MILWAUKEE — When Lent arrives, it would normally be time for the first 2017 meeting of RENEW, comprised of a dozen Catholics from the North Shore and north side of Milwaukee who have been sharing fellowship and faith in a small group setting for over 30 years.

RENEW members Martha Staral, left to right, Al Staral, Carol Dombek, Mark Lipscomb, Jean Carrao, Andrew Carrao, Jeannette Berbaum, Joe Shaw, Mary Ann Seimits and Ann Lange, pose for a group photo, Jan. 27. For more than 30 years, the RENEW group has met, but due primarily to age the group, has discontinued their prayer group but still remains in touch. (Catholic Herald photos by Joe Poirier)

But sadly, the group won’t meet to prepare for Easter this year. Age, difficulty driving and physical frailty are all factors that compelled the members to cease their meetings, held twice annually in each other’s homes.

Most of the members are now in their 80s and 90s.

“I think everybody will miss it, but they understand that it’s just become a burden,” said Martha Staral, one of the group’s founding members. “We had to drop our annual retreats, because there are only two or three drivers. We have some members who live as far as Menomonee Falls, and it’s just become too difficult.”

Fr. Mike Barrett, pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Church, Milwaukee, said he has born witness to the spiritual fruits of the RENEW group through its members’ involvement at his and other parishes.

“I’m just very impressed with them,” he said. “They’ve kept a watch out for each other and they’ve always joined their faith to some form of action. Most of them ended up serving, right up until recently, in parish and community food pantries. It wasn’t just sitting around gazing at the stars and talking about religion. RENEW is a kind of glue that has kept them together…. It grew into faith communities and faith-sharing that has touched so many parishes since then.”

The group got its start during a time where the small group model was being encouraged in parishes throughout the archdiocese for purposes of evangelization, faith-sharing and catechesis. The RENEW process was founded in the Archdiocese of Newark during the late 1970s and spread to other dioceses, including Milwaukee, over the next few years.

By 1983, RENEW groups were implemented at St. Nicholas Catholic Church on Lawn Avenue and Green Bay Road in Milwaukee.

“The first year found us members in different small groups; but in the second year, a good number of us were in the same group,” said founding member Jean Carrao. They all hit it off and struck out on their own, though their meetings always followed the format of the RENEW program – opening with prayer and inspirational music, moving on to reading materials, discussion and prayer.

It was a shocking personal tragedy in the mid-1980s that cemented the group’s ties of friendship. One of its members, a young mother of two, died suddenly of heart failure while ice-skating. It was a loss felt keenly by each of the RENEW participants, and the group volunteered to serve the meal at the woman’s funeral lunch.

In appreciation, the woman’s husband offered the use of the family cottage in Door County for a weekend getaway. It became the first of the group’s annual retreats.

Jean Carrao, left, and Jeannette Berbaum, parishioners at St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point, share 30 years of memories from their RENEW experience.

“Twelve people in a one-bathroom house developed our patience and consideration for each other. A bond of friendship began and continued to grow,” said Carrao. “I think if that had not happened, I don’t know if we would have kept meeting. We really developed a bond when we went to that cottage. I think that played a part in our continuing. It did affect all of us very much.”

With RENEW as a source of fellowship and constancy, the group also weathered another difficult loss – that of their church. St. Nicholas Church merged with St. Albert and Holy Redeemer parishes to form Blessed Trinity in 1992. Many members began attending Mass elsewhere. Staral and Carrao are now members of St. Eugene; others attend Our Lady of Good Hope, Lumen Christi and St. Catherine.

Blessed Trinity would eventually be absorbed by St. Catherine in 2011 and the building that originally housed St. Nicholas is now Eastbrook Church.

“It was a very difficult time,” Staral said of the merger. She had been on-staff at St. Nicholas in several different capacities, most notably as the parish’s planning coordinator. “Many of us had raised our children there and they were in school here, and of course then the staff changed. It was a very hard time.”

“The group that we had provided a way for us to stay in touch,” said Carrao.

Through the years, the group relied on different publishing houses and distributors for their meeting curricula, but kept the RENEW name. They relied on one another not just for spiritual sharing but also for support. As the years passed, six of the original members died; they invited new people to join the group but kept the total number to a dozen.

“They watch out for each other, in the good times and in the bad; when each other needs help, and when there’s a sudden death or emergency, they’ve kept looking out for each other,” said Fr. Barrett.

Though the meetings and retreats have come to an end, the group still hopes to see one another from time to time. “We plan to meet for potluck dinners,” said Carrao. “We feel blessed for the years we have shared.”

Fr. Barrett hopes the group’s faithfulness and loyalty to one another through the years will inspire others in the archdiocese to follow in their footsteps and form their own small groups.

“It was a seed planted many years ago that has grown in many different directions, and I think it probably has come to its full harvest,” he said. “I do question and wonder how can that now be reseeded in another direction?”