The women gathered in the small conference room at St. Joan of Arc Parish Aug. 26 were graciously greeted by the meeting organizer, and then invited to make the sign of the cross after dipping their fingers in the holy water in a small bottle being circulated around the room.
When everyone was blessed, Martha Nicolli, regional coordinator of Women of Grace ministry, officially kicked off the informational meeting aimed at getting women interested in some Women of Grace ministry opportunities coming up this fall. She began by asking the women to close their eyes as she said an improvised prayer and set a spiritual tone for the morning.
“This is the day the Lord has made and let us be glad,” she said. “Let’s put everything in a little box. Let’s put all our thoughts in the little box. Our Lady called all of you here this morning. Let’s ask Mary to take us in her heart where it is peace-ful and quite. Let us relax and be open to hear the call of the Holy Spirit.”
Nicolli invited women to attend the morning gathering through publication announcements and by word of mouth to discuss and give details about the Women of Grace ministry, which provides ongoing spiritual formation and a multitude of approaches to help women develop faith more fully. She expected about 10 women to show up, but as it turns out, the room was packed and some had to stand.
Nicolli was aimed at getting people signed up to attend the nine-week Women of Grace study programs held at St. Joan of Arc’s Kilby House beginning in September. The study groups are also held at other parishes throughout the year. She encouraged the women to also think about facilitating a ministry group in their own community.
Women of Grace, a Catholic apostolate, began in 2003. It is an outreach of Living His Life Abundantly, a nonprofit organization, founded and directed by Johnnette Benkovic, a well-known woman in Catholic circles.
Benkovic is a familiar face on Catholic television and has spots on Catholic radio for the past 30 years. Over the years, she has presented at events here in the Diocese of Palm Beach and also around the country. Basically, Women of Grace is aimed at spiritual formation and helping women grow in faith and pass it along to others, helping build up the city of God.
The local ministry took a firm hold in Boca Raton among the women of St. Joan of Arc 10 years ago. Nicolli, a parishioner of St. Joan, was hooked the first time she sat in on a study group. “I fell in love with the program,” she said.
The study program explores Scripture, the sacraments, and Church documents and teachings, but also joins women of common faith together to pray, learn and share. Over the years, women involved in programs have bonded and developed a “spiritual sisterhood,” according to Nicolli.
“The study made me realize how much further I had to go on my spiritual journey,” Nicolli confessed. Eventually, she became a Women of Grace member, then a facilitator, and now a volunteer regional coordinator for Women of Grace headquartered in Clearwater. She works with women here in the diocese and in the Archdiocese of Miami to spread the ministry, evangelize and grow the “sisterhood.”
“I wanted to give every woman an opportunity to study her faith,” she told the Florida Catholic during a 2008 interview when the ministry was new and growing. “My goal is to see the program in all the parishes. I have seen lives changed. I have seen healings. We are saving souls. It is the Holy Spirit. We know we can’t do it alone.”
The ministry’s patron is Our Lady of Guadalupe and the motto is “Women of Grace seeks to transform the world one woman at a time.”
Over the past nearly 15 years, the outreach has spread here and throughout the country and grown initiatives. Nicolli said that in addition to the St. Joan of Arc community, ministry groups in the Diocese of Palm Beach can be found in St. Thérèse de Lisieux in Wellington, St. John of the Cross in Vero Beach, St. Vincent Ferrer in Delray Beach, and St. Jude and Our Lady of Lourdes in Boca Raton.
In addition to the study programs, the ministry offers leadership conferences and retreats, and a networking system providing guidance and encouragement. Women also meet once a month outside classes for breakfast, prayer and discussions.
“We are being attacked by evil,” said Nicolli, pointing to today’s culture of death, broken marriages, torn families and the world of materialism consuming adults and children alike. “Women can do so much to aid humanity” by continuing to learn and grow in faith and then, live and pass it along to family, children and others.
Laurie Colbert of St. Joan of Arc participated in the Saturday morning meeting at the parish. She gave testimony about being touched by the ministry and the women involved in it. “I found myself being called back to my faith,” she said honestly about her life path taking a turn away from the Church. She felt empty and disconnected. “I went to a meeting and I felt like I had found a family,” she said. “I feel like I have a place.”
Denise Elia of St. Joan and St. Jude Parish in Boca Raton shared her story about finding the sisterhood. She was a busy working mother with no time for anything but career and parenting. Stressed out from work and busy life, Elia dropped everything, including the kid’s soccer games, housework and business meetings, and signed up to come to a Women of Grace meeting to see what it was all about and meet the women. “That night I met two amazing women,” she said. “I knew God was calling me to make a change.
“If you come, you will grow in your faith,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you are on your spiritual journey. God will show up and do wonderful things. I think there is a need for women to stay connected. You see miracles at meetings every month.”
Following the informational presentations, brochures and pamphlets were passed out among the women. Coffee and pastries were served.
“I know that today some of you are just discerning,” said Nicolli. “I invite you to open up your hearts. The message is that women can do so much.”
The women chatted and shared. Some exchanged contact information. It was a good mix and all appeared at ease and comfortable with each other — like good friends and sisters in a special sorority.
(Reprinted with the kind permission of The Florida Catholic)