A jaunt down Fishery Road, a windy, gravel side street near the Platte River, affords views of tall trees, rolling hills and Interstate 80 — and not much else. But beyond the “no trespassing” signs lining the road, work is well underway on the sprawling religious retreat being built by billionaire Joe Ricketts.
The Cloisters on the Platte, situated roughly between I-80 on the west and Nebraska Highway 31 on the east, is a nearly 1,000-acre undertaking. That’s larger than Mahoney State Park, its neighbor across the river.
A letter sent recently to area Catholics boasted of plans for the facility and the retreats it will offer when it opens in summer 2018. It also requested that people mail in cards expressing interest in attending one of the center’s future, gender-specific retreats.
“We look forward to sharing this transformative experience with you,” the letter reads. It is signed by Ricketts, who founded Omaha’s TD Ameritrade and is the father of Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Although Ricketts isn’t disclosing the cost of construction, the retreat center will be enormous. The land alone cost $13.6 million when The Cloisters on the Platte Foundation, founded by Ricketts, purchased it back in late 2014.
Plans for the campus include seven guest lodges, each with 10 private bedrooms and private bathrooms. A chapel, retreat center building and courtyard are to serve as common areas. The facilities are designed to accommodate up to 80 men or women at a time.
Guests will park in an underground parking garage and take shuttles to the main campus.
The property is 931 acres of hilly terrain intermingled with farmland. The grounds will feature two lakes, nature trails and a Stations of the Cross walk that spans roughly 2,500 feet, the length Jesus is said to have walked in Jerusalem. The Stations of the Cross walk includes all 14 stations, designed by sculptors, and a 140-foot pedestrian bridge through the trees.
Land outside the formal retreat site will be returned to its natural habitat to attract wildlife.
“I feel closer to God when I am among nature’s beauty, so I’ve made it a priority ... to unite the land and the spiritual experience,” Ricketts told The World-Herald on Thursday.
Construction began in 2015 and is on schedule, a project spokesman said. According to the project’s website, the chapel is taking shape. Inspired by St. Margaret Mary Church in Omaha, that building has a 400-pound cross perched atop its vaulted roof.
The parking garage is finished, and work on the lodges, retreat center building and a gatehouse is underway.
“It’s busy and hopping right now with a lot of noise,” said senior architect Doug Peters in a video posted on the site earlier this year. “But it’s all going to settle down and become a quiet, prayerful place.”
The Jesuit-inspired retreats will be gender-specific and mostly silent. While they’ll follow the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, attendees of any religion are welcome, Ricketts has said.
Ricketts’ nonprofit foundation for the center is not only footing the bill for construction, but it will also pay operating costs. That amount won’t be figured until the end of 2018, after the first retreats have been held, the spokesman said. Retreat attendees will be encouraged to make a voluntary donation to help defray the costs, he said.
The Cloisters on the Platte is already hosting retreats at alternate sites while the center is being built. Seven retreats are on deck for the remainder of this year and early 2018 before the center is open. Most are full.
The foundation will ultimately be managed by a board of directors. The board is to be assembled once construction is wrapped up.
Ricketts has attended a Jesuit retreat near Minneapolis since the late 1990s. Building a similar retreat center is a longtime dream of his.
The most important aspect of the retreat center will be its quiet environment, he said.
“No retreat center has been built in a long while,” Ricketts said. “And now more than ever, I believe people need the chance to stay connected to their spirituality and relationship with God.”