Celebrating family life on hallowed ground

December 22, 2020

Pilgrim geese grace the Circle Lake Retreat Center grounds. (Photo courtesy of Circle Lake Retreat Center)

PINEHURST — On a secluded 45-acre tract of piney woods northwest of Houston is a hidden retreat center where families and friends have come together to laugh, play, pray and experience life together in a safe, quiet environment for close to 20 years.

Circle Lake Retreat Center (CLR), a hidden gem available to friends and family of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, has been a place of hallowed ground where the spirit of family continues to thrive.

“The greatest blessing of Circle Lake is the experience of those that have gathered together two miles into our piney woods without the distractions of city life,” said Gloria Bustillo, director of CLR since 2014. “The peace and quiet slow the pace for individuals when they take the time to just be together in the outdoors, while still having the amenities of household comforts.”

CLR is a hosting facility providing landscaped gardens, eight stocked lakes and wildlife. Available for rent are 14 fully furnished homes, each with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The facility is used for large family reunions and retreats hosted by parishes and Catholic schools in the Archdiocese, including retreats for men, women, couples, families, sacramental preparation and youth activities. The grounds are developed for nature walks, canoeing and fishing, various outdoor activities, including lawn sports and cycling, a fire pit for singing or storytelling, and a large outdoor film screen for nightly movies.

Bustillo said the underlying goal of each retreat is to build the desire of each member to be a part of a strong family unit.

“In order to achieve that, individuals must first find that love and spirituality within themselves as husbands, wives, youth, grandparents, support groups, etc.,” said Bustillo. “Through that experience, a family grows closer together to fully experience the need for one another.”

Monica Torrez’s family has utilized the facilities at CLR for over a decade. He said the most beautiful and the most tragic times in his life have been shared with family on these retreat grounds, which have provided opportunities to heal.

“As family, we have gathered to give thanks at Thanksgiving, to heal after losing parents, and to share tears after losing a child,” said Torrez. “Circle Lake is a place you go to when you need the Holy Spirit to feed your soul during the good times and bad. Family is where we thrive and survive, and flourish in God’s love for us.”

Torrez said when one makes the turn off SH 249 onto Circle Lake Drive, something special happens.

“You get a warm feeling in your heart and feel the distractions and pressure of life melting away,” said Torrez. “Everything and everyone in the car are getting quieter and quieter, and when I look at the faces of my precious family, we’re all smiling. That’s what happens to family at Circle Lake... we love.”

The original concept for this retreat center that focuses on family spirituality like the Torrez’s was formed in 1997.

Bustillo said she and a group of lay Catholics living in Houston were assigned by then-Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza with the task of creating the vision and development of this large tract of land donated by the Marek Brothers.

“When Archbishop Fiorenza approached me about the retreat center idea and said I would be working with Ralph Marek, I was stunned,” said Bustillo. “Anyone that knew Archbishop Fiorenza and Ralph Marek truly experienced the power of the Holy Spirit working through human hands. I was humbled by this opportunity and felt that God had given me so many incredible opportunities through my family, life and career.”

Bustillo said the day she set foot on this hallowed ground, greeted by Marek, will always be at the top of her list as one of the best days of her life.

“Working closely side-by-side with my two mentors had me thinking that I must have done something good in my life to have this honor,” said Bustillo. “With every weed we pulled, nail we hammered, rock we placed and prayer we recited, the staff, volunteers and family of Circle Lake understood the significance of what would become this special place in the heart of the Archdiocese.”​

As one of more than 60 ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), Bustillo said without the monetary contributions of generous donors, it would be difficult to help individuals of more modest means. She said it is very costly to operate a facility the size of Circle Lake, and for some parishes and families, the fees can seem cost-prohibitive.

“CLR is the jewel of the Archdiocese, and it belongs to those who seek it,” said Bustillo.

“Everyone has a need to feel the sense of security, peace and spirituality that is so readily found at CLR. This facility has an incredible healing power for individuals seeking a ‘place to get away from it all,’ and by supporting this ministry financially through the DSF, you make it possible for the Archdiocese to continue to cover the heavy financial burden of operating the facility and making it more affordable to all.”

Torrez agrees that all families should have the opportunity to serve or be served through ministries like Circle Lake, and supporting the DSF is a critical component.
“DSF is God’s way of using our hearts and hands as vessels of His love and compassion,” said Torrez.

Bustillo said because of DSF support, CLR has been able to make a tremendous difference in the lives of families in the Archdiocese. Bustillo said she is grateful to have been a part of its original formation over two decades ago.

“While out wearing a CLR staff shirt, I’ve been stopped by individuals who ask about the retreat center and the Marek family,” said Bustillo. “It warms my heart to see the significance of the impact that CLR has had on the Houston community. Many of the people I speak with say CLR has had an enormous impact on their childhood, and they remember many a happy time with their families celebrating life on this hallowed ground.”

Though COVID-19 mandates have restricted programs and services offered at CLR, Bustillo said interested families and parishes may continue to inquire about opportunities by calling 281-356-6764 or emailing gbustillo@archgh.org. †