Each year in the late summer or early fall, Victor D'Virgilio escapes to the Manresa Retreat House in Azusa, a 10-acre religious center that provides a quiet setting for solitude and contemplation.
An importer and distributor of wine, whiskey and beer, D'Virgilio, who has made annual visits to Manresa for 28 years, says he finds solace in the retreat and feels rejuvenated after a weekend of conferences, talks and quiet reflection.
"It gives me some solace and some chutzpah to attack the world again," said D'Virgilio, who lives in Hacienda Heights. "Every day you're in the battlefield. . . . When you go to a retreat, you don't talk. I find that it's good for my heart, good for my soul."
The San Gabriel Valley is home to at least four major religious retreat houses that serve as affordable and refreshing escapes from the pressures of the world.
The Manresa Retreat House, the Mater Dolorosa Retreat House in Sierra Madre, the Retreat House of the Sacred Heart in Alhambra and the St. Joseph's Salesian Youth Renewal Center in Rosemead are visited by thousands of people from as near as Covina and as far as Mexico each year.
"It's more and more true today that people live a mad life," said Father Terrance L. Mahan, head of the Manresa Retreat House. "To spend a weekend where you do not have telephones or people pressing you for one thing or another allows you to give to yourself and reflect upon your higher power, your God, whatever you might believe in.
"It can have a great deal of meaning."
While the four retreats are Roman Catholic and are affiliated with either a monastery or a convent, they are open to people of all denominations, and attendance at Mass is not mandatory. Those who make retreats are expected to have spiritual intentions, however.
"This is a spiritual retreat house and not a vacation spa, so even if people are coming up on their own, they are encouraged to make a religious retreat," said Mary Lou Butler, coordinator of development programs for Mater Dolorosa. "We would not want them to use this as a place to just get away from the pressures of the job."
People who have repeatedly made the retreats say the experience helps revitalize many different aspects of their lives, not just the spiritual side.
"It's more than religious," said Chris Moyer of Inglewood, who has made retreats at Manresa, Mater Dolorosa and Mission San Luis Rey Retreat near Oceanside. "It's physically refreshing and a nice change of scenery. It's such a dramatic change. It gets you out of your routine for two or three days, and you feel like you've been gone for a month."
Indeed, much of the appeal comes from a tranquil, pastoral setting that lends itself to quiet reflection. The lushly landscaped grounds of Manresa, for example, are surrounded by the 600-acre Monrovia Nursery at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Moyer, 71, who has been making retreats on and off for 30 years, said retreats are more relaxing for him than standard getaways because there are no decisions to make.
"When you go on a vacation, you have to do your own planning," Moyer said. "When you go on a retreat, there's no planning at all. There's no pressure. The food is reasonable. And the cost is fair."
Local retreat centers provide staff-directed or self-directed retreat programs for the day, for a weekend (Friday evening to Sunday afternoon), or longer--for a suggested donation of about $40 per night and $65 to $85 per weekend.
Retreat visitors stay in dormitory-like "hermitages" and are served three meals a day in common dining areas. The accommodations are simple but not Spartan, typically including a single bed (two single beds for married couples), a bathroom, a writing desk, a crucifix, a Bible and, in newer houses, air-conditioning for the hot summer months.
Visitors are asked to "keep the silence" in certain areas, and TV sets and radios are not allowed. Most retreat houses have libraries for religious reading.
The area's retreat houses can each accommodate 85 to 110 people. Reservations are necessary in advance. Manresa, Mater Dolorosa and Sacred Heart periodically offer retreats in Spanish. Mater Dolorosa also hosts Italian-language retreats.
The centers also stage special retreats for married couples, singles, youth groups and professionals such as doctors, teachers and police officers. Most retreats also host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on a regular basis.
"Anyone who would like to come is more than welcome," said Sister Marisa Ducote, director of the Sacred Heart Retreat Center, which specializes in retreats for women. "We don't require our retreatants to attend everything. If they feel they need a little more time on their own, that's fine."
LOCAL RETREAT HOUSES Front buildings at the Mater Dolorosa Retreat House in Sierra Madre.
Manresa Retreat House
801 E. Foothill Blvd.
Mater Dolorosa Retreat House
700 N. Sunnyside Ave.
Sierra Madre, 91024
Sacred Heart Retreat House
920 E. Alhambra Road
St. Joseph's Salesian
Youth Renewal Center
8301 Arroyo Drive
Father Jesus Vega conducts a service in the Mater Dolorosa chapel.