Marianne Reis, a busy mother of three from Lindstrom, drives to the Benedictine Retreat Center twice a year for a weekend of no phones, no cooking and no family needs.

Jim Bartol, an engineer who works in St. Paul, heads to the center for evening classes such as "The New Retirement."

Helen Wang, a retired physician in Minneapolis, participated in several Presbyterian church retreats at the center.

They're among the thousands of Minnesotans who have made their way to an unlikely weekend destination -- a Benedictine Monastery in Maplewood, which 25 years ago opened its doors to the public.

It was a time when monasteries across the country were grappling with what to do with their spacious buildings as the number of sisters declined. The Benedictine sisters, long a teaching order, thought converting a wing of their monastery into a retreat center would be an extension of their educational work and spiritual outreach, said Sister Carol Rennie, prioress at the monastery.

"It was a whole new phenomenon," Rennie said. "People were going to come into our home, sleep in our residence and eat with us."

The hope was that the newcomers would add a new dimension to the religious community. At the beginning, it was awkward to have guests showing up at the breakfast table, said Sister Rose Alice Althoff.

"I learned what you do is ask a lot of questions," Althoff recalled. "These people like to talk quite a bit. And pretty soon, they started talking to me."

The retreat center -- which is open for night classes, overnight retreats and weekend retreats -- initially focused on "centering prayer" and religious teachings.

But over time, it's added night classes that more closely bridge the Benedictines' 1,500-year-old teachings with 21st century life.

They include "The Spirituality of Gardening" and "The Spirituality of Weaving." A summer retreat for stressed-out teachers is in the works.

One of the more popular courses recently has been a "Food for the Soul" course; one class focused on chocolate and the April session will focus on wine, said Sam Rayberg, associate director of the center.

"Things that blend the joy of life with spiritual direction tend to be popular," Rayberg said. "So along with the tasting [of wine or chocolate], there is uplifting conversation."

Night classes aside, the retreat center is rented by individuals and groups from across the Twin Cities for a weekend at a time.

The center occupies a first-floor wing of the spacious monastery, home to about 45 sisters. There are 34 small rooms, each furnished with a bed, desk and rocking chair, with a shared bathroom. The cost is $25 a night, which includes meals in the upstairs dining hall. Guests can eat with the sisters at the big round tables in the main dining hall or in a separate dining area for retreat-goers only.

When Reis goes on a retreat, she packs a journal and books and tucks herself away in one of the sunny rooms. But she likes to join the sisters in their prayers three times a day. And if there's a speaker or program, she may well join in.

"My role as wife and mother consists of a lot of giving," she said. "To live that well, I need time to renew. Going to a retreat is one way to do that."

Wang attended several women's retreats with her Presbyterian church and has taken some night classes.

"They have a wonderful library with lots of nooks and crannies," Wang said. She also appreciated an art exhibit last year.

"And the sisters are wonderful people. They have a real sense of mission and want to help the community."

But the retreat center will have a new home in the future. This spring, the construction of a new, smaller monastery will begin on the spacious monastery grounds. The center will remain in the current monastery until the new one is finished next year.

The current monastery, meanwhile, will become the headquarters for the Tubman Alliance, which assists families fleeing domestic violence. And down the road, there are plans to build affordable housing for seniors and low-income families on the monastery grounds.

Some neighbors have been wary of the plan, but the sisters are convinced it's a critical way they can help families and children -- one of their missions.

"We're hoping to continue our retreat ministry, and especially, we want to be sensitive to lay ministers in the church," Rennie said. "People are really interested in acquiring a sense of balance in our life. We can provide a quiet place of peace."

Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553