Utica native, 30, tunes into ‘what God’s plan really is for our life’
By Tom Maguire | Associate editor
The night was so celebratory that the new dynamo at the retreat house thought about doing a cannonball into the pool with his suit on.
But for Chris Spilka, deeper things are going on there than a dive into the 11-foot section: “good speakers, good events, good retreats.”
He spoke July 18 at the 75th anniversary dinner for Christ the King Retreat House and Conference Center, where he started as the executive director on April 1. Since then, Spilka, 30, has faced this question most often:
“‘Are you a seminarian or are you a priest?’ So I have to explain to people I’m the first lay director … and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, so you’re not Father Rose,’ and I’m like, listen: I know Father Rose is a handsome older guy, but for me … it’s cool to be the first new lay director and to try to do things.”
Father John Rose, who has retired, served as CTK’s executive director from 2013 until Spilka arrived. “Father Rose left such a great legacy of retreats and being with the people and he’s such an amazing priest that I have a lot to live up to,” Spilka said.
WHAT ‘CLINCHED THE DEAL’
CTK’s board had spent months and months culling a large collection of resumes to find someone to succeed Father Rose. Board Chairman Joseph Geglia repeated what he had said about the selection of Spilka:
“We can teach him the business part of it, we can teach him the marketing, communications; we can teach him all that stuff.
“We can’t teach him passion. And he’s got that. … That was really what clinched the deal.”
Spilka grew up in Utica (“love it out there, they have the best food in the country”) as a cradle Catholic. He graduated from SUNY Oswego with a degree in public relations and “dabbled a little bit with telemarketing.”
His next job, event management at Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, included bringing in bands from around the country. Even though a casino includes slot machines and gaming tables, Spilka said, people at Turning Stone are “still looking for that happiness, right?. …
“And I think people when they come here … on a retreat, they’re looking for happiness, they’re looking for purpose, they’re looking for someone to guide them in the right direction.”
After leaving Turning Stone, he directed the youth ministry at Holy Family Church in Fairmount for four and a half years. At a Steubenville youth conference in Ohio he experienced this: “having God feel like him physically inside you and changing your life and molding you to what you’re supposed to be. …
“I know the value of retreats, so I know what this retreat center means for people, ’cause it means so much to me.”
He is “trying to cover every demographic” for retreats.
For example, CTK’s board recently approved overnight retreats for youth, “which is really, really great,” Spilka said, “and I’m looking to try to bring that youthful-type atmosphere to the facility in general.”
He added: “I think our youth are yearning for Christ in such a deep and intimate way, but they can’t find it because there are certain things in life that are blocking them, especially with social media and media outlets preventing them from seeing that.”
A second focus is continuing to develop CTK’s relationship with Le Moyne College by working with the Jesuits to bring in Ignatian retreats — the idea of finding God in everything.
A third focus is attracting more groups on weekdays — perhaps corporate groups or parishes for staff-building sessions; weekends at CTK are booked through 2021.
Next year CTK will offer three young-adult events: activities for adults 18 to 30 on two holy days, and also a Friday-Saturday retreat next summer with Father Jason Hage. “It’s 24 hours for young adults to praise the Lord,” Spilka said.
Coming up in September at CTK is a Spirituality of Aging event with Deacon Robert Fangio, DDS, who retired from his fulltime dental practice but volunteers at Amaus Dental Services, a free clinic in Syracuse.
Also, Spilka is thinking about having an empty-nester retreat for parents. “They lose those kids coming out of college and they’re gone,” he said, “and what do we do next for parents and middle-age adults?”
And even though Father Rose is retired, he is “here all the time. He’s a spiritual director, he’s constantly helping people on different retreats. He stops in and he’s always waving to say hello.
“He’ll say to me: ‘Chris, you need to move this in the garden, you need to do this with the garden’ because he’s a huge gardener.
“So he looks around, he’s like: ‘Chris, you need to get better with your gardening skills.”
Don’t be surprised if he cannonballs right into that garden.