Retreat History

Bell TowerIn 1947, the Franciscans purchased 73 acres and the main buildings of what had been Rancho San Justo. They had wanted to expand their men’s retreat ministry beyond their existing operation in Malibu, CA for some time and this afforded them the opportunity.

At first, guests and friars shared accommodations in the large ranch house that had initially been built to house three families. But by the early 1950’s sixteen guest rooms were completed and named “St. Francis Court.” Each room had its own bathroom and individual room heater. The Ranch House served as the dining facility and an open-air porch on the second floor was enclosed and converted into a Chapel for Mass and conferences.

In the late 1950’s the lower building was completed with a large Chapel, Side Chapels, Fireside Lounge and 42 additional guest rooms. This was to accommodate the growing number of retreatants from the Monterey, San Jose and San Joaquin Valley areas.

By the end of the 1960’s the Catholic Church was experiencing tremendous change and it had a profound effect on the retreat. With men’s groups in parishes dwindling, attendance at the yearly cycle of men’s retreat dropped off drastically. A decision was made to open the doors to couples, women’s groups, and members of other faith traditions.

By the 1990’s a diverse mixture of people and groups brought more than 7,000 guests a year to this serene location. While the majority of groups were associated with the Catholic Church, almost a quarter of our guests came from other religious denominations and traditions. A smaller portion represented non-profits serving other needs from recovery to self-help groups, and from schools and institutes to quilters and artists.

In 2006 a tragic fire demolished the Victorian Ranch House which had served multiple needs: food service, conference room, offices, bookstore, and residence for the friars. Everything was lost except some artwork brought out of the building as it burned. Temporary buildings will brought in and the retreat ministry continued, somewhat reduced in numbers by the changing conditions.

By 2009, with the gifts of many donors and a generous loan from the Diocese of Monterey, a new center was opened, replacing food service, a conference room, gift shop and offices.
The retreat continues to serve a diverse community of groups and individuals with attendance once again well over 7,000 guests per year.

Rancho San Justo and Flint Bixby and Co.

St. Francis retreat is located on a parcel of what once was one of the three initial Mission San Juan Bautista Ranchos, Rancho San Justo. After the decree of secularization in 1832 the land was confiscated and given to General Jose Castro who in turn sold it to Francisco P. Pacheco for $1,400. In October 1855, Flint, Bixby and Co. purchased the ranch, now 35,000 acres, for $25,000. 21,000 acres were sold to Colonel Hollister.

st-francis-retreat-historyThe company consisted of two brothers, Dr. Thomas Flint and Benjamin Flint, and a cousin named Llewellyn Bixby. Their fortune was made by bringing massive flocks of sheep across the Rockies and selling the meat to the gold miners and fleece to the mills back East. Their holdings included not only Rancho San Justo, but property in the vicinity of Bakersfield, all of what is now Long Beach, Signal Hill, and the Coast Line Stage running from San Jose to San Diego. The company headquarters stayed at Rancho San Justo for 40 years.

The Victorian Ranch House was built in the style of the grand homes “back home” in Maine and was designed with three sets of family apartments and a common kitchen, dining room, parlor and office. It was completed in 1863. All of the millwork was shipped around the Horn. Bathrooms were added in 1870! Each wife took charge of the housekeeping for a month. “Inevitably, the communal plan could not but fail to be altogether ideal.” (Quotation from “Adobe Days” by Sarah Bixby.) This communal life lasted 15 years.

After Llewellyn Bixby’s death 1896, the Flint Bixby and Co. was dissolved and the properties separated. The Flints retrained the lands in the North and the Bixby heirs, those to the south. Ultimately the Ben Flints took up residence in Oakland, leaving the Dr. Flint family on the Rancho.

Due to bad investments, the Rancho had dwindled to 2,400 acres by the time it was sold to Mme. Leila Butler Hedges in 1922 for $150,000. She modernized the Ranch House and built 20 foot additions to each end of the original building. The east addition included her private quarters and an open air sun porch up stairs. The west addition included a new kitchen, dining room and state of the art heating and refrigeration.

In 1947 the Franciscan Friars of California purchased 73 acres and the main buildings of the Rancho from the Hedges estate for $100,000 and opened St. Francis Retreat.