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THE LILY DALE SPIRIT <br> ALL EYES SEEM TO BE ON THIS REAL-LIFE COMMUNITY OF PSYCHIC FRIENDS

Are the Lily Dale mediums working overtime? Or maybe it's the media, not the mediums.

The latest national spotlight on this Western New York spiritualist community is "After Life," a new book by Rhian Ellis. Ellis lived and worked in Lily Dale, a village of "tiny gingerbread cottages" 50 miles south of Buffalo. It was named for the lilies that bloomed on Cassadaga Lake.

Add to that National Public Radio contributor David Isay's book "Holding On," based on pieces he did for 5 million listeners, not to mention HBO filmmakers and Discovery Channel documentarians and the community's 30,000 visitors this year. Even Tops Markets has discovered the area, building a superstore in nearby Cassadaga -- but it won't be selling spirits.

"My only question is: What took them so long? We've been here 121 years," joked Joyce LaJudice, Lily Dale historian and museum curator.

When she first became a Lily Dale resident about 30 years ago, she "fell in love with the grounds -- the beauty of it. I had a trying job, second-level manager for the phone company. I was stressed out, and I liked how peaceful it was here."

A "lovely place," Isay agreed. "Picturesque turn-of-the-century houses and cottages are packed closed together on narrow tree-lined streets." Neighbors are hundreds of "year-round residents who subscribe to the belief that life continues after death and that spirits can communicate with the living through mediums." Lily Dale's 121st season featured lectures on everything from yoga to past-life regression.

Lily Dale is spiritualism's Jerusalem, said East Aurora paranormal investigator Mason Winfield, who had a close encounter of the haunted kind while visiting. In a guest house, he was "shocked by a sudden, loud, aggressive growl as if a mastiff behind one of the doors in the hall objected to me walking by. It was not my imagination. In the morning I was informed that I was the only guest and that no animals of any kind were in the building."

But in spite of all the outside interest in the Lily Dale neighbors, not much has changed since the 19th century, when the community was founded. In fact, some of neighbors are nearly as old as the town itself. Elders can recall the days of the levitation mediums, when a table would rise with people standing around it, or when pale spirits were seen comforting survivors.

LaJudice, who gives tours for area college students, points to "younger neighbors who are restoring their Victorian homes."

The Lily Dale Assembly -- first called the Cassadaga Free Association -- was one of the organizations that cropped up across the country to advance the new religion of spiritualism, which began near Rochester in March 1855 "when two young sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, were said to have heard rapping noises in their home and found they could communicate with the presences by knocking back," Isay said.

By the turn of the century, there were 11 million spiritualists in the country. Today in Lily Dale, the Healing Temple is the heart of the local church. Members believe in life after life.

"We believe there is no death, with proof through mediumship," LaJudice said. "We're not out to convert, just to help newcomers feel a little bit more comfortable."

It's this belief that unites Lily Dale neighbors.

"This is what makes people want to live here first and foremost," said healer Tom Cratsley, who came to Lily Dale from Boston a decade ago. "And then it is a quiet place to live in."

Have an idea about a local person whose life would make a good profile? Write to: Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240, or e-mail lcontinelli@buffnews.com.

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