By Maria Hayes 

WEST CLARKSVILLE, New York — Amidst the uncertainty of today’s world, a Franciscan community in Western New York has become a sanctuary of solace, inviting people to embrace solitude and contemplation not as an escape, but as a pathway to deeper relationships and renewal of mind and spirit. 

Nestled on 400 acres (about half the area of Central Park in New York City) in the idyllic foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in West Clarksville, New York, Mt. Irenaeus is located on a secluded and wooded hilltop in one of the poorest counties in the state. A community founded in the spirit of prayer and hospitality, the Mountain welcomes people to participate in a simple, joyful, healing communion with God and all creation through contemplation and the communal experience of God’s justice, peace, and love. 

The Mountain finds its roots in a centuries-old Franciscan spiritual tradition begun by St. Francis of Assisi, who often retreated into nature for contemplation. Since the 1980s, the Mt. Irenaeus community been a place for people of all ages and faiths to renew their minds and spirits, and develop a greater awareness of God’s presence with and care for all creatures.

Four friars – Brothers Kevin Kriso, Joe Kotula, Lou McCormick and Dan Riley – guide the community. The grounds include a chapel, common space, a beautiful garden, and several hermitages, where some of the friars live. One might think that a hermitage has no place in a Franciscan Order known for brotherhood and togetherness, but at Mt. Irenaeus, the friars invite people to experience how solitude and contemplative prayer can deepen relationships. 

Br. Dan said solitude does not take him out of the world.

"It asks me to sit and look at the world in a new way," he explained. "It invites me to come to inner self-knowledge by being present to the One who is present to all of us. In a broken world where people feel separate and alone, contemplation invites us to recognize that God is all in all and become motivated by a radical sense of the wholeness, fullness and unity that is God.” 

Group photo of four Franciscan friars in a wooden chapel

Brothers Joe Kotula, Dan Riley, Lou McCormick and Kevin Kriso invite visitors to come and try their way of life. (Photo courtesy of the Mountain)

A chapel with large windows nestled in the woods overlooking a meadow

Mass is offered at Holy Peace Chapel every Sunday, followed by Sunday brunch. (Photo courtesy of the Mountain)

Finding God in the here and now

The desire for contemplation and solitude stretches across cultures and countries. In October, Brothers Kevin and Dan joined 30 friars from around the world in Assisi, Italy, to connect with others who are living according to the Franciscan hermitage Rule, or way of life, today. The initial meeting was the first step in reclaiming a vital part of the Franciscan spiritual tradition. 

“It was a very rich experience,” said Br. Kevin. “People around the world are experiencing similar joys and problems, one being that Franciscan contemplation is not well known.” 

Br. Kevin is quick to add that friars who are living at hermitages are not monks. “Franciscan contemplation is not monastic; it’s seeing God in life. Instead of hiding from the world, it’s coming among the world. Our spirituality is one of incarnation and not of withdrawal. Contemplation helps you expand and see brothers and sisters in places you’ve never dreamed of. It’s about finding opportunities in problems. It’s good for hope. It’s good for looking at our world right now.” 

This spirituality can help people make sense of a world of continuing unrest and war. “Contemplative prayer helps us see where God is in the here and now,” said Br. Kevin, “and find Him in the little everyday miracles that are happening around us.” 

Join the Mountain community 

Individuals and groups are always welcome at the Mountain, whether for weekly Mass and Sunday brunch, volunteering in the garden, a daylong retreat, or an overnight stay at one of its seven hermitages. People who don’t live near the Mountain are invited to connect with its digital ministry on Facebook and Instagram, or through its podcasts “Clouds and Sun” and “Franciscan Lectio.” 

Many ministry opportunities are available for friars, adds Br. Dan. 

“If you want to teach at a university but you don’t want to live on campus, or if you want to relate to the campus in a different way, we’re here,” he said. “If you want to work in rural health care, there are many opportunities. Local parishes could always use support. If you would like to take a sabbatical or work with your hands or make time for arts and crafts projects that you’ve been telling yourself you’ll get to one day, we have space for that, too.” More information is available on the Mountain's website.

He ends with an invitation for everyone: “Come try our way of life.” 

Mt. Irenaeus is located at 3621 Roberts Road, Friendship, NY 14739. For more information about visiting the Mountain, visit