Walking In God’s Country

Blake Steckler of Leopold, 14, led a group of Christians along the Way of the Cross path on Good Friday at God’s Country, a Christian retreat in Perry County. It operates as a nonprofit, St. Joseph’s Holy Family Inc., created in 2001 by the Greg and Elizabeth Haas family and caters to the prayerful in the surrounding area.

Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Matthew Busch

Russell Jaent walks along a trail into the woods to stop at a sign that holds a passage he and his group of 12 sisters and brothers in Christ would meditate on together.

“Hail Mary, full of grace,” they say together as they move to the next sign, “the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”

They complete the first two mysteries of the Joyful Mysteries rosary trail that way, stopping at each sign to read the mystery and speaking together as they move to the next.

The trail is moist and the air a little cool, having just absorbed a late April rainfall. Green trees shade the trail some and birds fill the air with a peaceful melody.

Peace. That’s what the land, God’s Country, holds for the Stephen Ministries group that has traveled from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jasper to the Bristow countryside for a daylong retreat.
“You don’t appreciate this until you come,” says group member Jaent, who adds that this is his first trip to God’s Country. “You hear about it, read about it. But until you come, you can’t know how wonderful it is. This place is amazing.”

Retired priest Father Jean Vogler of Santa Claus, middle, got a bite to eat along with other worshippers at lunch during a First Saturday devotion at God’s Country on May 4. Special prayer gatherings are held at God’s Country on the first Saturday of each month. They include a Mass, confession, prayer talks and often food.

Stephen ministers provide comfort and friendship to those in need. The Jasper group members were at God’s Country to rejuvenate themselves.

“The daily Christian life is a life of spiritual combat,” says Mark Ginter, president of St. Joseph’s Holy Family Inc., the nonprofit organization that runs God’s Country. “We are engaged every day in principalities and powers that are not flesh and blood. We need places to retreat from the everyday combat to do three things: to regroup, to attend to the wounded and to commend those who have gone before us.”

The 32-acre God’s Country started as part of a 200-acre family farm retreat owned by Joseph Uebelhor, a very strong Catholic. He built a grotto to Our Lady of Grace in 1980 and his descendants saw the farm as a sacred place.

When he died Sept. 23, 1997, his farm was split among his children, and his daughter, Joanne Haas, decided to name her acreage “God’s Country.”

“Joseph Uebelhor would say to this family, who all lived in the Evansville/Newburgh/Anderson area, ”˜Let’s go to the country. Let’s go to God’s country,’” Ginter says, “so it was logical.” The rest of the land is known as Uebelhor Ridge and is private property owned by other members of the family.

Greg Haas, Joanne’s son, and his wife, Elizabeth, were devout Catholics like Greg’s parents and grandparents, and felt the land to be a special place. Greg discovered that even more deeply after going to Conyers, Ga., in November 1993. A woman had reported seeing Mary at her farmhouse there at the noon hour several times between 1990 and 1994 and people flocked to the area to see if that would happen again. Greg and Elizabeth, their children, Greg’s siblings and their children were among the pilgrims who made the trip to Georgia.

“I remember looking at my watch at 12 noon; it was real cloudy and foggy, like the clouds were almost touching the ground,” Greg says. “I got on my knees, and the clouds separated like a curtain and I seen the glorious cross in the sky.”

Ginter hung a cloth representing the Christian relic the Shroud of Turin for the Way of the Cross on Good Friday.

That led him and his family to pray the rosary and while they were praying, Greg remembered a vision he had as a child. “It didn’t come back to me until that moment in time,” he says, “and I was in my 30s then.”

As a 12-year-old boy, Greg had a vision on Easter of a field on his grandfather’s farm that was wooded at the time. “The field was clear,” he says, “And it was full of people praying Our Fathers and Hail Marys.”

When Greg realized that, he knew that he had to do something at his grandfather’s farm. At the Conyers site, the Way of the Cross was established, using plaques for people to walk to and view.

“I decided that I wanted to do that for my grandpa as a Christmas present,” Greg says. “But instead of the Way of the Cross, I decided to do each bead of the rosary.” At that time, there were three sets of mysteries — Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious — and each set has 50 Hail Marys. So that meant he would construct 150 plaques. He decided to station them along three trails on the farm, each trail being its own set of mysteries.

With the help of his wife, his children and his two brothers, Greg accomplished his task in 1994 and got to take his grandfather around to see the four and half miles of trails before he died.

Greg kept adding on to the land. He ended up creating the Way of the Cross trail, and a chapel in 1995. As he worked on one project, other ideas came to mind for other sacred areas.

“I knew what I wanted to do, but I never put it down on paper,” Greg says. “It just came together and when I needed help, people just fell into place.”

“God put them in place,” Elizabeth adds.

Today, God’s Country includes the complete Joyful and Sorrowful Mysteries rosary trails and a piece of the Glorious Mysteries trail; the rest is on private property. Many other components have been added. Annunciation Wall, Visitation Falls, Visitation Cave and Nativity Cave are along the Joyful Mysteries rosary trail. Agony Garden and a tomb are on the Sorrowful Mysteries trail. The land also has Joseph’s Our Lady of Grace Grotto as well as Sacred Heart Chapel, gazebo, Ten Commandments stones, Mercy Falls, St. Michael Statue and Gardener’s House that has an oversize cross lying in front of it.

Bev Himsel of Ireland, left, and Cindy Kluemper of Jasper hammered nails into the Old Rugged Cross that rests on the grounds during a retreat April 27. The nails represent sins and anxieties. “This is the place for you to leave it behind,” God’s Country Director Mark Ginter says.

The area is surrounded by farmland and woods. The only sounds that can be heard are birds chirping, small animals scurrying around and breezes ruffling the leaves of trees. The modern world makes no intrusion into the serenity.

“We know that persons are inclined toward conversions when they step out of their routine to a place that’s special,” Ginter says, “We believe that the mission of the church can be better met when the members of the church undergo these conversions, so as to be more effective disciples and more enthusiastic apostles. That’s why we need a place for retreat.”

God’s Country is known for its First Saturday sessions, which occur every month. The daylong events are open to the public.

The concept came from Joanne Haas, who read the story of Our Lady of Fatima of Portugal. Witnesses reported seeing Mary in Fatima on the 13th of each month for six months starting May 13, 1917. They said that Mary told them to honor her son for five First Saturdays in a row.

Around the time Joanne read the story, Greg and Elizabeth were thinking about establishing a nonprofit organization to encourage people to visit God’s Country. Joanne suggested they hold First Saturday devotions as a spiritual activity. They agreed and started doing so once they established St. Joseph Holy Family in 2001. The First Saturday devotions eventually extended to the first Saturdays of each month year-round.

In 2004, Ginter started speaking at the First Saturday devotion in August. Greg asked him to become director for the site in 2009 and develop a vision for it.

That strategic plan is lengthy and includes having  a complex for overnight accommodations, a café, an outlet store, three more grottoes on the rosary trails and John Paul Institute, a research and education facility where people can earn certifications and degrees. Down the line, Greg also wants to complete an underground trail for the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary.

An old family photograph of Greg Haas, his wife, Elizabeth, and four of their now seven children — Julia, Lucas, Sarah and Aimee — sits in the cabin on the God’s Country property. The Haas family created the nonprofit in 2001. The cabin is used for meals and other gatherings.

The group would like to complete parts, if not all, of this by May 13, 2017, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the Our Lady of Fatima apparitions.

The overnight accommodations, café and institute will not be placed on land that already is part of God’s Country; the group is looking to place those on nearby property that they hope to acquire. “We want to expand,” Ginter says. “But we want to keep this area prayerful, primitive and pristine.”

God’s Country hosts retreats for men, women, students and church groups, like Stephens Ministries. While the focus is on Catholic families, the area is not just for the one faith.

“We welcome anyone who has the respect for God’s nature as we do,” Ginter says. He asks that potential visitors call ahead so that he can be available to guide them around the land so that they do not go onto private property.

The Stephen Ministries group listens to a presentation about Father Joseph Kundek, who was instrumental in establishing the Catholic churches in and south of Dubois County, including St. Joseph Catholic Church, and then treks from the welcome center to the Old Rugged Cross and Gardener’s House southwest of the center.

Volunteers worked with Greg about a year ago to use a couple of fallen trees to build the oversize cross and place it on an oversize stone that Greg had been wanting to use in some capacity. A pail of nails sit nearby.

“St. Paul says that we should nail our sins to the cross,” Ginter says. “That’s the origin of the idea of offering it up, to unite your sufferings to Christ for the sake of redemption.”

“This is the place for you to leave it behind,” Ginter tells the group. “This is where you nail it to the cross and never have to take it with you. It doesn’t matter how many nails you put in. It’s a big cross. There are a lot of places for a lot of nails.

Greg Haas of Newburgh and his wife, Elizabeth, center, joined others in prayer along the Way of the Cross trail at God’s Country on Good Friday. Greg is the grandson of Joseph Ubelhor, a stone mason who built a grotto on the grounds in 1980 and referred to the area as “God’s country” with his family. Ubelhor died in 1997, but his grandson has been improving the grounds ever since and has plans for expansion with new grottoes and trails.

“So after we pray, feel free to leave behind any sins, any anxiety, anything that bothers you,” Ginter encourages. Many do that, including Carol Herzog.

She has been to God’s Country in the past and at times has brought her family with her. “It’s nice to come out here,” she says. “The First Saturdays are nice and intimate. You receive a sense of peace when you can get away from all the distractions of the world. You can focus on your relationship with our Lord and Savior.”

Spending time at God’s Country gives a person a chance to rejuvenate himself and focus solely on God, Jaent says.

“You need a place to go to thank the good Lord and get back on the road to your relationship with God, to your spirituality,” he says. “We all we need to get back to that.

To schedule a visit to God’s Country or to make a donation, call Ginter at 631-2377.

Online: www.stjosephsholyfamily.org.

Contact Candy Neal at cneal@dcherald.com.

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