In places as diverse as Ottawa, Ontario, and New Orleans, Louisiana, the Holy Spirit is moving women to gather for weekend retreats, prayer, sharing, and healing. In Canada, Women of Bethany, founded by Liana Gallant, offers retreats three times yearly that attract women from 15 dioceses. In New Orleans, Patti Gallagher Mansfield and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office of the Archdiocese have been offering Holy Spirit Womens Retreats since the late 1980s; nearly 1,000 women are ministered to and strengthened for their service to family and to the world.
The minivan purred up the incline toward the multicolored balloons. Liana Gallant, behind the wheel, and her husband Bing in the navigators seat, congratulated themselves on successfully finishing their parish car rally (a type of treasure hunt on wheels). Suddenly, from the back seat, their oldest daughter started screaming, and the sound of smashing steel intruded into Lianas happy life. A drunk driver had struck Lianas side of the car.
For the next two weeks, Liana lay in an Ottawa, Canada, hospital, suffering from a fractured pelvis and wrist, and internal and soft tissue injuries. Another six weeks of complete bed rest at home extended her immobility. "God knew He had to teach me complete dependence on Him," Liana says. "Until the accident, I had been successful at pretty much everything I had ever done."
That success involved her own nursing business as a labor coach, where she witnessed the most intimate moment of couples' lives. "I didnt realize how much affirmation I was getting from my work," she says. "It was far more than a career; it was a vocation."
With constant pain in her neck, shoulders, arms, and legs, it was impossible for Liana to return to the delivery room. Within a year, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition. A short while later, she developed chronic fatigue syndrome.
Depression soon followed. "I was taking one loss after another," Liana said. "Learning to live with chronic pain and fatigue affected every area of my life."
Despite the frequent migraine headaches and physical exhaustion, Liana propelled herself to a healing retreat for women given by author and speaker Dr. Ronda Chervin in New Jersey. As Ronda talked about the kiss from the cross, God talked directly to Liana.
"God said to me, Liana, you think I cant heal you? Was my death on the cross not enough for you?" Liana recalls. "At that moment in my spiritual journey, I embraced the cross."
Embracing the cross meant accepting that her illness wasnt going to go awayand finding good in it. That good was being able to minister spiritually to other women.
"I asked Ronda to come to Ottawa and offer the same retreat," Liana says. "She agreed, and I thought there would be one retreatand that would be the end of it."
But the 125 women who jammed the retreat had different ideas. "They clamored for more," Liana says. "This type of fellowship for Catholic women didnt exist in our area."
Liana quickly realized her labor-coach experience was being enlisted for the Church: In 1994, Women of Bethany was born.
"Bethany was a place where Jesus went to be refreshed and to be with friends." Liana says. "We try to be a place of Bethany for women of all spiritualities, ages, and states in life."
Women of Bethanys main outreach is an annual retreat held every October at a local hotel. The 200 plus women come from over 15 dioceses and are treated to a four-fold ministry of music, prayer, teaching, and hospitality. "Women from the hospitality team wait at the hotel door to greet each participant as she comes in," Liana says. "Another woman plays the grand piano, and theres a homemade gift for everyone. We try to make the place feel different, set apart."
A second key element is the teaching. "We look for women speakers who are able to present the teachings of the Catholic Church with a heart for women and an understanding of womens wounds," Liana says. And although Lianas been tempted "to go for the male speakers because theyre much easier to find," shes persisted in finding the women: "Its important to raise up women speakers to show the world and the church that Catholic women have something to offerand we dont have to be ordained to do so," she says.
With speakers such Babsie Bleasdell, Sr. Nancy Kellar, Jenni Newbrough, Katrina Zeno, and Barbara Shlemon Ryan leading the last five retreats, the laughter, tears, and healings have flowed. "We joke that we have a Kleenex ministry," Liana says. "Weve learned to tell the hotel staff ahead of time to order extra boxes of tissue!"
Its a request thats surely appreciated. During the ministry session at the 1998 retreat, one woman experienced wave after wave of cleansing from past wounds. "Id been trying my whole life to kill the child within me," she said during the testimony time. "While I was crying, I saw myself as a child playing in the water, and Jesus standing on the bank of the river. As I ran to Him, I grew into womanhoodso that when I reached His arms, I was an adult woman. Now, I can love the child within me, and I can be a bride of Christ, because Im a whole woman."
Bringing wholeness to women through healing is an integral part of each retreat. "Every speaker makes herself vulnerable by revealing some of her suffering to us," Liana says. "The women see that its okay to be vulnerable, and they lower their guard. Thats when the healing begins as Jesus touches the depths of their womanhood."
In addition to their October retreat, Women of Bethany also sponsors two Days of Renewal in the winter and spring. Despite numerous requests to organize share groups and Bible studies, Women of Bethanys vision remains focused: "Were not a service organization," Liana says. "This is a retreat ministry to women to uplift them for servicewhether they are single or married, working or stay-at-home mothers, or widows."
While Women of Bethany ministers to women across the Canadian north, another Catholic womens ministry is making headway in the Deep South. Patti Gallagher Mansfield and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office of the Archdiocese of New Orleans offered their first Holy Spirit Womens Retreat in the late 1980s, drawing about 70 participants. In 1998, the numbers topped 900.
"Some people would say its a conference, but were resisting that," Patti says. "We try to keep it a retreat by maintaining silence from Friday night through breakfast Saturday morning. Since there are at least two to four women in a room, keeping silence is one of the miracles of the weekend."
The focus of the Holy Spirit Womens Retreat is thoroughly Catholic, charismatic, and Marian according to Patti. "Theres always a strong Marian emphasis, because the team and the speakers are devoted to Our Lady and understand the mystery of Mary and her role in the Church," Patti says.
With hundreds of women lending their voices to song and worship, the exuberant praise lifts drooping spirits and rejuvenates wearied lives. The use of charismatic gifts such as singing in tongues, prophecy, and the laying on of hands introduces many women to a more personal experience of the Holy Spirit. Quiet adoration before the Blessed Sacrament complements the more exuberant, communal prayer.
Over the past 11 years, two unexpected dimensions of the weekend have emerged: What began as a January retreat to provide a lift after Christmasand an orientation for the new yeareventually coincided with the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. "Its a way we as women can make a corporate act of reparation to the Lord for the evil of abortion," Patti says. "We can say yes to God on behalf of womankind."
The second development reflects the Holy Fathers call to strengthen families, and participate in the new evangelization: "By the Holy Spirits leading, many women now come as family units," Patti says. "The sharing of rooms has become part of the joy of the retreat."
Rather than carving out solitary time and space, family and friends request up to eight bunk beds in a room, taking advantage of quality time for sharing, laughing, and crying. "One young mother of five children brought 20 women with her this year," Patti marvels. "Its a great opportunity for evangelism."
And as soon as the retreat is over, the women are already signing up for the next one. "The retreat has grown dramatically in size," Patti notes. "Theres a hunger among women for real spiritual food."
Its a hunger shared in both the Canadian North and the American South, and one that Women of Bethany and the Archdiocese of New Orleans are trying to satisfy. "God is anointing this type of ministry to women, Liana Gallant says. "I dont think its just for women in Ottawa or New Orleans, but for the whole Church."
Copyright © 2000 Katrina J. Zeno
How to Start a Womens Retreat Ministry by Liana Gallant
Soak everything in prayer. When you recognize a need, and you sense Gods prompting:
1. Find three people who are willing to be the initial core team.
2. Make sure these three people are prepared for hard work, have strong organizational abilities, and at least one has a creative spiritor knows how to find creative people.
3. Find a spiritual advisor. Try to connect the retreat ministry with the diocese, rather than a single parish. This provides for a broader outreach.
4. Pick a theme for the retreat.
5. Find a gifted speaker.
6. Find a place for the retreat.
7. Organize a music ministry.
8. Find people for the hospitality ministry.
Continue to soak everything in prayer, and let God show you the rest of the way!
Originally published in the April 1996 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. Visit their Web site at http://www.osv.com. For more information on Women of Bethany, contact Sue Atkinson at (613) 841-4940, or email her at email@example.com. For more information on the next Holy Spirit Womens Retreat scheduled for January 19-21, 2001, contact the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office of New Orleans at (504) 828-1368, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org