When Bill Wulff was growing up in Aurora in the 1950s, his father would leave for one weekend each year to attend a religious retreat at St. Francis Retreat House at Mayslake in Oak Brook.
By today's standards that may sound pious, but back then, it seemed all dads were involved in some sort of religious group or service club, Wulff said.
"I think the American public allowed themselves to be a little more controlled by their religion," he said.
The tradition seemed so normal that when Wulff turned 18, he accompanied his dad to the giant Tudor-style estate at 1717 W. 31st St. for a men's retreat.
First opened in early 1924, the St. Francis Retreat House was operated by the Franciscan Brothers of Sacred Heart Province in St. Louis, who bought the sprawling estate from Jack Peabody, son of the late prominent Chicago businessman Francis Stuyvesant Peabody, according to religious archives. During the Depression, men could stay a weekend for $5. As time went by, the cost stayed minimal, and guests were mostly blue-collar workers who heard about the retreats from labor unions, fraternal organizations and local parishes -- which were all very Catholic at the time, said the Rev. Jonathan Foster, the former retreat house director.
"For many, tens of thousands of Chicago men -- mainly Catholic men -- it was a second spiritual home," Foster said. "Many of these men would come back year after year."
When Wulff and his father, Al Wulff, checked in together in the early 1960s, the retreat house was in its prime, with 144 men arriving from all parts of the state on Friday afternoons for nearly three days of spiritual talks and silent reflection, Foster said.
Wulff remembers eating with other attendees in the dining room, and on Saturdays, getting a tour of the mansion set on 840 acres.
"It was a learning experience, a time of reflection," he said.
Wulff left for college and then for military service. He attended his last of four retreats in 1975.
The retreats continued each weekend, although the Franciscan Brothers of Sacred Heart Province slowly sold off pieces of the property over the years. By 1991, all that remained was the retreat house and 90 acres, which the religious group decided to sell to a developer who planned to build luxury homes, Foster said.
Residents fought to save the historic site, and in 1992, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District acquired it. The district now offers park space and tours of the mansion, which, with its chapel, can be rented for meetings, weddings and other gatherings.
Foster, who said the retreats were still going strong at the time the property was sold, started a nonprofit organization dedicated to continuing them at various rented locations and offering other spiritual advising. Mayslake Ministries, which operates out of an office building in Lombard, hosts nearly 300 people -- men and women -- for retreats each year, said Mary Amore, its executive director. Many retreat participants reminisce about attending retreats at the Mayslake mansion, she said.
Wulff, 66, and now living in Sugar Grove, didn't know the local retreats were still around and has become a regular visitor at retreats in Dubuque, Iowa.
He says his commitment to such retreats started from the habit formed as a young man at Mayslake.
"I wouldn't have stayed if it was bad," he joked. "Plus, your father had the key to the car, anyway."