50 women gather at the well in Kirksville for Lenten retreat


The room buzzed with anticipation as the women greeted old friends and welcomed new faces in the Multipurpose Room of the Catholic Newman Center in Kirksville March 23.

The room was decorated to reflect the theme of the Mary Immaculate Women’s Retreat - “iThirst: A Day with the Woman at the Well.”

Each table held a jar, a candle and a glass bowl filled with water, a daffodil floating on the surface.

The jar symbolized the jars that each woman at the retreat goes to looking for water, as well as a reminder to draw from the living water of Christ.

The daffodil, a symbol of new beginnings, was indicative of what their focus would be while reflecting on the gospel passage from John.

Leaders Janelle Stephens of Mary Immaculate parish in Kirksville and Kyle Clark of St. Joseph parish in Edina designed the retreat by breaking down the passage piece by piece to allow for deeper reflection.

Water and the Spirit

First, though, they began with a reflection on John 4:4-42 by Bishop Robert Barron. He described Christ’s Divine Mercy at work in His meeting with the Samaritan woman as “relentless, divinizing, demanding and sending us on a mission.”

Mrs. Stephens gave the first witness, “Come to the Water,” focusing on the philanthropy they had chosen to support during the retreat in prayer and almsgiving: Water for South Sudan (www.waterforsouthsudan.org).

Founded by Salva Dut in 2003, the organization works to build wells in South Sudan where women and children spend all day, each day walking only twice to the nearest river or lake, and for unclean water at that.

Ms. Dut’s story is told in a middle-grade novel, A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park.

Women were able to donate money to the organization, as well as buy copies of the book, which Mrs. Stephens reads with her seventh-graders every year.

In a meditation titled “Encounter,” Mrs. Clark encouraged the women to resist “factory default.

“Ladies,” she said, “we can never stop learning ... we can never stop seeking the face of God.”

“Beauty of the Spirit”

Kay Bonifazi of Unionville has been coming to these annual retreats for the past four years.

“It is just a day away spent in spiritual reflection; it reminds me of the retreats we had in high school,” she said. “I think it’s amazing that we can get so much from one Scripture reading.”

Mary Immaculate parish held an annual women’s Lenten retreat for many years, but it was halted for various reasons until eight years ago, when planning committee member Pat Lehr received her answer about whether or not it was time to bring the retreat back.

“That’s the beauty of the Spirit,” Ms. Lehr, director of religious education for the parish, said of the changes made even in the past year to open the retreat to a wider audience.

This was the first year organizers asked men to serve lunch and snacks in order for more women to participate.

They also picked local women to lead, knowing that they would help create a welcoming environment for multiple generations and backgrounds.

Traditionally, the group brings in a religious sister or professional speaker to lead and bring new ideas to the group.

“Energy was high; it was fun to have homegrown gals,” Ms. Lehr said of Mrs. Clark and Mrs. Stephens.

SEEK and find

For their part, the leaders didn’t quite realize what saying “yes” entailed, but they are so grateful for and humbled by the experience.

Mrs. Stephens thought she was being asked to serve on the committee, and Mrs. Clark had just committed to avoiding saying “yes” to everything in the new year.

After getting home from the four-day SEEK 2019 encounter retreat in Indianapolis, Mrs. Clark got the call from Lehr.

Deciding that she would pray on it, she told her husband and children to ask for their thoughts.

Her son, Father Paul Clark, associate pastor at St. Patrick parish in Rolla and Holy Cross parish in Cuba, replied, “Well, Mom, did you learn anything at SEEK?”

Mrs. Clark immediately called Ms. Lehr back and said yes.

Both speakers agreed that the experience of working with each other was “amazing.”

“Previously, our relationship was more of a motherly thing, as I was good friends with her son Fr. Paul, and we would hang out at their house on many a Friday night,” said Mrs. Stephens of Mrs. Clark.

“Now it is great getting to walk beside her as a sister in Christ,” she said.  

All who are weary

The retreat was a great success, bringing together nearly 50 women from parishes all over the diocese, including college and high school students and even some non-Catholics.

“We are blessed to have the resources that many parishes don’t,” Ms. Lehr said of their welcome to women from across the diocese.

Mrs. Stephens began hers and Mrs. Clark’s final address, “Leave Your Jar,” by jovially describing their writing process for the joint talk.

“I think we’ll just want to tell them to leave,” she said.

The women encouraged the retreatants to leave their jars and run to tell the good news.

“That jar is keeping us down,” said Mrs. Stephens.

Mrs. Clark’s parting words were reminiscent of the video retreatants viewed of Bishop Barron earlier in the day:

“We are sent on a mission; ‘One beggar telling another beggar where there is bread.’”

Ms. Shimmens is a student at Truman State University in Kirksville and a graduate of St. Joseph Cathedral School and Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City.