Every Thursday, women from different backgrounds gather at St. Anne Parish, Pleasant Prairie. They have one thing in common – a desire to bring deeper spiritual meaning to their lives.

Mary Laurenz, left to right, Janet Freng, Julie Field, Alice Stanula and Pat Ruman watch a video during a gathering of Grace Group at St. Anne Parish in Pleasant Prairie, March 17. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

Mary Laurenz, left to right, Janet Freng, Julie Field, Alice Stanula and Pat Ruman watch a video during a gathering of Grace Group at St. Anne Parish in Pleasant Prairie, March 17. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

The women who attend the Grace (Growing Relationships Among Christ Everyday) Group began as a simple prayer group two years ago at the home of a parishioner, Margie Mandli.

The group began with seven women, grew to nine, then 14, 17 and when it hit 24, another member suggested it become a sanctioned ministry for women at the parish, rather than in Mandli’s home.

Mandli’s pastor, Fr. Robert Weighner, supported the idea, and since then, she said, the fruits of the group have been amazing.

“This is a special ministry for so many reasons because we developed the acronym Grace, and grace comes from God and grace is poured out from the Lord, and we are growing in relationship among Christ every day, which leads us to our fellow sisters in Christ, and our relationship in Christ and our walk with Christ every day,” she said. “Every day there are issues that women face, such as things going on in their marriages, mothering issues, single life, stay-at-home moms, and in any group community like this, people find a sense of belonging. I see this group among other things at St. Anne as being a doorway into the church and parish life.”

Leads to more parish involvement

Once women join Grace Group, Mandli noticed they become more involved in ministry, in serving the parish, going to adoration and Mass, and finding their niche.

“I have also noticed that for those women who aren’t parishioners, once they join, many of them tend to join our parish. This is beautiful, and I am so thrilled with that,” she said.  “The ministry is built on invitation and we stress at meetings that if the women have a friend or family member from a different parish, to encourage (her) to come and we have grown in that way too.”

Grace Group offers a morning and an evening session, and devotes its meetings to Catholic book studies, guest speakers, Bishop Robert Barron’s Gospel reflections, small group discussions, prayer and service, field trips and a parish flower ministry.

Childcare is offered to mothers with small children and women are invited to attend anytime during the sessions. A monthly speaker session is offered for those who wish to come and be part of Grace, but not make a weekly commitment.

Coordinator thrilled with rapid growth

Mandli was nervous Grace Group would not be well accepted, but her concerns were unnecessary as there are close to 70 active members.

“When I think of the strong nudge from God to start a ministry like this when I had a little prayer group at home, I just could not have anticipated the growth and I am ecstatic at what the hand of God has meant this group to be,” she said. “Everyone who comes has a close relationship with God and all are prayerful. It was important that we weren’t just here for ourselves, that we created a ministry for others and be a welcoming community that invites people in and shares the joy with other women.”

Julie Field, a St. Anne parishioner, attended the first Grace group and said it seems as if the group has met much longer than two years, since she has made so many deep friendships.

“I feel as if we are all in the same boat, all on the same faith journey, though at different places in this journey,” she said. “I have learned so much through the book studies and have learned just as much from the discussions in our small groups. This builds personal, kind and loving respect for each other. We are learning together and I feel there is a fire in my heart now that I have never felt before, and I love it.”

‘We yearned for more of the Word’

As one of three facilitators for the evening session, Patricia Schmitz remembers when the group met just twice a month. When attendance increased, most felt they needed to get together weekly.

“We yearned for more of the Word. We thirsted for more from Jesus. We hungered to be together,” she said. “So, in February 2015, we started meeting weekly and have not cut back since. We take short breaks between sessions, but basically continue year round through summer and all seasons.”

Schmitz noted the flexibility provided by offering the same program in the morning and evening works well for those who may not be able to attend at the same time each week.
Each session begins with prayer, explained Schmitz, and the three facilitators plan each session together and will fill in for the other if one is unable to attend.

“Having two or three leaders for the program has worked very well. We also keep in close contact with the leaders of the morning Grace Group,” she said. “I love the new friends I have made. We have such a relaxed atmosphere; all feel welcome, no matter where we are on our faith journey. We have one thing in common — we all want to grow in our faith and develop a close relationship with God.”

As the prayer chairperson, Denise Ehr, a member of St. Anne, helps with opening prayers and writes prayer requests in the parish Book of Prayer Petitions.

“I meet with the leadership team and we decide on the next study topics, or go over any concerns regarding the morning and evening groups,” she said. “I feel very alive when I go to class; the women are supportive and very caring. I walked through a difficult time and moved into this group just at the right time. The women ministered to my soul by simply loving me, and the friendships that I formed during that time, are now solid. I treasure these women.”

Room for all stages of faith journey

When parishioner Joey Binder heard about Grace Group, she was worried she would feel out of place because she thought all the women would be quoting Bible verses or breaking into prayers she didn’t know.

“I knew I wasn’t very far along in my faith journey,” she admitted. “But what I experienced from Grace was completely different from what I expected. Everyone understands that we are all in different places on our faith journey. The women are there to lift each other up, never to put down or make you feel bad about where you are, what you think or what you don’t know. This group has changed me significantly and I have become so much closer to God.”

As the St. Anne Grace Group is the only one of its kind, the leadership team is willing to assist other parishes in getting a women’s Grace Group started.

“We have seen how fruitful and wonderful it has been,” said Mandli. “We are still growing and learning and we welcome people to inquire. We want Grace to spread.”

Outreach to community

Grace members assist the parish in multiple ways. They held a baby shower for Care Net Pregnancy Center one year; they provide hospitality one Sunday a month after all Masses.

They have also created auction baskets for the annual Winter Social.

“The group has really been a resource for Fr. Bob,” said Mandli. “We decorate the church during holy seasons, and some decorated our Altar of Repose for Holy Thursday. And, as Our Lady of Grace is our patron of the group, one of our members came up with the flower ministry and a rotating flower schedule where women bring in flowers for our Blessed Mother statue.”