While Hurricane Irma was tearing through Florida last weekend, there was a different kind of storm taking place at St. Jude Thaddeus Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico where 230 women were enjoying a downpour of grace from the Lord at the Women of Grace® 2017 National Conference.
“These conferences always start out on Friday not with many of the women still not quite sure why they’re there,” said Joanne Kane, assistant development coordinator at Women of Grace®. “But by the end of the weekend, everyone is smiling and praising God. You can see it on their faces; it’s a special glow.”
Attendees were ministered to throughout the weekend by Johnnette Benkovic, Carol Marquardt, Kitty Cleveland, Sue Ellen Browder and Susan Potvin, with the spiritual assistance of Father Benjamin Onwumelu of St. Jude Thaddeus. More than a dozen teens also attended a special Young Women of Grace tract led by project developer Mary Dillenback and Mission Advancement Coordinator Betsey Sawyer.
But there was no way to ignore what was happening halfway across the country in Florida, home-base for so many of the Women of Grace® staff, including Johnnette, as Hurricane Irma bore down on the state for what was predicted to be a major hurricane.
“When we opened the conference on Friday night, we knew the hurricane was barreling toward Florida,” Johnnette said.
As a result, the natural inclination toward spiritual motherhood kicked in and the more than two-hundred women, most of whom hardly knew one another, formed an instant bond and decided to band together in a Jericho Walk to storm heaven for protection from the storm.
The Jericho Walk is based on Joshua 6 when the Israelites processed around the city of Jericho for seven days, blowing their horns and shouting to God and making supplication so loud that it eventually caused the walls of the city to crumble.
“A Jericho walk is when you do the same thing,” Johnnette explains. “Catholics do this around abortion clinics and churches . . .”
In this case, the women all formed a line and began to process around the church hall at St. Jude’s as a kind of substitute for the state of Florida. The music ministry stuck up spiritual warfare music and passed out tambourines. Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Fatima were held aloft as they marched around the hall, singing and shouting to the Lord.
“If there’s such a thing as organized chaos, this is what the walk was like,” Johnnette said. “The room was filled to capacity and we were all calling upon St. Michael and shaking our tambourines and praising the Lord. I had exorcised salt with me and would toss a pinch of it for every county in Florida that I could remember.”
Even when the large crowd hit a traffic jam and no one could move, they turned this into a prayer for all of the people in Florida who were stuck on the roads while trying to evacuate.
“We pleaded with God to open up the lanes and let the people pass to safety. And when we got to the kitchen, we decided this was where we should pray for the Everglades!”
The procession lasted at least 30 minutes, “and it was amazing!” Johnnette said.
God must have heard their prayers because even though the storm was destructive, it was much less powerful than what forecasters had predicted - and the homes and loved ones of all staff members survived unscathed.
At worst, the hurricane prevented two staff members from being able to attend the event, but God was intent on ministering to the women and made sure the schedule flowed smoothly.
“Quite a few changes took place because of the hurricane,” said Isabelle Liberatore, Director of Administration and Development for Women of Grace®. “Our usual priest could not be with us so Father Benjamin from St. Jude stepped up to the plate. His homilies were amazing. And Father Tien-Tri Nguyen, the pastor of St. Jude, celebrated our opening Mass which was just beautiful. Even though so many things changed because of the hurricane, God provided for us in the most perfect way so that it felt like it was supposed to be this way all along.”
Meanwhile, more than a dozen teen girls gathered for a special Young Women of Grace track at the event which featured activities, speakers, prayer – and fun.
“Some of the girls had taken the study and knew each other and others did not, but all of the girls enjoyed themselves and were very attentive to the speakers,” said Mary Dillenback,
For example, Kitty Cleveland spoke to the girls about her struggle with weight. She grew up feeling out-of-place and had low self-esteem, but gradually learned that she had another gift that God wanted her to use – a beautiful singing voice.
“That led to a discussion about how we all have gifts and we can’t hide them away somewhere. We need to open them,” Mary said.
Sue Ellen Browder awakened the girls to the typical propaganda in the media and the many lies that are promulgated through words and pictures. The models with perfect figures and beautiful faces, which are largely photo-shopped, are designed to make girls want to buy whatever products they’re selling. This is why they have to look to the Church for the truth.
The girls were also treated to a variety of hands-on activities throughout the day that were adaptions of the learning tools provided in the Young Women of Grace Facilitator/Teacher Guide.
“Being a part of such a wonderful moment in our young girls' lives was really special to me,” said Betsey Sawyer. “They really absorbed the information that was presented to them in such a beautiful way. They asked questions and they listened intently.”
By the end of the day the girls had bonded with one another and were experiencing the same kind of sacred sisterhood that their mothers were enjoying at the conference.
A highlight of the weekend was the installation of two new regional coordinates, Fran Archibeque and Erica Segovia. The two made a commitment to become spiritual mothers to the women in their area in an installation ceremony that was so moving it brought everyone to tears.
“By the time the weekend ended, everyone was filled with the spirit,” Joanne said. “Our hope is that when they get back to reality – to the real world – they won’t lose that spirit and will let some of the seeds planted this weekend take root and grow. We were all on a mountain together here – someplace higher than where we were when we came here.”
In spite of the hurricane and the many other “storms” taking place in the lives of the women who assembled in Albuquerque this past weekend, God lifted everyone up to a higher place where they found healing, hope, and the promise of a bright new day.
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