When Gene Croisant was a junior studying business at Loyola University, he and his classmates had a choice to do the mandatory retreat at the Madonna Della Strada Chapel on campus or explore another opportunity. His best friend invited Gene to join him on a silent retreat at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House far from the city. He was initially skeptical and had zero expectations. It certainly never crossed his mind that the weekend could change the course of his life.
“I thought I would go crazy from the quiet,” says Gene.
That was sixty-three years ago. Now retired and living with his wife Barbara in Carefree, Arizona, Gene says he is feeling reflective— and grateful for the events and miracles that resulted since he reluctantly told his buddy, “Okay, I’ll try it.”
A Very Important Part of My Life
Since that weekend in 1957, the father of two and grandfather of five has attended 58 retreats at Bellarmine and served on the board of directors for 15 years. “It has become a very important part of my life,” he says.
A former Infantry Captain with the United States Army, Gene was instrumental in launching Bellarmine’s “Coming Home” retreats. The retreats have helped military men and women just like him reflect on the transitions to and from military life and find deeper meaning and direction in their lives from that experience.
“It’s funny, but in the quiet of Bellarmine that weekend in college, I felt like I knew where I belonged for the first time,” says Gene, who was raised in the Marquette neighborhood on the Southwest side of Chicago. His father died when Gene was 10. When he received a scholarship to Loyola, it was the first parochial school Gene had ever attended, as his family was not Catholic. “Somehow I found God and His role in my life. I found the retreat exceptionally valuable. I’ve continued the love for Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuits through my whole life.”
A year after he graduated from Loyola, Gene became a Catholic.
For the next six plus decades, Gene forged a brilliant career in banking. He served on the cabinet selection committee for Gov. James Thompson; was a member of the Illinois Commission to investigate welfare fraud; a trustee and chairman of the finance and development committees for Loyola University; an associate of the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute and vice president of the American Bankers Association. He was brought in by the George H.W. Bush administration to do a major review of White House organization and operations. Gene was an Executive Vice President and Chief of Operations for Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company and an Executive Vice President of RJR Nabisco.
A Spiritual Mission
But it is not in these successes and milestones that Gene sees his legacy. Early on in his career, he started finding his true purpose on the sidelines of his roles in the business world. That yearning, he says, was inspired by the Ignatian call to “be a person for others,” a mission gifted to him through his Bellarmine retreat experiences.
“The Jesuits have inspired me to ask myself how I can best use my talents,” he says. “The retreats gave me a sense of mission that it’s not so much about the business, but your spiritual life. It is my responsibility to contribute to the well-being of others and, ultimately, society. For me, it means working to support Jesuit organizations and Bellarmine to create education and retreat experiences for others.”
In addition to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, at the heart of Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House is “the quietness, the opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle and have time to reflect,” he says.
“It’s a time for a reassessment, to ask and to listen to Christ’s influence in your life and examine where you are and where you are going,” says Gene. “I’ve found that on retreat, the Holy Spirit works on me when I am open to listening. Even though we (attendees) don’t talk to each other, I’ve seen how this breaks through to people on the retreats. You see the tears falling down their cheeks and I’ve seen people who come back 17 or 18 times because they’ve had such a positive experience.”
Leaning on Prayer
Almost 20 years ago, when Gene’s wife of 55 years, Barbara, was diagnosed with colon cancer that had metastasized to her liver, the invasive disease snuck up on the couple and struck hard. They turned to Bellarmine and prayer throughout their emotional journey. At the time, Fr. John Dillon, SJ, who served as Bellarmine's Director from 1999 – 2006, remembered the couple every day in prayer.
She has been cancer free for 19 years.
“It was truly a miracle,” says Gene. “There is no question that she was healed as a result of prayer.”
These days, the couple find themselves in the position to make change and support other patients. They both volunteer a couple times a week at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, AZ.
Gene brings his Wheaten Terrier, “Tinker,” to the chemotherapy clinic to help bring comfort to the 40 to 50 patients being treated for cancer.
“When I was a kid, my mom would always tell me I would be sold to the Tinkers if I was bad,” says Gene, about the Irish itinerant travelers. “Now Tinker makes the rounds and goes to town around the room. Many people will then tell me about the kind of dog they had as a kid or something about their childhood and school they went to. When the conversation takes a Jesuit turn, I ask if it is okay if I can pray for them in my nightly prayers with my wife that evening. I’ve learned throughout my life that we can get through anything with prayer, that we have to rely on the Holy Spirit.”
Seeing What is Possible
After a lifetime inspired by his college retreat at Bellarmine, Gene was especially touched a couple years ago at the funeral of the friend who invited him to that experience. There, his friend’s widow presented Gene with a pocket notebook with the Bellarmine logo. It was the notebook given to all the retreatants on that first college retreat. In it his friend had described how special it was to be attending with good friends and had asked his friends to sign their names. There, scrawled in his own handwriting: “Gene Croisant.”
“That retreat helped me see what was possible for my life,” says Gene.