The Villa Maria is an interfaith retreat and conference center established and sponsored by the Ursuline Sisters for the purpose of assisting people, organizations and groups in their spiritual and personal growth.
Since 1970, we have provided a number of services for those who wish to renew their spirit with a retreat to a simpler time. Today, we offer space for large groups and private individuals alike who wish to enjoy their natural surroundings and get back to basics for a day or a week.
In 1535, the Ursuline Order of Catholic Nuns was founded in Brescia, Italy, by St. Angela Merici as a support system for women whose mission in life was to serve Jesus Christ through actions and deeds. The Ursulines have maintained their traditions of education, hospitality, and work for peace and justice to this day.
From Italy, the order rapidly spread throughout Europe and other continents, arriving in North America in 1727. The sisters established a ministry in New Orleans before following the Mississippi River north to St. Louis, Missouri, and Alton, Illinois, and finally settling in Lake City, Minnesota, in 1877 at the request of Father Francis Quinn.
Within three years, the sisters established the Academy of Our Lady of the Lake, a school for girls, on the shores of Lake Pepin in Lake City. By 1883, enrollment exceeded capacity of the remodeled house that doubled as the original academy building and it became apparent that a new, larger facility was required.
Meanwhile, General Israel Garrard, a member of an aristocratic family from Kentucky, had founded a hunting lodge at Frontenac and acquired several hundred acres of forest skirting Lake Pepin. In 1885, General Garrard gifted the Ursulines with 124 acres of land in Frontenac to be used for a new school. In 1891, the school was completed and renamed Villa Maria Academy. Both the school and the new chapel were dedicated by Archbishop John Ireland.
The boarding school flourished for 78 years, drawing students from around the world. It was a cherished school for many girls until early one morning in March of 1969, when a lightning strike lit the Villa tower ablaze and reduced the four-story structure to ashes.
But from the ashes emerged an inspiring new vision. Though the fire forced the academy to close its doors, the Ursuline Sisters continued their mission by providing religious instruction for local parishes. Their determination led them to Lutheran Pastor Ham Muus, who envisioned building an ecumenical place for retreat. Together, the sisters and Pastor Muus created the Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center on the academy's former site in Frontenac, where the center stands strong still today, providing a number of services for those who wish to retreat and renew their spirit.
In 2001 the Center incorporated and formally became established as the Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center, Inc., governed by a local Board of Trustees. The Ursuline Sisters maintain ownership and continue to bring their spirit and influence with them through sponsorship and board membership. As determined and steady as the river that brought them to Frontenac, the Ursuline Sisters continue to profoundly affect lives.