International Ministry Helps Widowed, Divorced Move Beyond Grief

by Denis Grasska

Published in the October 2012 issue of “The Southern Cross”

SAN DIEGO, CA – Cathy Savel had been married for 33 years when, one day, her husband had a heart attack at the gym. He was on a respirator for four days, and then he died. That was in April 2004.

That same month, Susan Fonss experienced a similar feeling of loss when her husband of 34 years divorced her.

“I felt lost, I felt sad, I felt angry,” Fonss recalled. “I had married at 18 and so I thought my life had been mapped out for me and was planned and stable, and it ended up that it wasn’t.”


Since those dark days after Savel was widowed and Fonss was divorced, both women have found closure, experienced emotional and spiritual healing, and found the strength to begin their lives anew. The two women accomplished this difficult feat by attending a three-day Beginning Experience weekend, Savel in late 2005 and Fonss three years later.

Founded in 1974, Beginning Experience has grown into an international ministry whose goal is to help the separated, divorced and widowed move beyond their grief and find peace. Beginning on a Friday evening and continuing through Sunday afternoon, the typical Beginning Experience weekend is led by a team of trained facilitators, all of whom are former participants, and consists of private reflection, small group discussions and presentations. There is a penance service on Saturday evening and a Mass the following day.

For Savel, the grief over her husband’s death was so intense that she knew she had to do something about it.

“It was just such a heavy burden on my shoulders,” she said. But, she added, “After the [Beginning Experience] weekend, it was like a load was lifted.”

Savel, who underwent facilitator training and now serves as president of Beginning Experience of San Diego, credits the transformative experience to the fact that you go through the weekend with people that are experiencing the same thing that you are.

Fonss, who also has gone on to serve as a facilitator, agrees.

In your day-to-day life, she said, you might feel like your friends and family are tired of hearing about [the loss of your marriage] and they want you to just get over it. But, she said, the Beginning Experience weekend provides an environment where you can really express all these feelings. The ministry’s motto is “a weekend away for a lifetime of change,” Fonss said, “and I really found that to be so true.”

In San Diego, the weekends are held twice a year, once in May and again in November, at a retreat center in Oceanside. The typical weekend is led by a group of eight to 10 facilitators and attended by 10 to 15 participants. The San Diego chapter tries to coordinate its weekend dates with the Orange County and Los Angeles chapters, so that Beginning Experience weekends take place almost every month in one of the three counties.

Even in her current role as a facilitator, Fonss said, Beginning Experience continues to help her.

“I find every weekend helps me,” she said, “and it has really made a big difference in the relationship with my family overall. I have a different type of family now: I have an ex-husband, but we get along really well; I have two wonderful sons; and I have a beautiful granddaughter now that’s 2 years old. And I just think that the Beginning Experience program has helped me to accept where I am at this point in my life, and move on, and have a happy and fulfilling life.”

For more information, visit, or contact Cathy Savel at (619) 222-9093 or, or Maureen Shultz at (619) 447-0622 or