The First Annual Diocesan Girls Retreat was held, with the support and blessing of Bishop Michael, at Saint Basil’s Academy in Garrison NY from Friday, 14 November to Sunday, 16 November 2014. Over 35 young women were present for all or part of the weekend along with approximately 20 chaperones. Participants came from each of the three diocesan deaneries (New Jersey, New York City, New York State) in addition to a contingent from Berwick PA and from the Moscow Patriarchate. Given the success of this year’s inaugural event, His Grace gave his enthusiastic blessing to make this an annual retreat to occur each fall.
Retreat coordinator Father Jason Vansuch (Chair, Department of Youth Ministry) was on-site for the entire weekend. Under the guidance of Bishop Michael and Christine Nass, participants were introduced to the basic fundamentals of chanting and reading during worship services, thus introducing them to one of many aspects of church life they can be involved in at their home parishes. The three-day event allowed them to enhance their skills by actively participating in the services throughout the weekend: evening prayers on Friday evening, reading "The Hours" prior to Divine Liturgy on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, and singing responses at Liturgy and Great Vespers.
On Friday evening participants arrived throughout the night and came together for a few ice-breaker activities. It was great to see come old friends reuniting from the previous camping season and prior retreats. Pizza was served for dinner, and His Grace arrived to share a slideshow of his trip to the Holy Land in May 2013. After evening prayers, it was time for everyone to retire to their rooms for the night.
The next morning started bright and early in the chapel with a choir rehearsal directed by Christine Nass. Participants eagerly awaited Bishop Michael’s arrival for the Divine Liturgy. Marianne Johnson, from Saints Peter & Paul Church in South River NJ, greeted His Grace with the traditional bread and salt, and the entire group proceeded to surround him during his vesting at the center of the chapel as Archdeacon Michael Suvak recited the vesting prayers. Fellow concelebrants of the Liturgy also included Father Jason, Archimandrite Anthony (Director, Saint Basil’s Academy), and Sub-Deacon Mark Federoff.
Following the Liturgy a delicious brunch was served by the Academy staff, and then it was time for the learning sessions. Two groups were formed: 7-9th graders and 10-12th graders. The groups rotated time with His Grace during which he hosted a Q&A session and a rousing game of "Orthodox Jeopardy!" Christine coached participants in the fundamentals of chanting, encouraging each girl to develop her own style, taking turns reading psalms for extra practice. They put their skills to the test at Vespers that evening chanting the Resurrectional Stichera and Aposticha.
Saturday’s schedule may seem to have been demanding, but there was plenty time for fellowship and activities! Many girls enjoyed the indoor pool (special thanks to the weekend lifeguard, Janine Alpaugh of Holy Annunciation Church in Brick NJ) while others took to the basketball court, simply enjoyed exploring the beautiful grounds, or playing board games back at the dorms. The evening wrapped up with dividing into 4 groups and discussing how God and the Church have affected their lives; in particular, having each participant tell "her story." Everyone came together to watch a movie, “Heaven is for Real,” followed by discussion. Then, it was time to return to the dorms for the night.
The weekend concluded with the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning celebrated by Father Jason and Archimandrite Anthony, with the responses again sung by participants. The service of "Proskomedia" (or "prothesis" -- preparation of the bread and wine) was held in the center of the chapel prior to the beginning of the Liturgy; each young woman was given a commemoration sheet allowing them to offer prayers for their family members, living and departed, as both priests remembered each and every name by placing a particle of bread on the "diskos" (or "paten"). They each received their own personal "prosphora" (church bread) in remembrance of the offering.
Given the success of this year’s inaugural event, Bishop Michael gave his blessing to make this an annual retreat to occur each fall.
Special thanks for this labor of love on behalf of the youth of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey are extended to: His Grace, Bishop Michael; Father Jason Vansuch; all of the chaperones; and the entire staff of Saint Basil’s Academy who always make our diocesan youth feel welcome. Of course, "thanks be to God" for the wonderful girls who brought enthusiasm, faith, and love to the weekend!