Joe Ricketts' passion project, a 931-acre religious retreat on the Platte, has a chapel, 7 lodges and a 2,500-foot walk

Omaha World Herald By Hailey Konnath / World-Herald staff writer Jun 12, 2017

Walking up a stone path beneath a canopy of green leaves, billionaire Joe Ricketts rattles off all the places he splits his time. He’s a resident of Wyoming. His work takes him to New York, Illinois, Colorado and across the border to Canada. Work and family pull him to Nebraska, too. But it’s his faith and a passion project years in the making that bring him to this wooded hilltop near the Platte River on a warm Wednesday afternoon in early June.

“For me personally, walking through the forest allows me a sense of greater communication with the Lord,” said Ricketts, who founded Omaha’s TD Ameritrade and is the father of Gov. Pete Ricketts. “I feel better praying when I’m in the forest, when I’m in the woods.”

That desire to bolster his spiritual health through nature — and a hope to share that experience with others — is why Ricketts is building this sprawling religious retreat on 931 acres off Nebraska Highway 31 and Fishery Road.

The Cloisters on the Platte will cost at least $20 million, according to building permits filed with Sarpy County. The land cost Ricketts an additional $13.6 million in 2014. He declined to offer a total cost estimate for the whole undertaking.

The project isn’t seeking property tax exemption, project organizers said.

On this particular Wednesday, about 300 workers were on-site. But by the time the dust settles, about 700 construction workers, 100 subcontractors and suppliers, and three general contractors will have had their hands on the project, said Kurt Halvorson, project manager.

“It’s like building a small city,” Ricketts said. “We have to put in our roads, our own sewers.”

The retreat center isn’t set to open for about a year, but its buildings and grounds are beginning to take shape. A drive up a winding dirt road affords glimpses of work on a gatehouse and an underground parking garage. Round the bend and atop a hill there’s the chapel, modeled after St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Omaha, and the main retreat center building. To the north, seven guest lodges fan out from the main campus. In a nearby forest, a path winds around cement platforms that will one day be adorned with sculptures marking the Stations of the Cross.

Each of the seven lodges will have 10 bedrooms and a living room, but each building is also unique, designed by a different architect and different interior decorator. The chapel will feature easy chairs and kneelers for attendees. Walking trails will allow people to explore the grounds.

But the facilities, while beautiful, should not be the focus, Ricketts said. It’s about the retreats.

The Cloisters on the Platte will host retreats of up to 80 men or women each weekend, 47 weekends a year. The retreats will be gender specific and silent.

“People will come here to enhance their spiritual life, to make it deeper,” Ricketts said. “And really to make that whole aspect of their lives healthier.”

The retreat center site is across the river from Mahoney State Park. It’s remote enough that you can’t hear the Interstate in the summer but accessible enough that it’s an easy drive for people in Omaha or Lincoln.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” Ricketts said.

Retreat attendees can go to Mass, confession, benediction and lectures, as well as meet with spiritual directors for people who want to have one-on-one consultation. But people are allowed a lot of time to be by themselves, Ricketts said. The experience centers on meditation and contemplation.

And if you’re caught talking? You get the boot, Ricketts said.

The operation will employ about 20 people — office staff, groundskeepers, kitchen and cleaning staff. Retreat leaders will be volunteers and will come and go throughout the year.

The Stations of the Cross walk will span 2,500 feet — the length Jesus is said to have walked on His way to the cross — and it’s poised to be the biggest Stations of the Cross in the world.

Nine sculptors around the country are working on the massive and ornate bronze sculptures that will mark each station. The sculptors are working in Oregon, California and Colorado, and they’ve spent two years already working on the pieces.

The Stations of the Cross will be open to the public Monday through Thursday, Ricketts said, and it may have an international draw. He’s already gotten inquiries about it from people in Europe and Asia.

Marketing efforts have been successful, Ricketts said. A letter sent in March to area Catholics requested that people mail in cards expressing interest in attending one of the center’s retreats. About 6,500 people from Omaha and elsewhere have sent in those cards or have indicated online that they have interest in visiting the retreat center or getting more information.

The target community is Catholics in the Midwest, but anyone of any faith from any place is welcome to attend a retreat, Ricketts said.

As the retreat center is being built, The Cloisters on the Platte Foundation is hosting retreats at other retreat centers around the metro. But even once The Cloisters site is done, those centers won’t be considered competition, Ricketts said.

“The Ignatian retreat is special and unique,” he said. “Putting this facility here isn’t going to have any effect on the other ones. They’re here for different reasons. They fulfill a different need.”

There are 25 other Ignatian retreat centers around the United States, according to Jesuit.org. The Cloisters on the Platte is unique in that Ricketts is building it independently. Normally, Jesuits establish the retreat centers.

Halvorson sends Ricketts videos filmed by drones to keep him apprised of site progress when he’s not in town, but Ricketts makes a point of visiting the site every few weeks.

“He loves this project,” Halvorson said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ricketts stood among the trees and detailed another component of his project: returning the land to its natural habitat. His crews have removed cedar trees. They’re bringing in prairie grass and planting more trees in the forest. They hope to attract native wildlife.

The forest is beautiful, he said. Despite the clanging, drilling and occasional yelling of the construction effort, the wooded area is mostly quiet.

“I think it’s kind of healthy for people to think ‘Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? What are the most important things to me in my life, and what are the least important things in my life?’ ” Ricketts said. “You need that environment that leads to contemplation in order to work.”

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