Growing in Grace, a St. Gregory the Great Parish ministry offered to any interested woman through a Facebook page, also offers in-person events. (Submitted photo)

An online Milwaukee parish ministry created out of necessity continues to bear fruit today.

When the pandemic began three years ago, St. Gregory the Great, Milwaukee, and many other parishes scrambled to maintain or build connections with their parishioners.

While life has returned to a pre-pandemic normal for most people, some remote efforts took hold and continue today because they help people grow in faith and build community in new ways.

One of these is the Growing in Grace Women’s Ministry Facebook page open to all women.

About 375 women joined the group in the weeks after St. Greg Pastoral Associate Michelle Zakula created the page in August 2020. The group now includes about 450 women from around the country.

“We were in the middle of the pandemic, and it was the perfect answer to connecting spiritually with other women who needed support or had support to offer,” said Growing in Grace member Karen Gasperetti of Wind Lake.

“I think there was just a longing for everyone to want to connect. I know that I was feeling particularly lonely for my female friends,” Zakula said. She wanted to fill that gap for other women and create a place — if only virtually — for them to offer encouragement to one another.

Diane Gafney, who lives in Plymouth and is a member of St. John the Baptist, attended high school with Zakula in Cudahy. She joined the group right away to support her friend.

“I thought it was an awesome idea — getting women together and praying virtually and supporting people I don’t know.” It turned out she knew some of the other members from high school as well — but she had never prayed with them before. “So that’s pretty cool.”

Why has Gafney continued with Growing in Grace? “It’s the community. I’ve come to know many others. It’s an amazing way to support each other in prayer.”

She appreciates it as a supplement to her parish involvement at her local parish. “It’s so nice to have this as an option as well. I look forward to being able to continue to utilize this as a way of growing in faith, as well. It’s a safe way to ask for prayer intentions in a smaller group,” Gafney said.

Lauran Vetuschi is a 20-year member of St. Gregory Parish who lives just two blocks away, but she also has remained active with Growing in Grace.

“It’s just a wonderful, fantastic ministry. I have found it so enriching,” Vetuschi said. “I can choose when and how to participate. I’ve asked for prayers and my prayers have been answered. I’ve made some really good friends. I think there are so many of us that count on it and use it every day. I’ve never seen negativity — we’re constantly building each other up.”

Vetuschi described her relationship with Jesus as “imperfect,” adding, “This group has given me the tools when I feel my faith weakening.” Zakula’s resources offered through the page, such as a recent 40-day series of Lenten reflections and questions, helped build up her faith in a new way.

“I love it so much I made my college-age daughter sign up for it,” Vetuschi said. Away at school, her daughter has participated in the group.

Zakula, pastoral associate at St. Gregory for 10 years, did consider letting the page go dormant when pandemic restrictions lifted.

“It took on a life of its own,” she said. “There was just so much encouragement from the women to continue,” Zakula said, and some got more involved. Zakula began a livestream Rosary, then later other women stepped up to lead Rosaries in chapels in other communities.

As pandemic restrictions eased, some members were interested in meeting in person. Zakula wanted to continue to “feed” the Growing in Grace women by offering three kinds of opportunities: service, social and spiritual. A peanut butter and jelly drive and college care package projects have served others, while opportunities to learn about flower arranging and watercolor painting were more personal and social. A retreat day at the Conservancy for Healing and Heritage in Franklin also drew many.

Why have so many women stuck with the page beyond the confines of the pandemic? “That’s something I’ve really pondered myself. At the cornerstone of it is prayer. They really pray well for one another’s intentions,” Zakula said. The women are thankful and uplifted when others in the group will take that time to react or comment on the Facebook page posts asking for prayers, even when busy, she said. “That comes from Jesus,” Zakula said.

“Michelle and the support of the other women continue to feed my spiritual needs and support me and my family through prayer,” said Gasperetti, a member of St. Roman, Milwaukee. The group and other activities, such as celebrating Mass with different communities several times a week, help keep Jesus as her constant companion.

Find the Growing in Grace Women’s Ministry Facebook page at The page is private, but any woman may ask to join and Zakula will see her request.