JOLIET – Sister Albert Marie Papesh recalls the first time she stood on the grounds of what is now St. Francis Lodge in Minnesota.
The chapel wasn’t finished yet, Papesh said, so Mass was held on top of the hill. Attendees stood under umbrellas and withstood teeming rain and fierce winds.
“And we stayed in a camper,” Papesh said.
Papesh and two other women from the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate – Sister Therese Tusek and Sister Anne Wayrowski – recently attended the 15th anniversary of celebration of the lodge’s opening and made what Papesh called her ninth retreat.
Its founders are former Joliet resident Sal Di Leo and his wife Beth. Di Leo grew up at Guardian Angel Home in Joliet. The retreat house is Di Leo’s way of saying, “thank you” so the sisters that took care of him and several of his siblings.
The private bedroom is named for Sister David Ann, the house mother for Di Leo’s younger sister, Papesh said. For Wayrowski, St. Francis Lodge is a prayer come true. She had asked God if he could provide a place like this in her life – and he did, she said. Tusek called it a “feast for the spirit and the soul.”
“About eight of us have been able to get up there,” Papesh said. “It’s peaceful and quiet. You can hear God in the whispers of the trees and leaves.”
Di Leo clearly recalls the first time he felt hope. Age 9, Di Leo retreated to the playground at Guardian Angel Home to mourn the loss of his older brother, who had just moved to Boys Town in Nebraska.
Di Leo said his house mother, Sister Rose Spatney, walked the perimeter, praying her rosary and monitoring the crying little boy. Finally, Spatney made him look her in the eye.
"She said, 'Let me give you something to think about,'" Di Leo said. "'Everyone in life is dealt a bad hand in some form or fashion. Those that do well, do the best with what they're given, and I know you will."
Di Leo said he then asked, "You mean I won't always be sad?" Spatney, he said, responded, "You can choose to be happy or sad. You can choose to be better than your father." Knowing he had choices made all the difference for Di Leo.
And what Di Leo and his wife, Beth, chose to do was built a retreat in honor of the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate in Joliet, dedicated it to St. Francis of Assisi and open it up – free – men and women in religious life and people experiencing terminal illness.
Spatney, 94, of Joliet, recalled Di Leo as a charmer, a leader, protector of his little sister and a go-getter. If Spatney could care for a child again, she’d want him to be like Di Leo, she said. The fact that he built St. Francis Lodge never surprised her.
“Once he made up his mind,” Spatney said. “That was it.”
Di Leo grew up number 11 in a family of 12 children. He said his father lived one step ahead of the law and eviction; their home life had no structure; it was chaotic and despairing, full of fear and anxiety and no regular meals, no clean clothes and no bathing.
"The basic things that children needed were not there," Di Leo said.
He recalled begging for food and how the other children at the former St. Bernard School in Joliet refused to sit by him because his stench was so bad. One sister at the school, Di Leo said, took pity on him and provided clean clothes and made sure he was bathed.
In March 1963, Di Leo and several siblings became wards of the state, he said.
"It seemed like the worse day of my life," Di Leo said. "We were hanging onto our mother and begging not to be pulled away from her. My father had run away forever."
But for the first time in Di Leo’s life he had clean clothes, regular baths and a life of predictability. He attended school at St. Raymond, saw how other children lived and decided he wanted to become like them. After eighth grade – the longest children could stay at Guardian Angel – Di Leo joined his brother at Boys Town.
After high school, Di Leo worked his way through the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. For a time, he taught school and coached sports. Remembering he could make choices, Di Leo chose to make a lot of money, which he did, through a business that, although legal, did not operate very ethically, he said.
"I fell apart," Di Leo said. "I had a beautiful wife, beautiful children, a nice beautiful home, but I was drinking and doing drugs; I turned my back and God. I lost my business because I wasn't paying attention to it. I was 31 and broke. My wonderful wife should have dumped me, but she didn't."
Beth's father, a Mayo Clinic doctor, Di Leo said, gave them money to move to Minnesota and begin life anew. Di Leo rededicated his life to God and learned from his mentor that gratitude had limited value unless one passed it onto someone else.
So, in 1999, Di Leo wrote and self-published his memoirs, “Did I Ever Thank You, Sister?” The couple financed land on Lake George in the Paul Bunyan Forests in North Western Minnesota, just east of Itasca State Park. Over several years, they added electricity, built a grotto, installed a well and septic, and built a chapel.
"That was a feat," Di Leo said. "Everything had to be carried down the hill to the site because we could not get a vehicle in there. We did it with volunteers; I learned to pound nails."
In the seventh year – with a camper on the grounds – Di Leo invited the Sisters of St. Francis to witness the work accomplished thus far. Two years later, Di Leo financed the construction of the lodge and two years after that, its extension.
Currently, St. Francis Lodge holds 12 people, but Di Leo said guests experience greater peace and solitude when only four use it at one time. Future goals include buying and developing the north and south property, so even more people can enjoy the lodge. It’s solidly booked for the next 12 months, Di Leo said.
Mostly, Di Leo, now at age 60, wants people to understand that, no matter how grim circumstances may appear, they always have choices and that they can spend their lives achieving marvelous things, as long as they include God in those plans.
"It doesn't have to be in a big way," Di Leo said. "Just be a good husband or wife or be good at something that has meaning."
For information, visit www.saldileo.com.