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St. Louis group organizes own retreat at monastery
- 1 of 4Sister Michelle Mohr (third from left) reads a prayer while others close their eyes to concentrate on the words during a special retreat for 11 St. Louis women.
- 2 of 4Jean Siebelts opens a gift of appreciation given her by the St. Louis-area women for setting up a special directed retreat for them at the Ferdinand monastery. Sister Karen Joseph is at right.
- 3 of 4Sister Betty Drewes speaks to the group of St. Louis women at their recent retreat.
- 4 of 4Judy Powers helped recruit many of the St. Louis women to attend a retreat set up solely for them at the monastery.
Jean Siebelts’ husband, Jim, died in April, 2011. “For the next couple of months, I was completely dead inside, I wasn’t doing anything, I didn’t feel anything, I was empty,” she said.
Finally, she admitted she needed help to Judy Powers, a dear friend who had been with her when her husband passed. Jean knew Judy had been helped by going to retreats at the monastery of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Indiana.
Judy remembered Jean saying she had seen a definite change in her when she returned from a Ferdinand retreat about three years earlier.
Now Jean needed a definite change.
She asked Judy if she could accompany her to a directed retreat, one where spiritual guidance is provided by a Ferdinand Benedictine sister, in September, 2011. They attended together, have been coming back to the monastery from their St. Louis homes as often as they can ever since, and were even fired up enough to organize a private directed retreat in Ferdinand recently for 11 St. Louis women.
Sister Betty Drewes, a spiritual director involved with the special retreat, said, “It was very unique. These women from St. Louis took the initiative and set it up. And Jean Siebelts was the fire behind this retreat!”
Even though the private retreat was her idea, Jean noted, “If I was the fire, then Judy Powers was the spark.”
Also playing a key role was the experience Jean had at her first Ferdinand retreat.
She recalled that at the retreat’s beginning, each participant was asked to share what they wanted to get out of the retreat. “I said, ‘I want you to give me back my peace, because it’s gone.’” Not only did she get her peace back, but she received so much more that she decided she must share the Ferdinand monastery experience with others.
The first time she met with her spiritual director, Sister Michelle Mohr, “it just woke me back up.”
“In talking with Sister Michelle, walking to the monastery and praying in the grotto, just one step after another, I felt so DRAWN,” said Jean. “I said, ‘This is wonderful, I have to show this to other people.’
“It’s the guidance from the sisters, it’s this place, it’s the WHOLE picture, it’s EVERYTHING here. The grotto, praying with the sisters, going to the Eucharist, all of it. There’s just something about being here. It’s the connection to the sisters, that’s what it is. “
Judy and Jean love the monastery experience so much that they’ve returned for Christkindlmarkt, a Compassionate Healing program, to work at the Summer Social, to attend another directed retreat, and to become Oblate candidates.
Jean is a member of the largest parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and Judy lives with some sisters of the Precious Blood order. But, Jean said, “They don’t have anything like this in St. Louis for women.”
After the first night of the retreat for the 11 St. Louis women, Jean said she already had two thank you notes slipped under her door at Kordes Center. “There’s just something special here,” she said. “I knew it, and I wasn’t the only one. The connection with the sisters is just unreal. They truly live the Benedictine life, and they just exude that.”
The daily one-hour discussion at the retreat with a spiritual director was a key component.
Sister Michelle guided Jean through the pain of reliving the loss of her husband, and gently nudged her forward.
“It was like the weight of the world had been lifted,” said Jean.
Jean particularly recalled when Sister Michelle had her open up the Bible to a random spot and just read what she saw, just one passage.
“It was bizarre,” said Jean. “The passage was just designed for me. We went from there. It just ignited.”
Jean felt a further spark during her daily walk back from praying at the monastery grotto during the week-long retreat. As she passed the hundreds of tombstones of the sisters in the front yard of the 145-year-old monastery grounds, it hit her.
“I want other people to feel what I feel,” she said. “This is so wonderful I have to let others know about it. And I wanted to do anything I possibly could to help these sisters. They’ve given me way more than I could ever give them, just by being THEM.
“I can’t wait to get here, because it’s so different. The sisters keep me in my spirituality, they keep me honest. My spiritual advisor does not judge what I say, so I’m able to say whatever really is there. That’s truly remarkable, that’s what they give, and their hospitality. It’s unbelievable.
“With the sisters, it’s not about what you’ve done wrong. It’s about you being a better person. After hearing the things I said, Sister Michelle did not wince, or look shocked. Instead, I got compassion. She said, ‘I understand, I don’t judge, I’m here to help you with what you want.’ And that’s what she did. It’s a much different approach, it’s compassion.”
Judy, a pastoral associate at a huge parish near St. Louis, said her first impression of the Ferdinand monastery and the sisters was “awesome.”
“My heart was here, it was like I was home, like I had been here before,” said Judy. “The sisters are so willing to walk the journey with you. The unconditional love that surrounds you when you’re in this building, it’s just wonderful to be here. It’s holy ground.
“I just feel this is where I belong. My love is here.”
Judy stays connected with the sisters by often following their prayer services on the monastery church’s webcam. She relishes the time to stop and pray, believing strongly in the power of prayer. That means getting up at 6 a.m. St. Louis time, closing her office door at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., and very rarely missing a Saturday and Sunday service. She particularly enjoys the sisters’ Saturday reflections.
Asked why she chose to set a retreat up at Ferdinand rather than somewhere else, Jean said, “These women don’t exist anywhere else. This place doesn’t exist anywhere else. That’s it. There’s something very magical here, the Holy Spirit is here. I still get goose bumps every time we pull up. We squeal like little five-year-olds, ‘we’re here, we’re here!’”
Jean said the purpose of the retreat for the St. Louis women was to “light everybody else’s fire.” She didn’t want to just keep the special feeling to herself. She wanted somebody else to feel it, too. Judging from comments on the retreat evaluation sheets, she succeeded.
Jean Bourneuf wrote, “I have been nourished with words of wisdom, and experienced the healing touch of Jesus.”
Judy Anne Bailey said, “My (spiritual) director encouraged me to see things as God does (a loving and forgiving God), and that worry takes up time that could be used in trusting and loving God.”
“It was like walking through my soul’s garden with my director giving me guide signs and suggesting certain paths, yet leaving it up to me to decide,” wrote Susan Pini.
Mary Jo Pini said, “I’m so glad I finally have experienced this type of retreat, and will do it again.”
“In the silence I found God, and in the silence I began to find myself,” said Jeanne Zack. “I am leaving as a new creation of Christ in me.”
One wrote she plans to make the retreat a “yearly gift to myself.” Jean and Judy are already making plans to organize another retreat for St. Louis women next year, and are confident this year’s participants will return, and that they’ll be able to recruit even more women.
After all, the sisters gave Jean her peace back. And that’s worth sharing.
Comments? Questions? I welcome your feedback, and ideas for stories on how the sisters touch lives. Contact Greg Eckerle at email@example.com, or at 812-367-1411, ext. 2636.