The first time Sister Carole Riley laid eyes on Charleston, she was driving a truck that rolled into town from Pittsburgh in 1977, carrying nuns from the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle and items needed to set up housekeeping at a new Cenacle Retreat House.
“I had never been here before, and had no expectations of what it would be like,” she recalled. “What I remember best of my first impressions was the sense of hospitality I encountered and how welcoming and encouraging the people were.”
Since that first Pittsburgh-Charleston trip, Sister Carole has become well acquainted with every bump and bend Interstate 79 has to offer along the route. A full professor of music education and piano at Duquesne University from 1972 to 2017, she has made the 460-mile round-trip commute between Pittsburgh and Charleston countless times in the years that followed.
In addition to co-founding the Cenacle Retreat House in 1977, Sister Carole helped found and was named executive director of Cenacle House’s successor, the West Virginia Institute for Spirituality, chartered in 1999. She remains executive director of WVIS, and now has the luxury of not having to commute from Pittsburgh.
On Oct. 19, Sister Carole will celebrate her 60th Jubilee as a member of the Sisters of Divine Providence community in a ceremony at WVIS, now in its 20th year.
Cenacle Retreat House was established in a former convent at 1117 Virginia St. East after Joseph H. Hodges, former bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, asked the Cenacle Sisters to develop a retreat center in downtown Charleston.
Sister Carole had worked with the Cenacle Sisters in Pittsburgh. Wanting to keep that connection intact, she volunteered to serve as an adjunct member of the three-person Cenacle House staff at the new Charleston location.
Cenacle House became an interdenominational center for directed and contemplative prayer, spiritual direction and silent retreats. It hosted workshops on topics ranging from pastoral team-building and journaling to living with a loved one who is an alcoholic, offering counseling for sexual abuse victims, and sponsoring community forums.
But in 1998, church officials announced they were unable to continue subsidizing both the retreat house and the John XXXIII Pastoral Center, opting to end funding for Cenacle House.
In the months that followed, an ecumenical group was formed in Charleston to plan a way to continue the work the Cenacle Sisters began. Through that effort, the West Virginia Institute for Spirituality was born, and incorporated as a nonprofit organization in late 1999. WVIS began operating from a leased home in Charleston’s East End the following year, when Sister Carole was named executive director.
From its early days, the spiritual direction program offered by WVIS drew clergy and lay ministers from the Baptist, Episcopalian, Church of Christ, Unitarian, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian traditions from across the state.
Spiritual direction remains a key component of the Institute’s curriculum, with more than 200 students from places as distant as India and the Solomon Islands having completed its two-year part-time program so far.
Sister Carole, who earned a bachelor’s degree in music education, master’s degrees in both music and formative leadership, and a Ph.D. in formative spirituality all at Duquesne, heads the WVIS spiritual direction program. She also presents programs at WVIS and across the nation on topics ranging from spirituality’s role in coping with grief and living with depression to caring for caregivers and music as a tool for inner healing.
“I think my background in education has been helpful in developing programs here that offer continuing education and college credit,” she said. “We’re now offering some online courses. Just recently, we’ve partnered with the Graduate Theological Foundation in Indiana to provide course work that can be used to satisfy some of the requirements for advanced degrees,” including a master’s in pastoral counseling and doctorates in ministry and philosophy.
The busiest time of year at the WVIS campus, located at 1601 Virginia St. E since 2002, is late May through mid-July, when the Institute’s annual Almost Heaven Retreats program is underway, featuring individually guided programs of spiritual direction and contemplation lasting three to 30 days.
Throughout the year, WVIS offers a variety of programs and speakers, hosts Soup, Silence and Scripture programs on the first Friday of each month from noon to 2 p.m., and weekly contemplative prayer sessions on Thursdays from 5 to 5:30 p.m.
The three-story, century-old home that serves as headquarters for the WVIS is now owned free and clear, and satellite branches of the Institute have been established in Beckley, Berkeley Springs, Huntington and Hinton, as well as in Miami, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Pittsburgh and Waynesburg, in Pennsylvania.
“We started out with the $40 people gave us that we used to open a bank account, and 20 years later, we’re still here, with satellites in five states,” said Sister Carole. “These days, about 5,000 people come through the house in a year. We bring a lot of people in, and they usually come back.”
According to the retired professor and WVIS mainstay, “The miracle of this place to me is that we have always been able to pay our bills.”
When Sister Carole began her work here 42 years ago, “I never expected to be in West Virginia this long,” she said. But the state “filled my missionary heart, and let me use the gifts I have to be of service. There’s such a richness of interfaith opportunity here. We’ve used it to provide people with spiritual guidance, prayer counseling and retreats, and by leading small groups in exploring how to deal with grief, marriage issues, and drug and alcohol addiction.”
Sister Carole took her vows to become a nun while a teenager, but as a young woman, toured as a professional concert pianist. “I loved traveling, but I gave it up to enter the convent,” she said. “Only God knows why I chose that path, but in the years that followed, I have traveled in every civilized continent on Earth. Everything that I gave up, I’ve gotten back in double.”