Working wonders at St. Gregory’s
Legates’ addiction-treatment program helps people be who God calls them to be . . .
by Matthew A. Rarey
Barb Conner was in a “dark place” in 2008 when she boarded the plane in Boston and alighted in Iowa. Drinking, complicated by “unresolved issues,” had taken her life in a downward spiral. She had tried AA but found its approach “very negative,” regarding alcoholism as a disease and addiction as a permanent condition.
Her husband and daughters had desperately helped her research treatment options. Online they discovered St. Gregory Retreat Centers, which experts have touted as the most advanced, comprehensive alcohol and drug addiction recovery program in America. They spoke with co-founder Rose Marie Vasquez, who assured them that help was available.
“I was fearful about going,” Conner admitted. “But I found St. Gregory to be a truly peaceful place. They treat the whole person and take an honest approach to substance abuse: that it’s by choice that we drink abusively and that we need to get to the bottom of the reasons we do.”
From tragedy, inspiration
Michael and Rose Marie Vasquez, members of Legatus’ Des Moines Chapter, founded St. Gregory Retreat Centers in answer to a need discerned in tragedy.
“A dear friend of our son’s had a big problem with methamphetamines,” Rose Marie remembered. “We explored a normal course in substance-abuse treatment for him, but saw lots of holes in how it works.” Although the young man did well for a while, he got back on meth and died in a car wreck.
“But through that tragedy Michael and I felt inspiration: that God was calling us to found a place with a new standard of treatment – one that moved beyond addiction and empowered people to be who God wants them to be.”
The couple was in a position to do so, having recently sold their health care company. “Our first step,” Michael said, “was asking, what are the best treatment approaches out there and how can we build something new and better based upon research that proved successful?”
The St. Gregory model is built on the fact that the body goes through a level of chemical dependency, which has a psycho-social impact. “Once you become dependent on a drug, it ends up forming your values system,” Michael explained. “When treatment starts to pull that dependency away, you need to jump in and not only physically get a person off dependency, but change their thinking and rebuild their virtues and values so they can get to the point of making good decisions.”
Since 2006, St. Gregory patients have gone through a seven-week program of neuropsychological repair, behavior-modification training, life-skills exercises, and cognitive behavior therapy in a format not available through any other program in America. St. Gregory’s is state-licensed, internationally accredited and accepts health insurance. Its staff of over 100 can accommodate over 100 guests at its two single-sex residential-living retreat centers.
The Vasquezes named their venture after St. Gregory the Wonder Worker, a third-century bishop renowned for miraculous cures and conversions. They see a source of wonder in their patients as well: While the national average success rate one year after leaving a substance-abuse treatment program is only 12%, their program has maintained a 70% success rate over the last four years.
Medical director Dr. Charles V. Wadle says he’s proud of the Center’s new initiative called Harbor View Medical, a specialty clinic for people addicted to pain killers and prescription drugs.
“We’re dealing with a national epidemic of doctors over-prescribing medicines that can lead to abuse or dependence,” he said, noting that the majority of St. Gregory patients abuse drugs or alcohol versus being physically, although not necessarily psychologically, dependent upon them.
Randy Kiel, founder of Kardia Counseling, shares in Wadle’s concern. A mental-health counselor with a private psychotherapy practice in the Des Moines area, he has referred his own patients to St. Gregory’s and provided post-treatment counseling for those who have completed the program.
“St. Gregory moves peoples’ minds and spirits and brain structure into accommodating a different disposition of living,” Kiel said. “They help people get away from that one-day-away-from-addiction mindset relapse. Addiction doesn’t represent a true mindset. It’s a disorder to recover from, not a condition to suffer from your whole life.”
The program is also special because of its Catholicity, Kiel continued. “They offer grace at St. Gregory. They give people the room to receive an invitation to addressing the spiritual element of their persons. This is a genuinely Catholic approach, subtle but strong.”
Only about 30% of St. Gregory patients have identified themselves as Catholic. But the faith, though not a part of the formal treatment program, is omnipresent. Two deacons are on staff and a full-time chaplain has just been assigned to celebrate the sacraments, including daily Mass at the retreat house chapels. And in August, three Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary with backgrounds in nursing, social work and theological formation moved into their new convent on the women’s campus.
Proposing, not imposing
This exposure to religion, Wadle said, lends the Centers a “therapeutic reality” even if a patient doesn’t directly engage the faith. However, he has seen the program lead to several conversions and many instances of fallen-away Catholics “re-embracing the faith.”
And then there are people like Barb Conners. After her stay, she confided to Rose Marie Vasquez that, although she had embraced sobriety, “something was still missing.” Rose Marie then invited her back for a conference in 2011 about being sober for Christ.
This time she alighted in Iowa not in darkness, but with clouds parted. But the heavens opened wide after she met with a priest and unburdened that remaining unresolved issue impeding her full recovery: 10 years earlier she had painfully agreed to her 15-year-old daughter’s abortion.
“It was a terrible decision I was still blaming myself for,” she said. “I’d pushed it down deep inside and not dealt with it. I came back home joyful and rejuvenated, and since then I’ve been able to talk with the whole family about it. St. Gregory taught me how to be who God really wants me to be. And that gives real peace.”
Matthew A. Rarey is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.
Find out more by contacting St. Gregory’s Retreat Center at (515) 421-4080 or online via their website.