By Eileen Connelly, OSU 

God often presents us with new opportunities when we least expect it. Our call? To respond to his invitation with faith and enthusiasm.  

Denise O’Neill had been working in higher education for nearly 37 years. She was content in her role as director of enrollment management at Penn State University, Lehigh Valley, in Center Valley Pennsylvania, where she provided leadership in a variety of areas, including admissions, financial aid and global education. Then God and the Franciscans came calling.  

A recruitment agency contacted Denise to ask if she was interested in the position of executive director at St. Francis Retreat House (SFRH) in nearby Easton.  

“I had heard of the Retreat House. It is an entity around here. But I did not see the job posting,” she said. “I was happy where I was, so I initially said, ‘thank you, but no thank you.’” 

Honoring tradition while planning for the future 

SFRH is indeed well known in the region and beyond as a peaceful venue for retreats, spiritual programming, and offerings geared toward nurturing Catholics in their faith, while also providing an ecumenical space that welcomes all people.  

As Denise further considered the opportunity at SFRH, it became increasingly more appealing, especially as she recognized the parallels between higher education and overseeing the operations of a retreat center, such as recruiting new groups and developing an identity that is relevant in 2024.  

“That’s the biggest hill to climb,” noted Denise, who ultimately interviewed for the position and started in her new role on Dec. 4. “If we want to be inclusive and maintain that sense of belonging, we cannot have a narrow view of Franciscan theology. It must be about peace and understanding, reflection and renewal, and we need to be open to the many groups that could benefit from transformation. We need to honor the tradition that the Retreat House was founded on, while also really examining how our programs and services are relevant to people who come in the door.”  

Denise brings a wealth of experience and vision to SFRH from the diverse institutions where she has studied and ministered over the years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Moravian University; a master’s in psychology from Marist College; and a doctorate in higher and adult education from the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Her professional experience includes serving as assistant dean of students at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York; associate dean of student affairs at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennylvania; and director of residential life at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey. She currently serves as an adjunct professor in the graduate program at DeSales University.  

A woman stands between two Franciscan friars in front of an altar and the San Damiano Cross in a chapel

As the new executive director of St. Francis Retreat House, Denise O'Neill, center, is working with Br. Pat McCloskey, left, Br. Charlie Smiech, right, and the staff and volunteers to honor its past while planning for its future. (Photo courtesy of Philip Anderson)

A headshot of a woman wearing a pink blazer with a white shirt beneath

Denise brings decades of experience in education, enrollment and administration to her work at the Retreat House. (Photo courtesy of Denise)

Two Franciscan friars and a woman stand at the counter of a Catholic gift shop. One of the friars is reading a book while the others look on.

The Retreat House offers a number of programs,  (Photo courtesy of Denise)

She joins a dedicated staff and faith-filled friar presence at SFRH that includes Brothers Loren Connell, OFM, Pat McCloskey, OFM, and Charlie Smiech, OFM, and is looking forward to being inspired by Franciscan spirituality and deepening her faith through her new ministry.  

“I am especially inspired by the message of peace. In today's world, the message of peace is still relevant, especially in a world filled with conflict and division. My teaching experience centers on leading an ethical life and social justice principles. There is a direct connection to Franciscan spirituality.” 

“What’s important to me, what it makes it easier to live my faith, is being in a place where people share your values and experiences,” she added. “This is a peaceful place, a place to slow down. The core part of what we do is share the message of the Gospel through our mission and our programs and involve others in that message. That is a core part of the Franciscan mission and is at the heart of all we do here.”  

An invitation to serve 

Shirley Puccino, board president at SFRH, expressed the excitement of the friars, board and staff members at having Denise join their team.  

“In her years in leadership positions in both public and religious institutions of higher education, she has demonstrated her strong organizational, leadership and strategic capabilities,” Shirley said. “In particular, Denise’s experience in student affairs and resident life translate well to the Franciscan mission of hospitality at the Retreat House, and her experience with mission-based fundraising is invaluable. Most importantly, her longstanding commitment to the Catholic faith and demonstration of core Franciscan values is commendable. As we embrace the future growth and opportunities for SFRH we are enthusiastic about the leadership and energy Denise brings to SFRH and our mission.”  

While she may not have been seeking a new ministry opportunity, Denise is fully aware such matters are often beyond our control. “I don’t live my life with regrets – ever,” she emphasized. “When you leave something you have been involved with after 37 years, it is hard, but God called me to this. I am an educator at heart and that translates well to my work here.”  

What changed Denise’s mind about joining the team at SFRH? “There is a vision and mission that I can get behind, so much potential for growth, the welcoming atmosphere, the strong sense of community.” 

St. Francis Retreat House is located at 3918 Chipman Road, Easton, PA 18045. For more information on its programs, visit