June 17, 2024

Ten years ago, Missy Baumberger was a young mother, struggling with her faith and yearning to talk with someone.

“At that time I was a young stay-at-home mom questioning the depth of my Catholic faith and who I was in the eyes of the Father,” the Watertown woman said.

She wanted to get to know other women, people who could relate to her concerns and challenges as a young mother. Someone, she said, who could “help answer the questions that were arising in my heart.”

Her search for answers resonated with a few other women in her Immaculate Conception Parish. Soon, four of them decided to get together to talk about their lives and their faith. The meetings became regular events and over time, they reached out to others they thought might benefit from the small group discussions.

Today, their parish has four active women’s groups meeting at various times throughout the week.

“Each group consists of women of all ages and stages of life,” Baumberger said, including at times, women who are not Catholic.

One of the Immaculate Conception, Watertown, Women’s Groups
(front row) Atlanta Peterson (Hudson, Brexton) Jess Dickes, Jane Dugan, Missy Baumberger, Kristin VanLaecken, (2nd row) Beth Raml, Karla Stutzman, Kristy Johnson, Kathy Tesch, Michelle McCormick, Phyllis Jacobson, Bridget Bauman, (back row) Kim Peterson, Connie Swarthout

Parishes across the Diocese of Sioux Falls have seen similar interest from women seeking opportunities for networking and shared faith development. In some parishes women have formed book clubs, in others they’ve combined faith discussions with dinners and social outings. Others are drawn to early morning Bible studies and discussions.

All have the same goal: finding support and companionship – a sisterhood – in living their Catholic faith.

Those involved with the Diocese of Sioux Falls’ Discipleship and Evangelization offices have taken note of this organic growth in the desire for community among women across the region. They hope to support, encourage and extend that network at the diocese’s first ever Women’s Conference.

“Beautifully Made: A Women’s Conference,” a day-long program of worship, speakers, prayer, socializing and celebrating, will be held April 14 in Sioux Falls.

The program at the Sioux Falls Convention Center will include keynote speakers, breakout sessions, music, worship, food, an adoration chapel and other activities.

“We need this,” said Emily Leedom, Director of the Office of Marriage, Family and Respect Life for the diocese. “It’s an opportunity to be inspired, fed.”

Leedom and Dr. Chris Burgwald, Director of Adult Discipleship and Evangelization, are coordinating the conference.

“We live in a world where we simply don’t take the time to recollect ourselves. We’re hungry for it,” Leedom said.

Varied life experiences but shared goals

In Britton, S.D., the drive for community and sisterhood among female parishioners led to the creation of a book club.

The St. Joseph de Britto Parish’s ”Catholic Book Club” was formed last fall. One of the participants, Audrey Schuller, said the members had enjoyed book and Bible studies at their church in the past, but the person facilitating the gatherings had to shoulder the responsibility of organizing and leading discussions.

They decided that book club members would take turns hosting the gatherings – usually in the member’s home.

“We always begin the evening with supper – and maybe a glass of wine – followed by the book discussion’” said Schuller.

“We are a “book club” but a big part of our monthly gathering is our friendship with one another,” Schuller said. “Some of us have read the book cover to cover with notes in the margins and some of us have read the back cover – but all are welcome.”

St. John’s deBritto Book Club in Britton
(back row) Mary (& Becket) Rapkoch, Flo Hart, Linda Deutsch, & Lunette Grimsrud (front row) Fran Wookey, Sandi Micko, Karen DeVine, Jenni Deutsch, & Grace Wegleitner

Membership has grown to 16 women in this small northeastern South Dakota community.

The diverse group spans all ages and the women bring a variety of life experiences to the gatherings. Friendships have grown as the women share the goal of “wanting to grow in relationship with Jesus, the Church, our family and friends, and each other,” Schuller said.

“Each time we meet, I always return home renewed and energized about how blessed we are to be a Catholic. And it has definitely allowed friendships to blossom – they are just a super bunch of ladies.”

Baumberger says similar things about her Watertown group’s weekly meetings. The interactions support her on her faith journey and the group, despite their varied ages and life experiences, has built a strong communal bond.

“Looking back, I can see now how God has used a number of these women in my life to encourage and challenge me throughout my walk. I feel so blessed that God has called me to walk with such a great group of women,” she said.

The Church and the ‘feminine genius’

The role of women in the Catholic Church has long been a point of discussion, disagreement and complexity. Some have struggled with an all-male clergy and the accompanying concerns that the hierarchy cannot fully recognize or understand women’s unique needs and challenges.

St. John Paul II and Pope Francis both addressed the dignity and importance of women and highlighted their roles in the church.

In 1988, as pope, St. John Paul II wrote in his apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women):
“The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the people of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity. She gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness.”

And in his 1995 “Letter to,Women:”
“In this vast domain of service, the Church’s 2,000-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the ‘genius of woman’; from the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest caliber who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history. … The life of the Church in the third millennium will certainly not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of ‘the feminine genius.”

More recently, on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2015, Pope Francis said:
“I greet all women: all women who seek every day to build a more human and welcoming society. And a fraternal thank-you also to those who bear witness to the Gospel in a thousand ways and work in the Church. For us, this is an occasion to underline the importance and need for their presence in our lives. A world where women are marginalized is a barren world because women not only give life but they also transmit the ability to see beyond, to see beyond themselves. They transmit the ability to see the world with different eyes, to feel things with a more creative, patient and tender heart.”

The words of the pontiffs have resonated with women, allowing many to reflect on their roles, challenges and journeys as faithful Catholics.

“Saint Pope John Paul II’s exhortations to women that we employ our “feminine genius” to build a culture of life calls us to embrace our unique role as a woman and as such, it is beautiful to us,” said Teri Kemmer, of Wentworth, S.D. “It’s as women of faith sharing our stories … (that) we strengthen the body of Christ.”

Hartford resident Brittney Heiberger said the “bombardment of the secular world” challenges women, even isolates them in their struggles to live faithful lives.

“Living out our God-given femininity is a privilege, one which the world does its best to deprive us of,” she said.

“So many times the Evil One leads us to believe we are the only one struggling to follow Christ. We are easily isolated and it is hard to grow in holiness without support.”

Julie Cleary, Sioux Falls, said she and other women see themselves and find inspiration in the “beauty and teachings” of the Church.

“(Women) … recognize themselves within what is truly the feminine genius. As women, we are not less or greater than men. We are simply different,” Cleary said. “We are made to be unique and to complement one another.”

“In my opinion, because of women’s receptivity, we are able to be more open to receive the love of God in a way that is different from men. We see our weaknesses as something that can be given as a gift to God, where He can enter in and transform them into His divine plan for our salvation and of the whole world,” Cleary said.

Skeptics, true believers and searchers invited

Conference organizers hope to attract women struggling with their roles in the Church. They say “Beautifully Made” will welcome questioners and embrace skeptics as well as true believers.

“I think they (skeptics) will be brought by the true believers,” Leedom said. “Moms and grandmas will invite them, those who desire this abundant life for them.”

They hope the conference will offer time for discussion, sharing and questions: Do women see themselves in Church teachings? Do they feel recognized and valued by the Catholic Church?

Heiberger said some women struggle “to truly understand and value the Church’s outlook on women and their role within the church. I know there are a number of women who feel neglected or treated as second class within the Church. My hope is that through this conference and other functions like it, women will come to understand their infinite worth in the eyes of Mother Church.”

Those from diocesan offices want women to see themselves and their daily challenges reflected in the programs and opportunities being presented at the Beautifully Made conference.

“I constantly rely on the expertise of other women in my life to help me figure it out,” said Leedom.

The Blessed Virgin Mary as Intercessor

For Catholics, and especially for women, the Blessed Virgin Mary is a prominent role model and loving intercessor. She is admired and respected not only as the mother of God, but as a holy woman, whose faith moved her to accept God’s will and sustained her throughout her life.

Mary’s sufferings and challenges give inspiration to women facing hardships and doubts today and they seek the graces she pours out to women who seek her intercession.

“The Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The Church rightly honors “the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of ‘Mother of God,’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs. … This very special devotion … differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration.”

Heiberger says she relies on the Blessed Virgin to help guide her decisions. She recalled taking out her rosary of the Seven Sorrows of Mary recently and reflecting on the Blessed Virgin’s suffering.

“In contemplating on Mary’s often hidden suffering, she leads me closer to Christ. I can’t help but look at Mary’s suffering in light of her femininity. Her heart aches for another, her son. In fact, she so perfectly loves him that her heart is crucified along with his body,” Heiberger said.

She said Mary’s example of the ability to suffer for others is “a mystery and a gift.”

“Women have a unique ability, by their very nature, to follow in Mary’s footsteps. Mary has softened the hardest hearts. We as women can do the same by embracing our feminine genius.”

‘There is a desire’

Burgwald said he believes the time is right to host a women’s conference, in part because of the support programs and outreach ministries now in place in parishes across the diocese as well as through his office.

Once the faith has been kindled in conference participants, he said, there is a need for follow up.

“We want to make sure that like lighting a match that flames and then burns steady, we want to make sure we can sustain the flame,” he said.

He believes church leaders are ready to provide that support.

Leedom says the timing for such a conference is right, simply because women want it.

“Number one, there is a desire. Anytime women desire something, we take it seriously,” Leedom said. “(They want) to come together to be inspired. We take that responsibility seriously as a diocese.”

In determining programming for the event, Leedom said she and Burgwald, along with a planning committee of women parishioners from around the diocese, looked for ways to make the event, “joyful, life-giving and fruitful.”

She pointed out that women in recent years have gone online to form communities and develop relationships with others in similar situations.

“What’s captivated me on a national level, through social media, is this desire for community for women. It has been fascinating,” she said.

“They’re desiring some level of community and finding it on social media. We hope to bring it from the screen into their daily lives.”

Leedom said the conference schedule intentionally allows ample time for informal talk and socializing.

During happy hour, for example, women can talk over a glass of wine. “(The schedule) naturally opens the door to those discussions. It’s a natural opportunity to build community.”

Burgwald said organizers worked to give the conference a special, elegant feel.

“The beauty of the day itself,” he said, will speak to women, letting them know they are valued and heard in the diocese.

Women, including some who assisted in planning the conference, have similar goals for this unique conference.

“I do believe that we are all searching for that special something to give us true hope, joy and peace in our lives,” said Baumberger.

Teri and Jeff Kemmer, parishoners of St. Joseph the Workman, Huntimer

Kemmer, of St. Joseph the Workman Parish, Huntimer, who served on the planning committee for the conference, adds: “As a woman desiring to experience Christ more deeply and unite my will to the will of God, it will be an opportunity to join other women on their faith journey. We will unite in prayer and celebration … learn as others share their faith journeys … how to take the energy forward to our families, friends and parishes.”

Cleary, who also served on the planning committee, said, “My hope is that women will come away from the “Beautifully Made” conference knowing that they are loved, and have a deep sense of what it is to be a beloved daughter.”

“I also hope that as we gather that we will have a special bond as grandmothers, mothers, wives and single women as women of faith, looking to go deeper. I pray that we will find oneness as sisters in Christ.”

Beautifully Made: A Women’s Conference

For more information on the Women’s Conference, visit www.sfcatholic.org/womensconference