Investing in Faith

Investing in Faith

By Anthony Flott

Marty Eichinger’s hands are a gift from God.

For decades, the celebrated Portland, Oregon, sculptor has taken lifeless lumps of clay and shaped them into exquisite works of art, giving form to “the eternal human pursuit of meaning, happiness and growth.”

But at the same time, Eichinger’s faith life had morphed into something without form.

Something nebulous.

Faith, “didn’t seem to fit into my contemporary worldview,” said the artist, who abandoned his Lutheran heritage at 16 years old. “The Church was causing more problems than I felt it was solving in our culture. I never let go of God or a moral structure inspired by the Bible; I just didn’t see a way to embrace religion that didn’t exclude too many other souls.”

But then Joe Ricketts stepped into his life.

With an invitation.

Ricketts had commissioned Eichinger to sculpt two Stations of the Cross for his Cloisters on the Platte retreat center. The artist threw himself into a deeper understanding of how retreatants would experience the Stations. He read the Bible. He studied the history of Jesus’ time. He explored relevant artwork.

But ... “I still didn’t get the retreat.”

So he went on one himself — and something new in his life began to take shape.

“I expected insight, but what I actually received moved me and I found a new relationship with God,” Eichinger wrote in a thank-you letter to Ricketts. “I decided to take Communion for the first time in 50 years. It saved me.”


It’s not the first thank-you letter Ricketts has received from a retreatant — and it most certainly will not be the last. The magnificent Cloisters on the Platte opened in July, offering St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises for up to 80 retreatants on 47 retreat weekends each year.

It’s a deeply personal project that has the self-made billionaire helping others invest in their relationship with God to amass spiritual riches.

The 1968 Creighton graduate (BA, economics) and co-founder of TD Ameritrade constructed the multi-million dollar secluded retreat center amid 936 acres of rolling hills hugging the Platte River between Omaha and Lincoln. Construction lasted three years and Ricketts footed the entire bill (the cost has not been disclosed). He only asks retreatants for a goodwill donation.

Cloisters on the Platte becomes the 28th Jesuit retreat center in the United States, but the first built since the 1940s. It features guest lodges with private bedrooms and bathrooms for each retreatant, a retreat center building, courtyard and chapel. Guests park in an underground garage, then take a shuttle to the main campus. Different architects designed each of the lodges and the retreat house. The chapel was designed by Leo A Daly — the 100-year-old, internationally recognized Omaha firm that was founded by 1911 Creighton graduate Leo A. Daly Sr. The firm also designed St. Margaret Mary Church, which Ricketts attends when in Omaha (he lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming).

The grounds — some of which once was home to a ski resort — will offer retreatants plenty of time for contemplative strolls with two lakes, trails and a Stations of the Cross walk that spans roughly 2,500 feet (the length Jesus is said to have walked in Jerusalem). The 14-station masterpiece features 60 7-foot-tall figures designed by sculptors from across the country and a 140-foot pedestrian bridge through the trees.

“It’s been a huge job,” says Ricketts, pointing out that it involved 45 subcontractors. The son of a carpenter, Ricketts received weekly construction updates from project manager Kurt Halvorson, including video taken by drones.

Ricketts used two principles to guide the project. First was to create a quiet environment “really needed for contemplation and meditation.” Second, he “wanted these facilities to last for hundreds of years” and with a timeless design.

“I think we have achieved both,” Ricketts says. “The degree of satisfaction I have and the joy I have in seeing it really come to fruition from the dream I had 20 years ago is really quite exciting and satisfying to me.”

Those who have seen Cloisters on the Platte gush with praise.

“The first impression when you get on the grounds is that God is being glorified,” says Deacon Tim McNeill, Omaha Archdiocese chancellor. “There is painstaking care to wrap all the grounds in beauty, and that makes your heart and mind ascend to God.”

The Rev. Andy Alexander, SJ, director of Creighton’s Collaborative Ministry Office, cited the project’s first-rate quality, right down to the hand-carved art on the chapel’s kneelers.

“This will certainly be one of the nicest retreat centers I’m aware of,” Fr. Alexander says.

He also calls the Stations of the Cross “a powerful blessing for the people of this area” and praises Ricketts’ long-term vision.

“I heard him talking to a group of people about the trees that they were planting. He said, just as an offhand comment, ‘It’s going to be really beautiful in about 200 years.’”


What’s driving Ricketts — according to Forbes, the 388th richest person in the United States last year with a fortune worth an estimated $2 billion — to spend millions of dollars just to get people to attend a retreat?

A lifelong Catholic, Ricketts maintained his faith while building Ameritrade, but says he might not be Catholic today if not for his wife of 55 years, Marlene, and for Creighton.

Of the former, he says, “it’s a little easier to be Catholic when you have somebody helping you as you’re going through those growing-up changes.”

As for Creighton, he says the University helped him “get down to the very bare essentials of what really encompassed the Catholic religion. I had several Jesuits who took a personal interest in me and gave me the time to talk about these issues and really organized my thought process relative to what my religion was, which made me appreciate my Catholicism all the more. Had that not happened, I probably would have dropped the subject and gradually wandered away from religion, probably altogether. Maybe I’d just go to Mass on Easter and Christmas.”

Retreats, he says, have been essential to avoiding any drift away from his faith. He cites two retreat experiences — one good, one bad — with helping him see their value.

The first, while he was in high school in Nebraska City, didn’t go so well. “It was terrible,” he says. “I told myself I’ll never go again. The priest was overbearing and dictatorial and demanding. Things as a young man I revolted against. I said to myself, ‘A retreat is not something good.’”

That changed in 1987 when, at the urging of Creighton’s the Rev. Don Doll, SJ, he attended a retreat at Demontreville in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.

“I went with a great deal of apprehension,” he says. “I found out it was just what I needed.”

He has attended at least 14 retreats at Demontreville since — and has been thinking of how to get others to do the same. Fr. Alexander, who has known Ricketts for more than 20 years, recalls giving a retreat for Ricketts and his Ameritrade leadership team long ago at Creighton’s retreat house in Griswold, Iowa.

Ricketts is so passionate about Cloisters on the Platte that he made personal pitches about it before and after Masses at parishes throughout Omaha and to groups like the Serra Club and That Man Is You. That helped get a core of retreatants who began making Ignatian retreats at the St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Nebraska, and at Creighton’s center in Griswold.

Ricketts also provides voice-overs for Cloisters on the Platte videos and, most recently, can be heard on radio commercials hawking Cloisters on the Platte Bread (the first of 10 to 15 Cloisters-branded products whose sales will support the Cloisters on the Platte Foundation).

“Ignatius, from the very beginning, gave the Spiritual Exercises to people whom he expected to share them with other people, whom he expected to have their lives transformed and for them to make a difference in the world,” Fr. Alexander says. “This retreat house is an example of somebody who was touched by the Spiritual Exercises and decided to make a difference. And it’s going to be a difference that will carry on for generations.

“In many ways, it continues the mission of Creighton University in a way that Ignatius would have loved. Not that we Jesuits did it, but that it was one of our alums who did it to share the experience of what this Ignatian mission was about.”


Creighton, though, was not without influence on the project. The Rev. Jim Clifton, SJ, a Creighton Jesuit and a close friend of Ricketts, was among those who early on encouraged Ricketts to build Cloisters. And Ricketts says Fr. Alexander was the project’s go-to source “whenever I have a question with regard to some spiritual aspect and how to handle that.”

Fr. Alexander, who is on the project’s board of directors, also was joined by fellow Creighton Jesuits the Revs. Tom Shanahan, SJ, and Richard Hauser, SJ, (who died in April 2018) for a video the Cloisters created about St. Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises.

Other Creighton priests will be among those who direct the 47 retreat weekends each year. “We have had a wonderful response from Jesuit retreat directors that are in North America,” Ricketts says. “That was a big point of anxiety when we first started. We didn’t know how successful we may or may not be. We’ve been very successful.” In addition, retired and semi-retired diocesan priests will help with Masses, hear confessions and provide individual spiritual direction.

The need to have extra priests on hand testifies to the popularity of retreats. Ricketts anticipates a full house every retreat weekend and says Cloisters soon will have a waiting list. “There’s a great degree of interest in this type of spiritual exercises in the marketplace,” he says.

Fr. Alexander agrees. When trying to schedule an eight-day retreat for himself this summer, he found most places already were booked. He also points to the success of Creighton’s Online Ministries website and its daily reflections. Last year, he says, it had 70 million hits from 200 countries. “That tells me people are hungry and that they appreciate this spirituality, which is particularly helpful because Ignatius was about helping people find intimacy with God in their everyday life. He called it ‘becoming contemplatives in action,’ and I think that kind of spirituality is really appropriate for our very, very busy lives today.”


Asked what gift by someone in the Omaha Archdiocese compares to Ricketts’ Cloisters on the Platte, McNeil says, “Nothing.”

“Because all this is rooted and grounded in prayer,” McNeil says. “Those people who go and have a conversion experience and have this life-changing encounter with Jesus, they’re going to go back to their neighborhood or workplace, to their parishes and they’re going to share that experience. And the experience is going to be rooted in their persons. They’re going to go back and share about the person they just met who changed their life, and that’s evangelization.

“Wait until we see what happens in 200 years.”

But change already is evident. Just ask retreatants who have written their thanks to Ricketts — like artist Eichinger.

“I originally considered this exercise to be research in order to understand what a serious retreatant would feel when they walked through the Stations,” Eichinger says. “I did not expect to have a personal enlightenment into my understanding of God and my place in creation.”