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Fledgling Pennsylvania Facility Has Prominent Retreat Leaders

By Kirk Petersen

This is a tale of a small Episcopal parish with big dreams, a big campus, a prime location, and connections to some influential people. With support from the diocese and a lot of volunteer labor, the church has established a retreat house in an unused building and hosted a stream of programs led by, among others, a former presiding bishop and two prominent theologians.

The Church of the Good Shepherd in the Rosemont section of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, was hit hard by the theological conflict earlier in this century. A 400-member, conservative congregation kept control of the property for years after the rector was deposed from ordained ministry in 2002. This congregation departed in 2011 on orders from a secular court.

Kyle Babin

The current rector, Kyle Babin, leads a parish of about 50 members that stewards a physical plant designed for a much larger congregation. In addition to the 300-seat church, there’s a seven-bedroom former rectory, a former curate’s residence that now serves as the rectory, a parish house that has been rented for years to an unaffiliated congregation, and an educational wing rented to a daycare center.

When Babin arrived in 2020, the church had been led for six years by a succession of priests in charge, and was struggling financially. “It was really just like, how do we pay the bills? How do we stay open? How do we make this work, can the parish survive, basically. And it was a real leap of faith to call a full-time rector — me,” he said.

The parish was looking for ways to use the former rectory — not just to bring in income, but to reach outward, connect with the community, and heal some of the wounds of the past. “I think it’s really crucial that we look outwards … giving of ourselves even while we still are trying to take care of some troubling aspects of our situation,” Babin said.

Babin and the church leaders realized they have “a fair number of parishioners who can contribute to programming that would seem likely for a retreat house,” he said. Good Shepherd is on the Main Line just west of Philadelphia, nestled among a cluster of colleges and universities. Bryn Mawr College is a few short blocks away, while Haverford College and Villanova University are about a mile away in opposite directions.

Some renovations were required to turn the former residence into a retreat house, so the church looked to the diocese for help. The well-heeled Diocese of Pennsylvania has a fund that provides growth grants of up to $30,000 for capital projects, and in this case, the diocese chipped in $29,200. “Of course, it cost a lot more than that,” Babin said, and the church did some targeted fundraising. The Rosemont Community Retreat House started operating in November 2022, and “so far, we are in the black” financially, he said.

Rosemont Community Retreat House

Bishop of Pennsylvania Daniel Gutiérrez told TLC he has high hopes for the initiative. In the diocese, “if a church dreams, we’ll journey with them, and we’ll try to do everything we can to support and give them the resources,” he said.

Good Shepherd did not need to look far for high-quality retreat leaders. Ellen Charry, a theologian and retired professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, is not just a parishioner at Good Shepherd, but one of the wardens. (Charry also is an associate editor of The Living Church, and writes a regular column for the magazine.)

The Rev. Sarah Coakley is a retired professor of divinity at Cambridge University. She is not a parishioner, but made the trip to Good Shepherd to lead a retreat and preach a Sunday sermon. Babin was an organist and music director before discerning a call to ordained ministry, and he remains active in the Association of Anglican Musicians, which has led to a number of retreats with programs based on sacred music.

In November, less than four months before his death, former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who lived in Philadelphia, led a retreat on “The Mutual Ministry of Priest and Musician.” He was not a musician, but “he’s been a friend of this parish for some time. When he was first ordained a curate, he was stationed at a nearby parish, and he would say a Mass here — you know, daily Mass during the week. And since I’ve been here, he’s been a supporter of this parish trying to get back on its feet again,” Babin said. “He was with us for the Great Vigil of Easter my first year here, and when I had COVID once, he filled in for me.”

Good Shepherd has a variety of daylong and multiday retreats scheduled well into 2024. The retreat center also is available for less-structured or individual retreats, and will contract with Hosts for Hospitals to provide lodging for families seeking medical care in the greater Philadelphia region. Retreatants can participate in some form of organized worship services every day of the week, including Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Masses.

The retreat house has no staff. Babin does much of the administrative work, and one of the wardens, Don McCown, “has been really heavily invested in this,” Babin said. He acknowledges that the business model can’t be sustained for the long haul, and the church is developing a plan for a separate nonprofit organization. “We didn’t feel like we can afford to wait until that was in place,” he said. “We’re called to take risks that are scary.”

Membership at Good Shepherd has grown coming out of the pandemic, albeit from a modest base, and Babin hopes the retreat house will help broaden the church’s ties to the community.

A recent retreat titled “Praying Twice: Chanting for the Church and for the Self”

The parish is working to recover from a turbulent past, as Good Shepherd and its former rector played a prominent role in the conflict that engulfed the broader church.

The rector at the time, David Moyer, feuded with Bishop of Pennsylvania Charles Bennison Jr. over the latter’s support for female clergy and same-sex marriage, and other doctrinal issues. The parish refused to allow Bennison or his predecessor to make canonically required visitation, and stopped paying its assessment to the diocese.

Bennison deposed Moyer from ordained ministry in 2002 for rejecting the discipline of his bishop and the Episcopal Church, but Moyer and his congregation refused to recognize the action, and continued operations through nearly a decade of litigation. Along the way, Moyer was named a bishop in the Traditional Anglican Communion, and served for a time as president of Forward in Faith North America, which helped organize opposition to the Episcopal Church.

(Bennison himself was deposed in 2008 for failing to respond adequately to allegations of sexual misconduct in the 1970s by his brother, who was a youth minister at the California church where Bennison then served as rector. Nearly two years later, a church appeals court reversed the decision and reinstated Bennison, who returned to lead the diocese for two more years. That’s a story for another day.)

Good Shepherd is attempting to thrive as a very different parish. The congregation no longer opposes same-sex marriage — Babin lives in the rectory with his husband, Robert McCormick, who is organist and choirmaster at a Philadelphia church.

“God is enabling a new creation in this parish, I really believe that,” Babin said. “God hasn’t given up on this parish.”


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