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WHEN WESTERN New Yorkers slip away for a weekend, they're not always headed for the excitement of Toronto or the exhilaration of the ski slopes.

Many have reservations for "a chance to hang out with the Lord," said the Rev. John J. Mergenhagen.

That's how Father Mergenhagen, a member of the ministry team at the Center of Renewal in Lewiston, describes a retreat.

"It's a spiritual vacation," he said.

Those in the retreat business in Western New York say the hectic pace of modern life, combined with people's traditional quest for perfection of spirit, kept interest in retreats high during a decade characterized by its focus on material things. They expect that trend to continue into the 1990s.

"Some wonderful things happen (at retreats) that cannot be measured," said Sister Jean Marie Suchora, associate director of the St. Ignatius Renewal Center in Clarence. "I have seen people come to a real peace."

The Rev. James R. Reemts, director of the new Lake Chautauqua Retreat Center, defines a retreat as "a time and place apart."

The $750,000 retreat center that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will open next month at Bemus Point is "a place that lends itself to that," Mr. Reemts said.

So are more than a dozen other church-sponsored retreat houses and conference centers where Western New Yorkers flee every year for spiritual recharging.

"You need a little time to get away from the hurly-burly," said Buffalo attorney Edward C. Cosgrove, who estimates he has gone on 30 retreats. "For people who are moving fast, it is a good chance to get back to the basics, to the reason we are here in life -- to get to heaven."

Cosgrove said he began making a yearly retreat while working as an FBI agent in Baltimore. Later, while serving as Erie County district attorney, he participated in an annual weekend retreat during Holy Week with a group of about 50 lawyers, judges and other local professionals.

"It helped me remember that earning a living and being a busy lawyer and prosecutor is far from the most important thing in life, which is to raise and educate and care for your wife and family," he said.

Retreats International, based at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., lists more than 600 retreat houses in the United States and Canada on its membership roll. Most are Roman Catholic facilities, but about 50 are operated by Protestant denominations.

Father Mergenhagen says people go on retreats for a variety of reasons.

"For those who are already on a deeper walk with the Lord, retreats help them intensify" the relationship, he said.

Others need a retreat to cope with "a certain meaninglessness in their lives," to face a problem they have been ignoring or to become more well-rounded spiritually, Father Mergenhagen said.

Retreats are held for church choirs, planning committees, lay ministers, mothers, couples, families, clergy, widowed people, the divorced and separated, confirmation classes, youth groups, children of alcoholics and members of religious orders as well as individuals in need of spiritual refreshment.

There is a great deal of variety in both the types of retreats that are offered and the settings available for experiencing them.

For instance, five Catholic-sponsored retreat houses or renewal centers operate in Erie and Niagara counties. They run retreats that last as little as three hours or as long as a week.

Several Protestant denominations and the Jewish Center of Greater Buffalo operate summer camps and conference centers that double as retreat facilities. All are available, as scheduling permits, to any religious group. Some also are used for meetings and conferences by social agencies, educational groups and even businesses. Most are busy.

About 30 church-related organizations already have booked the new Lake Chautauqua Retreat Center, mostly for weekend events that will combine religious and recreational activities, said Jane S. Woodward, president of the board of directors of the Chautauqua County facility.

Like many of the camping-conference facilities, Lake Chautauqua Retreat Center initially will provide facilities for groups that have their own programs. Later it will begin offering its own retreat packages.

The Dunkirk Conference Center, operated by the United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ, will sponsor five weekend retreats this year and make its facilities available for five to 10 others. Director Kenneth Wilson said the center, which is open from May through October, is conducting a fund drive to finance a $140,000 winterized building that will provide overnight accommodations for 48 people.

The Eastern District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod also has a long-range plan to build a retreat house for as many as 150 people at Pioneer Camp and Retreat Center, Angola. Currently, the facility can accommodate 125 to 150 in heated cabins.

"People feel a need in their own crazy, hectic lives for an inner life that is prayerful and reflective," observed the Rev. Paul J. Priester, director of the St. Columban Center in Derby.

Father Priester said a Catholic retreat ordinarily consists of time for private prayer, presentations by a retreat director or guest speaker, dialogue between the participants and a liturgy, usually a Mass.

"People remember the old-style retreats made in complete silence. It was like going off to a monastery. They are not that way anymore," he said.

The exception, Father Mergenhagen said, would be a retreat for contemplative prayer, which would involve a lot of quiet time.

Retreat themes are many.

At the Center of Renewal, for instance, recent retreats have dealt with healing of the body, mind and spirit; peace and justice; Christianity and the arts, and scripture.

Joanne Kinney, public relations director at the Center of Renewal, said some topics, such as healing and dreams, attract non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Elder Hostel programs for people 60 and older appeal to a cross section of Catholics, Protestants and Jews, she said.

The cost of participating in a retreat ranges from $2.50 for an evening program at the Center for Christian Living in Clarence to $175 for a week-long retreat at the Center of Renewal.

One of two facilities that offer no overnight accommodations, the Center for Christian Living, is popular with church, professional and public service groups for meetings that run a day or less. The other is the Jewish Center's Centerland Conference Center in Elma, which can handle 30 to 40 people for daytime conferences and as many as 500 for picnics.

"No retreat house is making it financially," said Father Mergenhagen, noting that none of them could operate without a subsidy from a diocese or religious order.

"We are always concerned about paying our bills," said Sister Suchora, at the St. Ignatius Renewal Center in Clarence. "Retreat work is not a money-making proposition, and we do not want to increase our fees so only the wealthy can afford to make a retreat."

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