After death, divorce or separation – the Beginning Experience

By Carol Baas Sowa
Today’s Catholic

SAN ANTONIO • In 1973 a Sister of St. Mary of Namur and her friend, a divorced Catholic mother, attended a Marriage Encounter weekend in Fort Worth with the hope of developing a program for engaged couples. During that weekend, the divorcee (Jo Lamia, a former World War II WAVE whose husband’s infidelity had led to separation and then divorce) finally found healing and closure for the anger and grief brought about by the ending of her marriage years before.

This marked the start of what would become an international ministry known as the Beginning Experience, focusing on facilitating the grief resolution process for those who have lost a spouse through death, separation or divorce. Spearheaded by Sister Josephine Stewart, SSMN, the program was based on Lamia’s writings from that weekend and both women continued to work with the ministry until their deaths. Lamia passed away in 1987 and Sister Josephine this past May.

Michelle Barrentine, president of the San Antonio Beginning Experience chapter, believes it was the guidance of the Holy Spirit that led the two friends to decide that maybe there was something that needed to be done for divorced Catholics. Up until the ministry’s 1974 founding, the Catholic Church had no information or programs in place for the divorced, she notes, with divorced Catholics often feeling like “pariahs.” The ministry expanded to include the widowed and separated, who are also faced with the grief of a severed relationship.

“Beginning Experience is a ministry for divorced, separated and widowed adults who are trying to find a new beginning,” explains Barrentine. “They are seeking help to put the past in perspective and get their lives going down a new path that will bring them back to themselves, their family and God and help them to start anew.”

The local chapter was formed in 1978 and, from small beginnings, has blossomed into one serving south central Texas, with persons attending from as far away as Laredo, Brownsville and Lake Charles, La. More than a thousand persons experiencing a significant relationship loss have passed through the San Antonio Beginning Experience’s transformational weekend retreats, enabling them to again love themselves, others and God. Internationally, certified teams of peer ministers present the program in communities in nine countries on three continents.

Barrentine initially attended a Beginning Experience retreat in 2010, about seven months after her husband’s death, and began working as a retreat facilitator in 2011. All retreats are led by previous participants, who share their own experiences. While the peers conducting the retreats (“wounded healers,” Barrentine calls them) are not registered counselors, they do have a counselor available and the program they follow was designed by clergy members, religious, psychiatrists, psychologists and grief counselors. “We’ve been through the challenges and the hurt of losing a spouse,” she relates, “either permanently or, in a few cases, hopefully temporarily, where they reconcile.”

Introspection and writing are integral parts of the program, which includes small group discussions where questions to consider are brought up and large group gatherings in which team members present talks about their experiences in a particular area. “We start with looking at who we are,” says Barrentine, “and then moving toward forgiveness and moving toward closure.” Not everyone reaches closure that weekend, she says. It can take time, but is a significant part of the process.

She recalls a recent group which included several separated women who were distraught over how to deal with their lives when spouses who had left them would not agree to a divorce. “The journey made them happier and calmer,” she says, “and they are now more confident in being able to say to an ex-spouse or separated spouse: ‘I need space’ or ‘I need this divorce to go through.'” This is also helpful when children are involved. Sometimes, she notes, people feel as though they are walking in a fog and unable to focus, which is harmful to both themselves and their children.

Part of what the retreat helps participants do, she explains, is to see their own self worth and forgive themselves and their spouse, whether or not the marriage continues. A part of the healing process for the divorced and separated can include being able to see things from their spouse’s perspective and realize that they themselves may have played a part in the break-up of the marriage.

Hearing the stories of others who have perhaps been emotionally abused by a spouse can lead a retreatant to forgive, while at the same time gain the strength to move forward with their lives, knowing they are a person of value.

Being a diocesan ministry under the Family Life and Natural Family Planning Office, the Beginning Experience program is Catholic-based and includes a Mass and reconciliation service. However, it is open to those of other faiths as well. “For example,” says Barrentine, “we encourage people to participate in the reconciliation service not as a confession as much as just a counseling with a clergy member who can help them to maybe work through some of the questions they have or work through the need to forgive themselves or forgive a spouse for what they see as wounds that have happened over the years.”

In the process of making friends during the retreat and knowing they are not alone, even non-Catholics usually participate in the Mass, which serves as a nice close for the weekend.

Beginning Experience retreat weekends are held three times yearly and currently take place at the Seraphic Sisters’ Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa at 130 Beethoven Street. Upcoming are ones scheduled for June 20-22 and Oct. 24-26, with a third taking place in February or March.

Since space is limited, only 18 persons, including members and participants, can be accommodated per retreat. The cost is $150, with application forms available online. Visit, e-mail or call (210) 478-0690 for more information.

If you attend a retreat, be assured that you will be among people who have walked the path you are on and be prepared to talk, cry, laugh, listen, write and reflect on your journey and hear participants and team members talk about theirs.

“We who are involved with Beginning Experience feel that it is such a wonderful ministry,” says Barrentine, “and we want to help as many people as possible.”