A humble servant set on building a dream
By Michele Chan Santos
When Joe Noonan walks visitors around the Eagle’s Wings Retreat Center near Burnet, pride and enthusiasm show in every step. He shares stories about the generosity of others: the architects and engineers who donated their time, the neighbor that gave them a refrigerator, the commercial kitchen equipment handed down by a restaurant owner.
What Noonan is reluctant to say without prodding is that the retreat center, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, exists because of his dedication, passion and commitment. And after many years as the construction superintendent, Noonan is retiring.
“Joe is a very, very humble individual,” said Deacon Curt Haffner, the executive director of the retreat center. “He does give all the credit to God, which speaks a lot to his character. He is a man of deep integrity. The retreat center, as it exists today, came from Joe’s passion to help create a place where young people could come to experience God.”
Eagle’s Wings Retreat Center is located on 120 acres of Texas Hill Country, with scenic hills, pastures, groves of trees and relaxing views. The nine buildings include four modern dormitories, with limestone walls, spacious bathrooms and many bunk beds; a new chapel and day chapel; a sports facility with a covered court and game rooms; and a large main building with a commercial kitchen and a dining room for as many as 200. An outdoor Stations of the Cross, Marian Grotto, ropes courses and stage are among the other amenities.
Noonan, and Curt and Katie Haffner, are the founders of Eagle’s Wings.
After retiring, Noonan will still be a familiar face at the center, where he plans to take a more active role in leading youth retreats. He’s looking forward to spending more time in a ministry role and less time focused on construction and operations.
“Working with youth is giving me a new focus,” said Noonan, 63. “I’m extremely proud of this place,” but at the same time, he acknowledges that his work there took 60 hours a week for several years. Now that he is retired, he and his wife, Melinda, can travel more, and they will also have more time to spend with their grown daughters –– Jennifer Arcaya, Kelly Pallarino and Sarah Hutchings –– as well as with their six grandchildren. They are also active in their parish, Our Mother of Sorrows in Burnet.
It’s worth noting that Noonan’s work at Eagle’s Wings took place after his original retirement from IBM, where he spent 33 years as a manufacturing engineer and then a systems analyst. He took the position at Eagle’s Wings at a pay far below what someone in that position would normally make.
Nearly every weekend of the year the center hosts a retreat. Youth groups from all over Texas book the facilities. Most of the groups are Catholic (although groups of any denomination are welcome). Confirmation groups, ACTS groups, high school youth groups and college students have all utilized the center at a minimal cost. Some adult retreats are held there as well. (For more information, visit www.eagleswingsretreatcenter.org ).
Eagle’s Wings Retreat Center began as a prayer. It sprang from an inspiration of Noonan’s, a calling he heard from God in the early 1990s to build a Catholic youth retreat center.
“On a religious education teacher’s retreat, we were doing reflection time,” he recalled. “Well, being quiet and reflective doesn’t really fit my personality. But this time I actually was quiet and reflective and was listening to God instead of doing all the talking. God asked me to build a youth retreat center. The idea actually appealed to me, so I really felt at peace with what he was asking me to do. The significance of this undertaking didn’t sink in until later.”
For the next 10 years, Noonan periodically would draw up plans and show them to people, but nothing concrete really happened. “After writing proposals and experiencing many rejections I was feeling pretty low,” he said. “I put the idea on the back burner. But Christ didn’t give up on me and kept prodding me to do something, but I got real good at ignoring the calling. Finally, after a Christ Renews His Parish retreat at St. Thomas More, I felt the calling again very strong and clear. Right then and there I made the commitment in front of Christ and my CHRP brothers to get this youth retreat center started.”
Shortly after, Noonan met the Haffners. In 2003, the Haffners purchased a 157-acre ranch and donated 120 acres for Eagle’s Wings Retreat Center.
The first building, now called the Eagle’s Nest, was built by volunteers from plans Noonan found online. The plans were for a barn –– “it looked easy to build” –– and Noonan adapted the design to create a retreat building that would sleep 40 people.
The Mabee Foundation gave $250,000 in challenge grant funds in 2008. Other grants and donations followed.
Through the many roadblocks that came their way, Noonan and the Haffners persevered.
“Joe has been very giving of his gifts, talent and treasure,” said Katie Haffner, coordinator of operations at the center. “He’s truly been a servant.”
Msgr. Elmer Holtman, the chaplain-in-residence at Eagle’s Wings, said “Joe is the person who put the physical plan of Eagle’s Wings into action, because of the way in which he came forth to be the construction superintendent. The attitude that Joe has is that he can keep moving forward without having to have all the answers. He figures it out and he’s not afraid to take a risk and move on with it. Joe is someone who has passion for what he is doing.”
Noonan feels God has had a hand in every step of the retreat center’s development. “How God makes these things happen is a mystery, but he did it,” Noonan said. “Since that fateful day many years ago, look at the progress we have made. The instrumental force in this whole thing is God.”