjoyment,” he said. During the homily, he spoke about pilgrimage destinations, saying the property at Lake George is an extension of other sacred spaces throughout the world.
Sal said 20 years have passed quickly and St. Francis Lodge is approaching a new chapter.
“We didn’t realize how many people would want to use it. It has outgrown itself so fast we can’t even believe it,” he said. They hope to purchase neighboring property and expand St. Francis Lodge, but are waiting to see where the Lord leads.
“Beth and I, we are in a new era, so we are hoping the Holy Spirit will guide us and tell us where to go from here,” he said. “It’s not in our hands, it never has been. It’s in God’s hands and he has never let us down. We are grateful to the people who have come who have had a chance to share in this mission.”
For more information, visit www.saldileo.com/st-francis-lodge.