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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Religious retreats seek privacy, peace

Photo courtesy St. Meinrad Archabby

Mike Fabian found the choices narrow as he searched for a site to hold a national conference for pastoral planning and council development. An associate director for the Catholic Diocese in Trenton, N.J., Fabian hoped to change the retreat’s tradition of meeting in big-city hotels.

While church leaders weren’t opposed to moving the retreat from a hotel, they weren’t ready to go back to the church camp of their youth, where shared bathrooms and bunk beds were standard.

“There are a lot of retreat centers out there, but they are often a big step down from a hotel,” said Fabian. “For our group, the specific thing is sharing baths. The majority of our group would prefer not to. I called all over the place but found very few are set up to address that need.”

Fabian found a retreat center to fit his group’s needs 20 miles south of Albany, N.Y., at the Rensselaerville Meeting Center. Though not aimed exclusively at the religious market, the center has found a following among churches of every type, mostly through word of mouth. Fabian had been to Rensselaerville for a meeting.

Once an estate, the center still has that air about it.  A number of the 54 guest rooms — all with private baths — are in fine-looking but friendly estate houses. Every guest room is different; fires flicker in living room fireplaces, wicker chairs await on porches and fresh meals are served in a carriage house restaurant surrounded by gardens.

Conference centers like Rensselaerville that are not associated with a church, as well as traditional resorts, are becoming increasingly popular with religious retreats that are looking for more amenities than many church-affiliated retreat centers and camps offer.

Jane E. Schweikert of Albany has planned several retreats at Rensselaerville for Methodist Church leaders.

“We have gone to places like the Otesaga in Cooperstown and to a traditional church retreat center,” said Schweikert. “The Rensselaerville Meeting Center is somewhere in between — it is not the opulence of a resort or the bare necessities of a retreat center operated by a church. You get a little more of the niceties at Rensselaerville.”

Church camps upgrade
The shift to other facilities has pushed church camps to upgrade and add the private guest rooms and baths that adult campers are demanding.

Warm Beach Christian Camp and Conference Center, an hour north of Seattle, has been in business more than 50 years.

Last year, more than 125 religious groups held meetings and retreats there. Yet, the market is shifting, said Eugene Barnes, director of guest services. More and more guests are requesting private baths, and the camp is adapting as it can to meet their needs.

“We took five cabins and gutted them in the last five years and put private baths in every bedroom. Any new construction we do, we are leaning toward private baths.”

Boy Scout camp is repurposed
The Christian Church in Kansas (Disciples of Christ) began making upgrades not long after it bought a former Boy Scout camp about 30 minutes east of downtown Wichita. The camp was purchased primarily for youth summer camps, but the church does hope to attract adult retreats and even other types of meetings year-round.

It has added air-conditioning and heat to the former Boy Scout cabins and a leadership lodge and it has built nicer bathrooms. Still, accommodations at the Disciples Center at Tawakoni are barracks style, where as many as 14 to 18 people could sleep in the same room. It is a sticking point for adult retreats, says Steve Martin, associate regional minister for the Christian Church in Kansas (Disciples of Christ). “They swallow hard sometimes.”

The church hopes to eventually build a conference center with private lodging, but for now, Martin appeases groups by spreading them among more cabins when he can so there are fewer people to a room. “Air conditioning is the first thing adults ask about,” said Martin. “The second thing is private housing.”

Retreats seek sense of peace
As important as privacy has become to adult groups, a sense of peace is still paramount for religious retreats.

Rensselaerville, in the rolling hills of the Hudson Valley, is so hidden that much of sales manager Carole Kilpatrick’s time is spent making sure people know it is there. “This is not a drive-by facility,” she said.

In Many, La., more than three hours east of Houston, Cypress Bend Resort is similarly off the radar. Yet, religious retreats have found their way to its door since the 600-acre resort opened a decade ago next to 200,000-acre Toledo Bend Lake. Part of the resort’s attraction is its cost, 30 percent less than resorts in the Houston area by general manager Ron Gwin’s estimate. That selling point made Cypress Bend one of the few resorts to see an increase in business in 2009.

Because Cypress Bend is a full-fledged resort, religious retreats often avail themselves of those amenities. Men’s retreats work in a round of golf; women’s retreats book some spa time.

Most religious groups make their way through the prayer garden on the grounds, a tribute to the late wife of a resort developer. Splashing fountains, stately Italian sculptures and stones inscribed with the favorite Bible verses of 32 family members make the garden a place for reflection.

During breaks, groups can sit on patios and watch resident bald eagles fly over the lake. Soon, they’ll be able to burn off some calories on a mountain bike trail under construction.

At night, with the lights of the nearest town 18 miles away, stars burn bright, and many religious groups sit beneath them around a fire pit. Gwin and his staff will pull out a telescope and the ingredients for s’mores.

“This is about as peaceful as you can get,” he said.

Removed from reality
Peace and privacy are plentiful at two religious retreat destinations in Indiana. In Nappanee, in northern Indiana, those attending religious retreats learn about Amish life as they live for a few days on Amish Acres Historic Farm and Heritage Resort, a preserved 80-acre Amish farmstead that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I don’t think we are the first place that jumps into people’s minds for retreats. They often think of us as more of a tourist attraction than as a great place to have a meeting or retreat,” said Janis Logsdon, marketing and group sales director.

The qualities that intrigue the tourist appeal to the retreat-goer — two comfortable inns; a meeting room in a century-old barn surrounded by cows, horses, chickens and goats; and Amish favorites served family-style at antique tables.

“This is not a place where you come to see 10 things in a day,” said Logsdon. “This is a place where you come to get away from the ultra-active lifestyle, to take some quiet moments and be reflective.”

An equally reflective destination is in southern Indiana, between Evansville, Ind., and Louisville, Ky., where on one of the hilltops of the rolling land known as the Knobs, Benedictine monks built St. Meinrad Archabbey 155 years ago.

The centerpiece is the Archabbey church, where visitors can attend mass and be soothed by monks singing Gregorian chants.

The Benedictines are a contemplative rather than cloistered order, and have long welcomed others to their sanctuary.

St. Meinrad has had a retreat center for almost 50 years, but five years ago it built a new, larger one.

“It needed modernizing and it was a little small, so we decided to take it down and on the same spot, build a new one,” said Mary Jeanne Schumaker, director of communications.
In building the new guest house and retreat center, St. Meinrad considered the preferences of today’s retreat clients.

The old center was motel-style, with guest room entrances to the outdoors. The new one is built like a hotel, with guest rooms in a wing that is connected to the lobby, meeting rooms, dining rooms and chapel. The meeting rooms and lobby are all on one floor; an elevator makes the 31 guest rooms accessible.

The new facility, coupled with the archabbey’s remote location, has brought religious retreats of all types. Although it is only eight miles from Interstate 65, St. Meinrad has the sense of departure essential to an effective retreat space.

“There’s a nice spirit to the place,” said Schumaker.