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Father Rich Buhler, SJ, gave a talk during a virtual retreat at White House Jesuit Retreat in November. The retreat was streamed from the chapel with conferences, Mass and Benediction.
Father Rich Buhler, SJ, gave a talk during a virtual retreat at White House Jesuit Retreat in November. The retreat was streamed from the chapel with conferences, Mass and Benediction.
Photo Credit: Screen capture from White House Jesuit Retreat | www.whretreat.org/virtual

People find rewards in attending online retreat center, parish programs

Teresa Scurlock took a three-day retreat at White House Jesuit Retreat while sitting at home, a much different experience than she’s used to.

The biggest drawback: Having to make her own meals.

The biggest advantage: It was the next best thing to being present on site.

Retreat centers, parishes and other entities in the archdiocese have expanded virtual offerings to people this year following the COVID-19 pandemic, with spiritual, educational and evangelization components.

“Nothing takes the place of an in-person retreat, at the White House Retreat,” said Scurlock, who has made at least one retreat a year there for the past 10 years.

The streamlined retreat was a nice alternative, she said. “I felt I was there in spirit. I knew some of my fellow retreatants that I normally see every November.”

Scurlock, a parishioner of St. Matthew the Apostle in St. Louis, missed walking on the grounds, looking at the Mississippi River and praying with the Stations of the Cross.

She was comfortable. No television or radio. The retreat was streamed from the chapel with conferences, Mass and Benediction. At some points she felt as if she were sitting in the chapel. It wasn’t as quiet, but she didn’t have any distractions.

Scurlock encourages others who don’t want to venture out of their home to try the virtual alternative.

‘Learning and growing’

St. John the Beloved Disciple Parish in Imperial has been hosting virtually a Mass Warm Up, in which parishioners discuss the upcoming week’s Gospel with the pastor and other aspects of adult faith formation. “It’s an opportunity to spread the Word of God in these times of pandemic,” said parishioner Gary Dierks.
Photo Credits: St. John the Beloved Disciple Parish | saintjohnimperial.org/mass-warm-up
Britt Britton has attended Mercy Conference and Retreat Center events in-person and now online.

The biggest drawback: It’s close, but not quite the same as in person

The biggest advantage: She lives in Gray Summit and doesn’t have to make the drive.

“They offer a huge variety of topics,” Britton said. She enjoyed the online programs offering spiritual support, a program exploring social justice and a prayer event. She appreciated receiving material by email prior to the event. “There’s some back and forth interaction. It’s the closest thing I can get to being with other people learning and growing during this time of COVID.”

Britton felt connected to the other participants, emphasizing that “in this day and time, that is so important.”

Some offerings at Mercy are free of charge, others have a cost that is affordable. Scholarships are available to those who can’t afford it. That’s a big plus, said Britton, a member of St. Bridget Parish in Pacific.

Krista Stokke took part in a couple of livestreamed programs at Mercy. She was a bit skeptical at first, but found it worthwhile. It provided a sense of community and the center’s signature hospitality.

The biggest drawback: None, really.

The biggest advantage: She lives in Vandalia, Ill., and doesn’t have to make a long drive. Also, she felt free to participate as much as she wanted.

The programs give her “a chance to go deeper in life,” she said. She relies on “what the Spirit is going to show me.”

Parishes see opportunity

Parishes of the archdiocese began streamlining Masses in the spring. Since then, many parishes have taken to livestream and recording faith-sharing and faith-education efforts.

Gary Dierks, a parishioner at St. John the Beloved Disciple Parish in Imperial, said that his parish was challenged with how to keep in touch with parishioners. It soon became apparent they had to update their website and Facebook page and create a YouTube channel.

The parish began a video series called Mass Warm Up in which parishioners discuss the upcoming week’s Gospel with the pastor, and a Catholic 101 adult faith formation. The first three weeks focused on Genesis and now is on the Sacrament of Penance. “It’s an opportunity to spread the Word of God in these times of pandemic,” Dierks said.

Sacred Heart Parish in Valley Park held a livestreamed Advent Family Night Dec. 1 for day school and Family Faith Formation program families. Each family received a kit with materials for the evening. It had prayer elements, wreath-making, other crafts and a skit in which Father Jeffrey Maassen created a distraction to show how how hard it is to keep the focus in Advent on Jesus.

“It was a true parish event,” said Fran Hanson, director of religious education at Sacred Heart.

The Colvin family was among those taking part — Matt, Amanda and their children Ryleigh, a fourth-grader, and Sarah, a first-grader. It was a relaxing and productive evening, Matt said, with the family now incorporating the prayer they wrote into their regular mealtime prayers. They also make use of the prayer chain the children made.

He liked that they avoided rushing to the car and driving to the parish after dinner. “The fact that we didn’t have to wear masks was a nice aspect,” he said. “We could see all our friends. We couldn’t interact with them that well, but we wouldn’t either in the (socially distanced) setting we would have had if we met in person.”


>> More information on retreats

Mercy Conference and Retreat Center saw a big need once social distancing arrived along with the COVID-19 pandemic.

A virtual ministry segment was added to the center’s website in response. Its purpose was to identify resources for people in spirituality and prayer, mindfulness and resilience, mercy, prayer requests and a daily and weekly image with a reflections called Mercy Moments.

“The need was still there for us to minister,” said Dawn Stringfield, executive director.

Then, the center began virtual programs and eventually a hybrid offering, with programs offered in-person and livestreamed on Zoom. Mercy now offers programs to a broader audience, people throughout the English-speaking world.

For information on its programs, visit www.mercycenterstl.org.

White House Jesuit Retreat reopened at a limited capacity but is now closed to in-person visits through December. Its virtual retreats have been popular, said Joe Parisi, director of marketing and development. “It’s nice for us to stay active and keep focused on our mission,” he said.

For information on the recorded events, videos, blogs and other programs, visit www.whretreat.org.


>> Staying connected

The Brazilian Catholic community in St. Louis meets on Zoom almost daily to pray the Rosary. Once a week, they also read the Bible and listen to and discuss a homily from a Brazilian priest from his website in Brazil.

Paulo Costa said that before the pandemic, the group held a social gathering afterward, and they miss the eye contact and hugs that came with it. The Zoom program also makes it tough to avoid distractions from home.

“I am glad we have this technology to keep the group together, although I found many of former participants have not showed as before, which I miss,” Costa said.

Although they lost many participants, he’s still grateful to be part of the smaller group together, contributing to the conversations and getting the resources from the web. The ones who participate are more dedicated, generally those who also attend their monthly Mass at St. Joseph Church in Manchester celebrated by Father Ricardo Escobar.

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