By BETTY SCHOENBAECHLER, Special To The Bulletin | Published Thursday, June 7, 2012
What started as a concept in the mind of one woman has become a vibrant multi-parish ministry that has touched many lives.
Women’s Catholic Bible Study marked its 10-year anniversary with a celebratory Mass and luncheon April 25 at St. John Neumann Church.
On the feast of St. Mark, who wrote the first Gospel, Father John Howren encouraged women participating in the long-running Bible study to be inspired by the journeys of faith they have already made and to keep journeying together, “seeking to hear the Lord’s call ever deeper in your hearts and lives.”
The Catholic Bible study has tried to develop a “living faith” for women by creating a study that invites active participation and a commitment to biblical study based on the teachings of the Catholic faith. It aims to draw them into a closer relationship with Christ and their faith in daily life.
Each August a new study begins and continues until the next spring. The next study on the Books of Joshua, Judges and Ruth will start in August. Meetings are Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon. A nursery is available so more women can join.
To build community, members sign a group covenant each year related to commitment, participation and confidentiality. They are asked to complete weekly homework assignments and come prepared to discuss their answers at a deeper level with their small group before the whole group moves to the church for a half-hour lecture. The all-volunteer ministry serves about 100 women. Lecturers must be master catechists or hold a master’s degree from a Catholic institution.
“The study satisfied a hunger I had for years to learn more about the Scriptures, about faith, about my search for God in my life,” said participant Katy Daly. “And now it fuels my desire to learn more and go deeper into the Word.”
“This study enhances and strengthens our Catholic journey,” said Janet Smith, a small group facilitator for the past four years. “Through the study we gain a deeper knowledge of the Mass and the sacraments.”
Friendships have formed through the small group sharing. Sharon Umbarger said that a friend signed her up to help her recover from the loss of her husband.
“This turned out to be a huge blessing,” she said. “I was able to spend two remarkable hours a week with the most faith-filled and genuine women I have ever met in my life. Their love, compassion, understanding and friendship truly sustained me and helped me grow.”
WCBS was created out of a desire to study Scripture in the context of the Catholic Church.
“I was participating in Bible Study Fellowship and had a vision of the possibility of starting a study from a Catholic perspective,” said Patti Miller, the founder. “It was just a budding nudge at the time and discussed among several other women who were also doing that study.”
After earning a master’s degree in religious education from Loyola University, Miller began working as the adult education coordinator at St. John Neumann. She talked with the pastor at the time, Msgr. James Fennessy, about a Catholic expression of women’s Bible study.
“ He was all for it. … Our plan was to expand this to a multi-parish operation because if we did this at a single parish we might draw 20 to 25 women, but if we included others we could hope to get over 100 to participate,” Miller said. “I went to the Catholic churches in a nine-mile radius and spoke with the religious education or adult education coordinators about starting a Bible study specifically for Catholic women and we all began to pray about it.”
Women from Corpus Christi and St. Oliver Plunkett churches became involved. This handful of women spent the next year praying about the program and discerning how to put it together. Miller said she asked the religious education director at the archdiocese for help and she and another woman attended a Bible study at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta for several months to get ideas.
WCBS faced its share of challenges, particularly in the early years. Finding the material, choosing a day to meet, recruiting volunteers and even choosing what to name the program all had to be ironed out.
“One thing that was very important to me, though it could appear to be a minor detail, was what we named the study,” said Miller. “We actually debated this issue for some time. Do we call it Catholic Women’s Bible Study or Women’s Catholic Bible Study? We wanted the study to be open to any women regardless of their religious affiliation, but the study itself would be based in the Catholic tradition.”
Another important decision was the meeting date and place. St. John Neumann was the only parish with a full nursery available, Miller said, and other groups assisted by moving their meeting times.
The next hurdle was what to study. They began with “Bread of Life,” which was the closest to what they were looking for.
“We wanted the study to include private reflection time with homework, a lecture and small group discussion,” Miller said. “Once we finished those first three years we needed another plan. So we got permission to write our own study. It was a huge endeavor.”
Their volunteers wrote two studies based on women of the Old and New Testaments.
Pat Vines, a study facilitator, volunteered to help write the “Women of the New Testament” study. She said she spent a good bit of time in prayer before and after writing and researched passages and footnotes from the New American Bible, the Revised Standard and the Douay Rheims versions. She also did online historical studies and with other writers gained guidance from priests, including Father Dung Nguyen and Father Bill Williams.
“The experience for me made these women come alive in my mind and I realized I share some of the same thoughts and feelings that they did. They became spiritual ancestors to me.” Vines said.
In addition to the “Bread of Life,” which is a study based on the Sunday readings, and the in-house studies, women have studied the synoptic Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Genesis, Moses and the Torah, the letter to the Hebrews, and the Book of James.
When WCBS began, 175 women walked through the doors squeezing into every available nook and cranny at St John Neumann. The numbers have settled to just over 100 every year with seven parishes represented. When the study started there was a full-time adult education coordinator to manage the program, but the worsening economy led to budget cuts and WCBS is now fully run by a team of volunteers. The current core team, in addition to Miller, is comprised of Judy Butterick, director; Nancy Fehner, administrative director; Pat Everett, spiritual formation director; Debra Ferrell, secretary; Pat Scibona, treasurer; Laura O’Bryan, facilitator coordinator; and Angela Bacon, member at large.
Everett, O’Bryan, Butterick and Miller share the duty of lecturer.
“We lecture out of our gifts, because we don’t have a school to attend to learn how to be a lecturer,” said Miller. “We are all led by the Holy Spirit. Pat Everett is a great example of taking your individual gifts and molding it into what the community needs. Her forte is small group discussion, but she answered the call to be one of the first lecturers for WCBS.”
“It was a big leap of faith to go from facilitating 20 to 25 women to being a lecturer for WCBS,” said Everett. “Ten years of lecturing later, I sit in amazed reflection. Only God knows his plans; we just follow him. I have been blessed and humbled to serve on the leadership team.”
Currently 15 women serve as small group facilitators. There is also a prayer ministry, hospitality committee, music ministry, membership and greeter ministry. Facilitators meet on Mondays to prepare for Wednesday’s lesson and attend an annual facilitator’s retreat.
“The retreat is a highlight of the year for me,” said Judy Waldrop, who has been a facilitator for six years. “It gives us an opportunity to get to know the other facilitators and share experiences. In the 10 years I’ve been in WCBS, I’ve gone from a nominal knowledge of Scripture to a more advanced understanding of it, thanks to the Holy Spirit that leads this awesome group.”