Lynda Gilpin didn’t realize she was looking for a retreat until a friend brought a flier to her Bible study group. The information on the one-day retreat, Firstfruits, its schedule and the fact it included child care intrigued the young mother.
“Each time I attend, I am spiritually moved, refreshed and motivated,” said Gilpin, a member of St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners. “I come away with ideas to ponder and to motivate me for the month until the next retreat day. I feel like my faith life is like an onion and each time I go, I am exploring another layer, learning more and getting deeper into my faith.”
March 11 – St. Anthony on the Lake, W280N2101 Prospect Ave., Pewaukee
April 10 – St. Alphonsus, 5960 W. Loomis Road, Greendale
May 13 – St. Anthony
Women who juggle marriage, family and work may find it difficult to find time for a retreat. Firstfruits is the result of years in prayer for a ministry designed solely for women, according to executive director Joan Carey.
“I had been in ministry for over 15 years at Christ King Parish and began to see a need for women to get together and grow in their faith. But because of the demands of children and work, it was hard to carve out an entire weekend for a retreat or commit six to eight weeks of studies,” she said. “I also began to see that a number of women were making an exodus to Elmbrook Church or other faiths because their parishes couldn’t offer adult faith formation or moms’ groups because of a lack of finances and staff resources.”
Because Firstfruits is a non-profit 503 (c) traveling ministry, it is autonomous and not financially burdensome to a parish.
After praying on this for several years with Kathie Amidei and Angie Flanagan, members of St. Anthony on the Lake, Pewaukee, Carey looked for a site to begin the ministry.
“Kathie (pastoral associate for lifelong formation) was kind enough to give us a place and time to pilot Firstfruits and meet there once a month, because that was doable for most women,” said Carey. “St. Anthony’s became our first home site, where Firstfruits is permanent there, but it is a traveling feast that we take on the road. We have been to Christ King, St. Monica, St. Alphonsus, St. Eugene and we will be taking it to the cathedral in the fall, and starting to take other venues while maintaining our home site.”
Programs attract non-Catholics, too
Rooted in Catholicism, the program also attracts non-Catholics. On average, 60-90 women attend the monthly sessions.
“We struggle with calling it a retreat since there are so many rich and wonderful retreats out there at Catholic retreat places,” said Carey. “We have referred to it as a soul spa, or a spiritual day spa for women, but that is not to diminish the relevance and richness of what we are offering at any given Firstfruits day.”
Each retreat day offers up to eight unique programs ranging from spiritual awareness, to “Mary’s Way of the Cross” during Lent, arts and crafts Scripture with Salvatorian Sr. Karlyn Cauley, spiritual direction, marriage, intercessory prayer and massages.
For Gilpin, who after attending five or six retreats, volunteered to maintain the website and handle online registrations, the session on Mary’s Way of the Cross was especially moving.
“We explored the Stations of the Cross from Mary’s perspective as a mother and how it could relate to today’s world. It moved most of us to tears,” she said. “One time I attended a session by Carol Sullivan about feminine spirituality that changed my life. It was funny and she gave real world examples of how men and women are different, but different is good and both are needed.”
Day of renewal for women
Giving back to Firstfruits some of what she was getting is important to Gilpin who uses her technical skills to assist the group.
“I frequently get emails or registration comments thanking us for all we do,” she said. “Women express how grateful they are, how much they enjoy the retreats, how much the retreats mean to them, and if they can’t attend, how disappointed that they can’t attend that time.”
Being part of the prayer group that founded Firstfruits is something Amidei is excited about, three years after the ministry began.
“This is what we envisioned for women who could come and spend the day here, to renew themselves, to spend time with the Lord, be with other women and nurture their own spiritual nature,” she explained. “They could do it for the whole day, or the morning or afternoon; whatever works, we tried to do. We wanted it to be hospitable for women and if they were working during the day, they could come at night.”
Kiwi Café serves camaraderie
One of the more popular features of the daylong ministry is the Kiwi Café, said Amidei, who explained a portion of the sponsoring church’s hall is transformed into a café where women take a break and have homemade treats, good coffee, lunch and soup at night.
“They can have the opportunity to sit and read or talk,” she said. “It is a place to gather in between sessions.”
The Kiwi heart logo used to represent Firstfruits and the Kiwi Café was the combined efforts of the three women who noticed a resemblance between the halved kiwi and an image of the Sacred Heart.
“Angie is a graphic designer and it all came together,” said Amidei. “It is perfect, because we think of Firstfruits as giving our best and not what is left over. It is the beginning of an abundant harvest and kind of evangelizing about opening women’s hearts to the Lord as they bring their first fruits to him.”
Whether they feel creative or not, women enjoy working with their hands said Sr. Karlyn who always includes an art project with her workshops.
“One session we did was on earthenware vessels,” said Sr. Karlyn, a folk artist who gives classes at her studio located at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School. “We have also done a little weaving and when the projects were done we matted them and put them under plastic. They looked very professional.”
Art projects encourage creativity
The 90-minute to two-hour sessions offer women the opportunity to minister to each other about things going on in their lives.
“I think this is a great way to learn and better than a straight lecture,” said Sr. Karlyn. “The women really seem to enjoy making the projects and after we are done, we put all the pieces up like a little art exhibit. It is amazing to see how every single project is different and they all learn viewpoints from each other. Every time I teach women, they teach me even more and we have great conversation.”
Seeing the fruits of fervent prayer is rewarding for Carey who said women often appreciate the flexibility of the program.
“We say, ‘Come when you can and leave when you have to,’” said Carey. “It is perfect for society today and the women just comment on the warmth and the environment. They love beautiful things and in a typical parish, a day of reflection might not be in a beautiful space, but we try to make a point to make this a warm and welcoming environment. The Kiwi Café is the hub of Firstfruits and it transforms the space into an area where women feel truly cared for in a feminine way. It is women ministering to women in their uniqueness, spirituality and beauty.”
Women can choose from a variety of sessions throughout each retreat day. Through the combination of fellowship, hospitality and the environment, Carey has witnessed personal healing among the women who attend.
“We hope that more parishes would like to have a Firstfruits retreat day, but all women are invited to register for one of the existing sessions,” she said. “We are open to women of all ages and all faiths and offer child care in the mornings.”