What does it mean to “serve out of love?”
With the blessing Archbishop Michael, under the leadership of Father Jason Vansuch (Chairman, Department of Youth Ministry), young women from across the diocese were asked to ponder this question at the 2nd Annual Girls Retreat from 13-15 November 2015 at Saint Basil Academy in Garrison NY. Thirty youth participants and nearly twenty chaperones gathered to grow in their faith and experience the fellowship offered in the beautiful retreat setting. The group was blessed to have in their midst guest speakers: Mother Christophora (Abbess, Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City PA) along with Mother Paula and Sister Christine who guided discussions of how their personal talents and abilities can be used in various aspects of church life.
Participants arrived on Friday evening carrying not only their personal items for the weekend, but also bags of hygiene products and other items to be donated to the Dutchess [County] Outreach mission located in Poughkeepsie NY. This project was a new addition to the youth retreat program, which complimented the “Serving out of Love” theme for the weekend. Dutchess Outreach strives to meet the basic needs of low-income individuals when no other resources are available to them and assist them in becoming self-sufficient. The generosity of our young women was overwhelming!
After enjoying pizza and getting settled in their dorms, the group gathered at the chapel for evening prayers. Archbishop Michael spoke at the end of the service saying: “The purpose of this retreat is to help you to grow in the church, so that you can take your rightful place as leaders of parishes, of the diocese, and of the national church . . . God has given each of us talents. We have to find out what they are and what you want to do with them. But you have to remember that because they are gifts from God, you have to give at least part of it back to Him to work with people in the church, and out of the church, to help them in whatever way you can to use those talents that God has given you. The church is your future.”
Encouraged by the words from His Eminence, the group went back to the dorms for icebreaker activities and to start a poster project that would be presented to him the following evening. The young women were asked to complete two open-ended statements:
“I am good at; I’m talented at; I like doing ...?”
“How could you use your talents to serve God and the church?”
While chaperones prepared s’mores and popcorn, lay youth workers Janine Alpaugh and Danielle Geeza moderated a discussion between the participants in which they shared their answers to the questions posed and then categorized their talents into five categories: artistic abilities, music, athleticism, good with kids, and traditions. Some of their specific talents were sewing, singing, soccer, mentoring, cooking, and theater. The discussion ultimately culminated in suggestions as to how they can execute their talents in their parishes, both now and in the future; for example: making vestments and altar coverings, writing icons, becoming choir directors, organizing youth sports tournaments, volunteering as camp counselors, baking prosphora (church bread), and directing Nativity yolkas (pageants).
Special thanks are extended to Janine, Danielle, Matushka Jessica Evanina, and Christina Ioukliaevskikh who oversaw the creation of the poster titled “As a young woman in the OCA . . .” At its center is a tree, drawn by the talented Alexia May (Annunciation Church, Brick NJ); the trunk represents the five overall groups of talents, the branches identify participants’ specific skills, and the bunches of leaves envelope the ways these talents can be executed in order to help serve the church.
On Saturday morning, Divine Liturgy was celebrated by Father Jason and Archimandrite Anthony (Director, Saint Basil Academy). Janet Neis (Saint Stephen Cathedral, Philadelphia PA) directed the choir of participants for the entire weekend. Following Liturgy and brunch, Mother Christophora, Mother Paula, and Sister Christine held their educational sessions. Each of them shared their personal journeys to the monastic life -- how they found, and ultimately joined, Holy Transfiguration Monastery. They reminded the young women that “Orthodoxy is something personal,” to always communicate with God and to not be afraid to ask Him for direction in who they are called to be, given their personal gifts.
Between sessions, Father Jason led the group in baking prosphora (communion bread) to be used in the following morning’s Liturgy. It was one of the highlights of the weekend. Some of the participants were heading home to ask their parish priest if they could help bake prosphora for the respective parishes. The girls were then given free time to enjoy swimming in the pool, playing basketball in the gym, exploring the Academy grounds, and hanging out together in the dorms.
Archbishop Michael returned in the evening for Great Vespers, dinner, and a Q&A session with the nuns and participants. Prior to kicking off the Q&A session, Danielle Geeza and Janine Alpaugh presented to His Eminence the “As a young woman in the OCA . . .” poster on behalf of the girls. It will be shared and distributed throughout the diocese. Mother Paula also spoke about Blessed Matushka Olga of Alaska, highlighting the ways in which she served the church and Alaskan natives, and presented participants with bookmarks that had an icon of the beloved Matushka on it.
The weekend culminated with the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. Prior to Liturgy the service of preparation – Proskomedia – was served in the center of the chapel. Over the course of the weekend the young women had the opportunity to fill out commemoration sheets, allowing them to offer prayers for their living and departed family members. The priests commemorated each and every name offered by the girls by placing a particle of bread on the diskos, or paten, while the participants recited the names of their loved ones. Everyone received their own personal prosphora in remembrance of the offering.
Danielle Geeza, one of the lay youth workers for the Department of Youth Ministry, was blown away by the girls’ enthusiasm throughout the weekend. “I can sincerely say that out of the many retreats our diocese has sponsored over the past several years, this was one of the best. The young women were engaged throughout the entire weekend; they loved spending time getting to know the nuns, who made an effort to learn each of their names and more about them, and especially enjoyed learning how to bake prosphora on Saturday afternoon. The Q&A session on Saturday evening lasted almost three hours! Each question posed to Archbishop Michael and the nuns was thoughtful and unique. It was just an incredible weekend!”
On behalf of the young women of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, special thanks are extended to His Eminence, Archbishop Michael; Father Jason Vansuch; Abbess Mother Christophora, Mother Paula, and Sister Christine; Janet Neis (retreat choir director); Janine Alpaugh (photography and lifeguarding); Danielle Geeza and all of the youth workers and chaperones. Of course, many thanks are extended to the entire staff of Saint Basil Academy who once again lovingly opened their welcoming arms to all participants.
Next year’s retreat is scheduled for 11-13 November 2016. As each year has a theme, based on the feedback received from attendees the theme for the 2016 Diocesan Girls Retreat will be “iconography.”