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For sale: San Damiano Retreat Center on the Ohio River in Pope, Hardin counties
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For sale: San Damiano Retreat Center on the Ohio River in Pope, Hardin counties

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The San Damiano Retreat Center, nestled in the Shawnee National Forest in rural Southern Illinois, is for sale.

The roughly 185-acre riverfront property spans parts of Pope and Hardin counties and consists of 17 buildings, including cabins, three free-standing lodges, a caretaker's residence, garage and 7,000 square-foot Mediterranean-style convention hall.

The property sits atop a 200-foot-tall sandstone bluff overlooking the Ohio River, and offers 4,400 feet of water frontage.

The property is owned by Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage Inc., doing business as Golden Frontiers, a Swansea-based religious nonprofit.

Most of the facilities on the property were built in the 1990s. The nonprofit describes the property as a quiet getaway spot for people of all faiths to reflect and enjoy nature. Cabins are available for rent for individuals, couples or large groups, with each room offering a private balcony overlooking the Ohio.

Additionally, the property includes numerous walking trails and religious statues, the most prominent of which is the 35-foot-tall Shrine of the Good Shepherd, a cast bronzed depiction of Christ holding a struggling lamb. He stands on a knoll eight feet above the walking paths and can be seen for many miles from the river below, including from Kentucky on the south shore of the Ohio River.

Other trails on site lead to meditation gardens such as the Garden of the Angels and Stations of the Cross.

In its early years, the religious retreat became a source of controversy because one of the leaders of Catholic Shrine Pilgrimage was accused of sexually molesting boys when he was in charge of Camp Ondessonk, a Catholic youth camp located about 30 miles northwest of San Damiano in rural Johnson County. The late Robert Vonnahmen served as the inaugural director of Camp Ondessonk when it opened in 1959, and held that position for 26 years, until 1985.

Eight years after he exited his leadership post at the camp, a diocesan review board found him unfit for ministry stemming from the child abuse allegations, and he also was removed from his then-position as pastor of St. Joseph Church in Elizabethtown. It was around the time that he was removed from his parish that Vonnahmen and others were involved in building the San Damiano Retreat Center.

He went on to live there for a period of time in a lodge with a riverfront view estimated to have cost at least $350,000 to build in the 1990s, according to a 2003 report from the Belleville News Democrat. His tax-free living arrangement drew the ire of his victims and the St. Louis-based advocacy group that advocated on their behalf. In that article, the leader of the nonprofit said it was not Vonnahmen’s retirement home, but a retirement home for all priests known officially as St. Francis Lodge. Vonnahmen resigned in 2002 from the nonprofit’s board of directors, though reportedly continued to act as a consultant with the nonprofit’s travel agency leading group trips to Catholic pilgrimage sites worldwide. 

In 2007, Vonnahmen was defrocked by the Vatican — becoming the first ex-priest ever to be laicized from the Belleville Diocese in its then 120-year history. The organization that owns the retreat was formerly part of the Belleville Catholic Diocese, but the church severed its official affiliation in the 1990s, according to newspaper stories from that time period. Vonnahmen died in May 2016 at the age of 85.

The nonprofit plans to keep the facility open until which time it is sold, said Mike Durbin, broker associate with BARBERMurphy, a commercial real estate firm based in Shiloh that is listing the property on the owner’s behalf. The once-monthly Sunday $15 brunch is also expected to continue for the time being, he said.

But the nonprofit is listing the property for sale because it does not have the ability to maintain it for many years into the future and “wants to be proactive” in lining up another person or entity to take it over. Because it could take awhile to find a buyer, “it made sense to start exploring options,” he said. Upon sale, the religious artifacts will be removed from the property and remain with the nonprofit unless a buyer has an interest in them, Durbin said.

Pending an appraisal, an asking price has not yet been made public.

According to the organization’s 2017 Form 990, which certain tax-exempt charities are required to file with the IRS, the nonprofit valued its land, buildings and equipment, minus depreciation, at just over $1 million. The 2017 report was the most recently available for review on Guidestar, which compiles nonprofit IRS filings.

The property’s 4,400 acres of water frontage runs from roughly the old rock quarry to the now-shuttered U.S. Forest Service Job Corps site, which is also for sale. The property includes riparian and mineral rights.

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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