Retreat History

Retreat History

History of the North County Men’s Spring Retreat – founded 1984

In late 1983 Kurt M., a man being sponsored by Paul C.., expressed interest in attending a retreat for alcoholics in recovery. Paul C. had just committed to attending such a retreat at St. Charles Priory, now Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, but it was full. A check of the calendars at the Priory and the Mission San Luis Rey showed no upcoming retreats for alcoholics. It began to look like the men would have to start their own retreat if they wanted to attend one any time soon.

Paul C.’s sponsor, Skip R., was supportive of the idea. A number of retreat centers in San Diego County were contacted to no avail. Finally, the Episcopal Church suggested St. Paul’s Monastery in Palm Desert, and the first retreat was held there in the Spring of 1984 and continued to be held there for four years. Men who attended at least once during those four years included Jake B., John B., Paul C., Larry D., Paul D., Joe F., Terry F., Geoff F., Mark G., Dave G., Bob K., Kurt M., Rick L., Jim M., Charlie M., Ken M., Doug M., Dan P., Skip R., Phil S., Pat S., Mike U. and Jim W. Most – but not all – off the early retreatants came from what is now the South Oceanside Men’s Group.

St. Paul’s was an offshoot of an Episcopalian order that was founded in Oregon in the 1950s. The monastery included a swimming pool surrounded by a chapel, a library, an all-purpose room, the administrative offices, kitchen, dining hall and the monks’ quarters, and it was rumored to have been Hopalong Cassidy’s old estate. The two dormitories housed ten retreatants each. Of course, it was all air-conditioned.

Father Andrew was the leader of the monastery, assisted by Father Barnabas. They became interested in alcoholism in the early 1980s when an older monk in their community was treated at an alcoholism treatment center in Minnesota. Father Andrew and Father Barnabas participated in the treatment center’s family program. Thus, Father Andrew discovered his own alcoholism, and at the time of the first retreat he was sober some two or three years. Father Barnabas dealt with the alcoholism in his family and joined Al-Anon. Both men were enthusiastic about A.A. and Al-Anon and were delighted to host our retreat. They both assisted patients at the Betty Ford Center by listening to Fifth Steps, lecturing on the spiritual aspects of alcoholism, and performing non-denominational religious services onsite for the patients.

The first retreat was conducted by Father Andrew and consisted of a series of presentations on the connections among alcoholism, spirituality, and the Twelve Steps. Both Father Andrew and Father Barnabas made themselves available for individual conferences throughout the weekend. Meals were taken in the common dining area alongside the monks. The fare was light and leaned toward “applesauce peanut butter”, created by Father Barnabas, for some of the meals. Everyone was invited to participate in chapel services. The library and all-purpose room were left open all night for those who wanted to read, write, meditate or pray in a quiet environment. A few late-night card games occurred there as well.

The traditions of “scholarships” began at the first retreat when one of the retreatants contributed extra money to help new men who were experiencing financial difficulties, with the condition that the benefactor’s name never be revealed. Such contributions have continued over the years and a number of men have attended their first retreats due to this generosity. When the new men got on their feet financially, they were not only able to pay their own way, but many of them also contributed to the scholarship fund.

The tradition of Saturday night ice cream began at the first retreat when, after Saturday dinner, the men all walked a few blocks to Swensen’s for dessert. When the retreat moved to Julian, pies were added to the dessert menu.

The first retreat cost around $50.00 and was collected at the retreat. Paul C. then met with Father Barnabas, who had operational and financial responsibilities at the monastery, and together they somehow made sense of the crumpled bills and checks that comprised our total obligation.

Although the monastery had room for 20 men, in some years we only had 15 or 18. A couple weeks before the retreat a notice was sent out that included the names, phone numbers, and cities of residence for all retreatants to facilitate carpooling. The men usually met at the K-Mart parking lot off Sycamore Avenue in Vista for this ridesharing.

While the men liked the idea of a retreat and the facility, they wanted a different retreat master for the second year. Father Terry R., a Catholic priest and an A.A. member from Los Angeles, agreed to conduct the retreat. Of course, there was a fee involved, so the men wrote two checks: one to the monastery and one to Father Terry. Paul C. admitted that this was clearly an error, since the retreatmaster’s fee is usually included in the overall cost of the retreat. Father Terry’s presentations focused on spirituality and recovery, and he made himself available for individual conferences throughout the weekend.

But again the men were dissatisfied with the way the retreat was conducted. Paul C. then devised a format that called for 1.5 hour sessions with three 10-mnute speakers drawn from the ranks of the retreatants. The first topics at the retreat were on physical health, leisure, and family issues, with handouts citing pertinent passages from the Big Book. Then the men counted off by twos and broke into two discussion groups on the topic for an additional hour. This had the advantage of drawing the men into participation in the retreat. At that time a tradition was started of having a Friday night opening session during which everyone introduced themselves, noted the number of retreats they had attended, and shared their expectations for the weekend. During the closing session on Sunday morning everyone briefly shared the benefits they received from attending the retreat.

The last retreat at St. Paul’s Monastery in Palm Desert was held in 1987. The monks had embarked on a remodeling project that would decrease the number of bends from 20 to 12. They suggested that we hold two retreats and accommodate our 20 men that way, but the men wanted to stick together, so we bid farewell to the good monks and began a search for a new facility.

Geoff F. and Paul C. called around and visited Raintree Ranch at Camp Marston in the mountains of East San Diego County. This facility allowed the retreat to expand attendance to 40 men, though the facilities were considerably more rustic than many would have preferred. Although the retreat was only held at Raintree Ranch twice, a number of memorable occurrences transpired that affect the retreat to this day.

In 1988 we first had a Saturday night speaker drawn from the group itself. The first speaker was Jerry C., a former police officer and adolescent substance abuse counselor who later became a school psychologist. This has evolved into bringing a speaker in from outside the group for the Saturday night dinner and giving him the option to stay overnight and participate Sunday morning if he wishes.

Also in 1988 a steering committee was established, with the first members being Paul C., Geoff F., Ken M., Doug M. and Skip R. The initial plan was to have an odd number on the steering committee in case a tiebreaker was needed, with two members coming on one year and three to come on the next, and to serve for two-year terms. This has evolved into a superior system of having six men on the steering committee for three-year terms, with two men coming and two rotating off each year. Initially the Third Legacy Procedure from The A.A. Service Manual was proposed for elections, but this was considered too unwieldy. Still, the basic principles of the Third Legacy Procedure have been retained, in that a secret written ballot is used and all those who fulfill basic eligibility criteria (length of sobriety and attendance at previous retreats) are encouraged to make themselves available for this type of service, without personal nomination.

Raintree Ranch hosted other retreats for alcoholic men, particularly those led by Steve K., an Episcopalian clergyman and Navy chaplain. The camp cook, Bill D., who sobered up in 1989 and is now a member of the South Oceanside Men’s Group, poured tabasco sauce into the chowder one year, which led to one of the biggest myths to ever arise from the retreat: that Bill had urinated into a pot of beans and then served it to the men for dinner.

Raintree Ranch had numerous stables onsite and horses to rent. In 1988 the retreat fee was about $65.00 for lodging and meals, and horse rentals were $3.00 or $4.00 per hour, so the fee was set at $70.00 and the men were told it included horse rental. Saturday afternoon many of the men went horseback riding, and many had never been on a horse before.

When some of the men wandered off the grounds of Raintree Ranch, the steering committee encouraged the retreatants to stay on the grounds for the entire weekend, and not leave to go to town, run errands, etc. The idea of staying on the grounds for the entire retreat – from the opening meeting on Friday night to the close of the business meeting on Sunday – has unfortunately weakened a bit in recent years.

Due to the rustic nature of the sleeping facilities, which consisted of large open dormitories that prohibited the separation of snorers and non-snorers, it was decided to find another location. We settled on the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (ISOMATA), which served us well for six years from 1990 – 1995, at which time their student base had grown to the point where they needed more residential space, and so they stopped offering retreats.

The maximum retreat space at St. Paul’s Monastery was 20 men; at Raintree Ranch it was 40; and at ISOMATA it was 60. Thus, the great debate on the size of the retreat was joined. Some didn’t want the retreat to exceed 20 (and later 40) men, and others felt the sky was the limit. The tension between these two views has kept the growth of the retreat slow at the same time never refusing any man who wished to attend. By the late 1990s retreat attendance hovered in the mid-50s, an average increase of two men per year from 40 in 1988 to the mid-50s in 1996. By 2016 attendance had ranged from 80 – 110 men, where it generally remains – another average of about two men per year.

In the mid-1980s the retreat adapted a letter-writing exercise from Outward Bound, an abbreviated version of a wilderness survival course that emphasized risk-taking, trust and teamwork. A quiet time was set aside on Saturday afternoon, during which the men could meet with sponsors, do step work, and write a letter to themselves that included committing to do three activities in the next 30 days. The letter was to be placed in a sealed, self-addressed envelope and turned in to the steering committee, who mailed it to the men 30 days later.

In 1996 the retreat moved to the Episcopalian-run Camp Stevens in Julian. Dave G. found this location through his parents and he had attended retreats there in the past. Over time, with the aging demographic of the retreatants, the beds seemed too thin and too hard, with too many people per room, and some of the men slept in the living quarters or in open-air shelters, all to avoid the snoring and crowded conditions. Camp Stevens hosted the Spring Retreat from 1996 – 2002.

For some years a number of men discussed starting a Fall Retreat. The first Men’s Fall Retreat was held in 1998 at Green Oak Ranch in Vista, where it remained for a few years before it moved to Camp Stevens in Julian, where it continues as of 2016. The Men’s Fall Retreat generally runs from 25 – 35 men, making it a smaller, more intimate retreat experience. It does not cost as much as the Spring Retreat, making it more affordable for the men.

After it became time to move the Spring Retreat from Camp Stevens, Charlie M. suggested a Warner Springs retreat center at a group of cottages. Meals were served outside under a large canopy. From time to time the clinking ice cubes, neon, music and laughter from the onsite bar created noise and temptation for some of the men. Finally the Native Americans who owned the land decided to buy all the property and remodel the cottages, which launched us on another search for a location after being in Warner Springs from 2003- 2010.

We settled on Camp Tahquitz, a 1930s Christian camp in Idyllwild, in 2011, where we continue to be well-served. The retreat now hosts some 80 – 110 men each year.