Sr. Rene Backe Retires as Retreat Center Director; Sr. Sofia Lee Becomes New Director


In Fall of 2017, Sr. Rene Backe retired as director of Sacred Heart Retreat Center, the official retreat center for the Diocese of Gallup. She served in that position for eight years.

Sr. Backe has a long history of service in the Diocese – over 30 years. In that time she has been stationed in Farmington and Gallup, and previously she also served as Superintendent.

Though she no longer runs the retreat center, Sr. Rene still coordinates the academic program for the Diocesan Deacon Formation Program and serves as the Bishop’s Delegate for Religious.

Voice of The Southwest: What was your favorite aspect of being the retreat center director?

Sr. Rene: I really, really loved the work. Hospitality is one of our community’s [Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes] charisms, and for me, I saw it as important to make the place – the retreat center – as hospitable as possible so that people could encounter God. Because this is where they come to do that. They’re seeking peace.

People need to find places to feel peace and to feel commotion with God.

I do enjoy giving retreats or giving spiritual direction. That, especially, is a sacred privilege, I think, as people share their journey with God with me.

I enjoy living here in this physical – or natural – beauty. I watch the sun rise every morning and the moonrise every night and the sunset. 

Sr. Rene Backe

VoSW: What do you enjoy doing when you have free time?

Sr. Rene: It’s been awhile (she laughs). I love photography, I do. Especially traveling up to Colorado. Mountains have fascination for me. When I was in third grade, I got a camera for my birthday, and it was one of those box cameras, and you have to look in it and press it. And then I started saving my money to buy film and have it developed. And since then I’ve loved taking pictures.

[She has a White Sox sign outside her front door] I grew up in Crownpoint, Indiana, which was about 40 miles from Chicago. My parents and uncles were all White Sox fans and so it got into our DNA. When I was in 8th grade, I wanted a White Sox baseball jacket, you know – it was just – cost 8 bucks, in those days. My grandfather had a farm and my uncle did the milking every night, and so he offered to pay us if we would help carry milk from the barn to the milk house – into the cans. So I earned my White Sox jacket helping Uncle Herb (laughs).

Once I entered the convent I didn’t get around that much, but for my 50th Jubilee, my cousin, who’s a sister in our community also, said we’ll go to a White Sox game for your jubilee gift [they invited the extended family].

So we’ve had it now ten years, the “Backe Baseball Bash” at White Sox park. We gather two hours before the game starts and have a tailgate party – one cousin always brings a grill. Then we go into the game and we do more chattering with each other, catching up on news, than paying attention to the game.

VoSW: Can you tell us a little about your other work, like as Delegate for Religious?

Sr. Rene: It involves kind of being a liaison between Bishop and the sisters, and taking care that their needs are being met.

I’m on the Sisters’ Council. I talk with Bishop before our meetings and say ‘what issues would you like us to address’ and then after the meeting: ‘these are some of the concerns of the sisters’, you know.

I also have to be sure that all the Sisters working in the Diocese are VIRTUS trained.

VoSW: Are there any unique aspects of the Diocese that you will always remember?

Sr. Rene: The richness and the goodness of the people here. Economically, you know, this is a mission Diocese, and economically the people are poor. But their faith -whether they’re Catholic or not – I live to hear about how some people who aren’t Catholic talk about God, and their relationship with God. That’s special too. And just learning so much about people of different cultures – what they value and why that’s important to them. I see the value of family out here.

I love being in this Diocese. I’ve never been anywhere else for 30 years. I see there are a lot of needs, and I think it’s taught me to be satisfied or content with “what is” rather than with stuff working perfectly. I love being here, and there’s a richness here that’s not economic, but it’s in the people. 

Meet Sr. Sofie Lee, Your New Retreat Center Director

Originally from South Korea, Sr. Sofia has worked for many years in the United States, including time at Trinity Human Service Center, a social service organization in Brooklyn, NY.

After relocating to the Diocese of Gallup, Sr. Sofia worked as an administrator for a year at St. Mary Parish in Tohatchi, NM. One day, after receiving a tour of Gallup, she felt a strong attraction to the retreat center, applying for the director’s position when it opened.

VoSW: How did you end up in New Mexico?

Sr. Sofia: One day our provincial asked us – there is opportunity for working with the Native American people in New Mexico. She was asking me if I was interested. For me, whatever God wants, I am available.

[In Brooklyn] I enjoyed the work, helping the poor – about 2000 people a month. Food pantry and clothing and social services altogether. But I didn’t have enough time to pray, so that’s why sometimes I was praying to God – maybe I can go to the desert, to spend more time with God. And then when I heard this invitation from our provincial, I smiled alone – God heard my prayer! So I came and I really enjoyed this place.

I think it was God’s grace to spend my first year there [in Tohatchi], to know more about Native American people’s lives.

Sr. Rene came to me and said she was retiring September 2nd, and she felt I was the right person. So I am very happy.

VoSW: Was it tough to adjust to the Southwest?

Sr. Sofia: Korea is a very small country, like 70% mountains. And our population is very high. We have very high buildings – people live in apartments. And here, you miles and miles, you don’t see anything except desert. But mostly I compare Brooklyn and here.

VoSW: What are some of your goals for the retreat center?

Sr. Sofia: I hope we can use it more for the people’s faith or spiritual growth. I want to make more programs, to invite people so they can come enjoy this beautiful place and experience God’s love.

The buildings are quite old and need some help, so my attention is going to fixing the buildings, so I don’t have much time to create programs. But soon, if I have a little time, I want to make more programs especially for youth. In Tohatchi we had the St. Kateri Youth Circle, so I am very familiar and close to them.

I want to offer more spiritual events, so people can come here and learn something – how to pray, how to experience God’s love, even in a short time or Day of Reflection.

VoSW: What do you enjoy doing in your free time? Do you have any favorite books or movies?

Sr. Sofia: I love cooking [Editor’s note – other people love her cooking, too. Her homemade vegetable sushi is a favorite among Chancery staff]. I learned it all in community. At home I didn’t do much, but in community, from novitiate, we had to do it ourselves.

My favorite movie is Les Miserables. I saw it so many times. Sometimes when I have difficult times, I watch that movie and that gives me hope and courage to move on.


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