They have bonded through the shared experience of loss either by death, separation or divorce. From July 25-27, 110 team leaders of Beginning Experience International Ministry, Inc., held their biennial convention, “Celebrating the Vision in a Time of Change,” commemorating the group’s 40th anniversary.
“They’re my family,” said Rose Brocato, president of Beginning Experience of Alexandria, Louisiana, who helped coordinate the local gathering. Her 2002 divorce struck a hard blow, and Beginning Experience’s weekend retreat helped her delve inside herself and find the hope she needed to pull through.
The conference also served as a memorial to Sister of St. Mary of Namur Josephine Stewart, a family counselor at the Catholic Renewal Center in Fort Worth, Texas, who started Beginning Experience in 1974 with a divorced friend, Ann Marie “Jo” Lamia.
“It saved my life and healed my spirit,” Brocato said of Beginning Experience. “I felt like I could fly again, like a 50-pound weight had been taken off my shoulders. It gave me the tools to move forward – past the grief – in my life and be there for my children.”
The meeting assembled peer ministers from the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, where Beginning Experience is located.
Through a myriad of workshops – “Embracing God’s Timing: Letting Go of the Time Factor”; “40 Shades of Crimson: Sexuality and the Single-Again Catholic – How to Integrate God-given Sexuality into One’s Personal Life”; “Guided Meditation for Relaxation”; “Lord, Teach Me to Pray”; “The Grieving Child and the Loss of a Child” – attendees sharpened their leadership and ministry skills to continue offering Christian compassion to those suffering loss.
“We get so much out of it,” said Eleonora Larrazabal, who separated after 49 years of marriage, about the conventions. “We’re learning how to make the group stronger and reach out to people who are hurting and need Beginning Experience. Once you put away the hurt and start healing, it’s important.”
“If your goal was to re-energize teams, it worked on me. My task will now be to pass it on,” wrote delegate Larry Barone of California to current executive director Yvonne Stoops, who attended her first Beginning Experience weekend in 2005 and providentially found a new life and career.
Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Texas, celebrated Mass July 26 and asked attendees to seek wisdom from God for an understanding heart, as Solomon had when on the cusp of assuming the throne from his father David. Bishop Zurek said to obtain wisdom, individuals need to know Christ and enter into a relationship with him.
“I hope you know the joy and dignity of life that wisdom reveals to those who know him (God), especially if you have been through pain,” Bishop Zurek said.
“Sister Josephine must have possessed ‘holy’ wisdom, for what else would have illuminated her with this wisdom?” he said about the Beginning Experience cofounder. “People with wisdom are illuminated people. She founded Beginning Experience and nurtured it for us. … She is the significant wisdom figure for us, our wisdom and our joy.”
Others who knew Sister Josephine, who died in May, also shared stories at the memorial. Sister Josephine’s liveliness and vision for Beginning Experience was to nurture “hurting” people who could be “healed, transformed and free again to love themselves, others and God.”
She was recalled as a fun-loving nun who wore brightly colored “muumuus” and loved to dance.
“She always had a smile on her face and could light up every room,” said Carolyn Rohde of Nebraska, president of the international board of directors, who first met her in Winnipeg. “I can smile because of her and the ministry she founded 40 years ago.”
Georgianne Schmitt of Dallas-Fort Worth said Sister Josephine dedicated her life to spreading God’s love.
Jim Graf of Wichita first met Sister Josephine at a conference in Chicago in the 1980s and once visited her in Galveston, Texas, and attended a sunrise service on the Gulf of Mexico. During the service, he said a “bum” approached them and “Sister recruited him to make the next Beginning Experience weekend,” he said to much laughter. “She was a special lady.”
Young adult James Engesser from Minnesota, who experienced the divorce of his parents, was a presenter with several of his siblings at the Young People’s Beginning Experience Program retreat in Rosaryville July 22-24 for youth and young adults to cope with divorce. He remembered being inspired by Sister Josephine’s words, “The youth are the future of America.”
“I think it was the first time I believed it,” Engesser said.
Pat Seier from Nebraska met Sister Josephine in Denver in 1982 and visited her right before her death. She said Sister Josephine remembered all those who sent her cards.
“I hope we don’t forget her,” she said.
The next regional conference is scheduled in Singapore in 2015. Brocato hopes to host another youth weekend this year. Visit Beginning Experience at www.beginningexperience.org.