Mark Poletunow, Malvern Retreat House’s new trailblazer// Photo by Tessa Marie Images
Mark Poletunow isn’t the first person you’d expect to be married with 10-month-old twin girls. Following his years as a Catholic priest and a Capuchin Franciscan friar, the 58-year-old is now a model for change.
The longtime leader in Catholic ministry is settling into his new job as president of the century-old Malvern Retreat House. His transition is akin to the one underway at this lay-owned institution, which has begun expanding beyond traditional men’s weekend retreats to reach a wider faith-based community.
Poletunow’s focus is on MRH becoming a center of new evangelization for all. “It’s a safe haven—that notion of a field hospital that Pope Francis talks about for wounded hearts and souls,” says Jacki Delaney, a daily parishioner at Gladwyne’s St. John Vianney Church and a fifth-year member of MRH’s board, for which she’s vice chair and oversees the spiritual-development committee. “It fits ‘new evangelization’ because we’re re-proposing the gospel and hoping to save people in crisis.”
Fittingly, attendance has spiked in programs for high schoolers, women, busy singles, the disabled and the homeless. In 2015, MRH hosted 20,500 participants, and the number of programs has more than doubled to 250. “There’s no ceiling. We want to be at capacity, and we aren’t,” Poletunow says. “We want to grow in new and creative ways—get people in, and our message out.”
Poletunow believes that God has positioned him to use his experiences from social service, administration, the ministry and his personal journey to continue shepherding MRH into its second century. “I’ve had to reawaken my own faith in my transition,” he says. “All those pieces are coming together—and not by coincidence.”
Once an ordained priest in active ministry for 16 years, Poletunow requested a path out, but he wanted to stay connected to the church’s values. Soon, parish-based work morphed into spiritual endeavors and more than seven years as an administrator at D.C.’s Spanish Catholic Center, overseeing medical and dental services, social and immigration issues, job placement, and food acquisition. Then, the winds of natural disasters blew him toward relief efforts throughout Central America.
Later, there were eight administrative years with the Ministry of Caring, a nonprofit lay organization in Wilmington, Del. “I was always considering ways to encourage and motivate relationships with God,” says Poletunow. “This [change at MRH] started before my arrival, but now I’m entrusted to take it to the next level.”
To cross that bridge without abandoning its traditional work with men, MRH is casting a more inclusive net. There are currently 25 high schools involved with the retreat house. It also offers programs beyond the weekend-retreat experience, including a summertime family festival.
Quarterly teas on Sunday afternoons at MRH draw up to 200 women, along with a fall retreat. “It’s been fabulous to see the growth [of offerings for women],” says Delaney.
And there’s the Spanish population. MRH’s new Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine was dedicated by Archbishop Charles Chaput in October. “The church is growing here to a large extent because of the immigrant community, so we need to welcome people from everywhere,” Poletunow says. “It’s for the able-bodied, disabled, the wealthy and poor, and everywhere between. We’re beginning to see that manifest itself at Malvern.”