Once Christian and Anna Aden attended one of the retreats at Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry in Vandalia, Illinois, they knew they were determined to go back, despite the four-and-a-half-hour drive from their home in Indiana.
“I started to basically relive my faith,” Anna Aden said of her experience six years ago.
For cradle-Catholic Aden, the retreat “was eye-opening,” she said, with her quickly finding that “there is so much more than what I knew.”
“My wife came back full of energy, very excited, and insisted I had to go experience this myself,” explained Christian. He did. That became the first of more trips.
The Adens’ experience is typical of those who have traveled to the small town in the Land of Lincoln for retreats and conferences since 1997.
Indeed, the mission of Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry is to bring people closer to Christ, according to co-founders Debbie Pryor and Vanessa Keck.
“Particularly today, their ministry of healing in very concrete ways is showing the merciful love of God, especially for families and those in dire need of spiritual healing. It is a Godsend,” observed Msgr. Stuart Swetland, the president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, who has given talks at the conferences in the past.
The speakers and the programs have two themes: catechesis and healing, according to Msgr. David Hoefler, vicar general of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, and the ministry’s current chaplain.
“When someone comes … and reawakens in the faith or their need for healing becomes evident,” said Msgr. Hoefler, “you can see the passion those ladies have for those persons to be restored and whole, restored into the faith.”
The headquarters of OSMM (OSMM.org) is the Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, established in 2012; in addition, there are shrines and houses where people can stay for the weekend retreats and conferences. People from all 50 states have come to this spiritual haven one hour from St. Louis.
The House of Bethany, the first property acquired in 2004, is now strictly for any priest’s own personal retreat. It includes backyard gardens, a meditation area and an outdoor Stations of the Cross. Behind the Mary & Martha House is the Holy Sepulcher, a small chapel with a statue of the Reposed Jesus.
During retreats, the Blessed Sacrament is reposed there for the retreatants.
Yet this growing ministry began on a proverbial shoestring more than 20 years ago, when Pryor and Keck were experiencing a reversion to the faith and attended a conference together.
Unsatisfied leaving that conference, they decided to organize a conference themselves. Their first one drew people from several states and led to their founding of Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry. The duo had the initial support of Servite Father Peter Rookey. (The Servites’ main devotion is to the Sorrowful Mother.)
“Father Rookey was very supportive and encouraging,” Pryor said. “He was our spiritual father until his passing. It was a gift from God to serve this holy priest.”
Both women also credit their pastor at the time, Father Stephen Sotiroff, of Mother of Dolors Church.
“We would never have gotten to where we are without his support,” Pryor said. “We wanted to do everything perfectly right with the Church. He led us and taught us the right way to do everything, to be obedient to the bishop. At that time, Archbishop [George] Lucas was here, and he got behind us in a major way. Then came Bishop Thomas Paprocki and Msgr. David Hoefler.”
“We have been blessed with two holy bishops, who have led us to more and more of the truth of the Church and have been our closest advisers,” Pryor said.
In 2012, Bishop Paprocki dedicated the new building, blessed it and celebrated the first Mass in the sanctuary. “He also initiated and carried out the designation of OSMM as a private association of the faithful,” Pryor said. To that end, the founders chose to be recognized by the local ordinary, have the ministry’s statutes reviewed by competent Church authority, and are, writes Cardinal Raymond Burke, “subject to the vigilance of competent ecclesiastical authority, which is to take care that the integrity of faith and morals is preserved in them.”
Bishop Paprocki told the Register that OSMM exhibits the Second Vatican Council’s call for the laity to grow in holiness and be part of evangelization efforts. “I see Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry doing it, working with people to deepen and enhance their faith. Many who come are already practicing Catholics, and they’re longing to deepen their faith and take it to a deeper level.”
Bishop Paprocki added: “My vicar general is serving as their chaplain. They have a very close relation with their diocese, and that is a very healthy thing.”
“Definitely people have grown in their faith,” said Keck. And Pryor noted that many retreatants express how “they feel they’re in a family type of atmosphere. They feel immediately accepted and nurtured here.”
Their retreats on forgiveness are timely in modern culture. “That’s a huge wound with people,” Pryor said.
OSMM also hosts priest’s talks, confession, Mass and efforts of “prayer teams.” Also part of the ministry are the Apostles of the Interior Life, including the apostles’ co-founder, Sister Susan Pieper, who is available for spiritual mentoring. OSMM also has a lay community of 30 people who pray for and support the ministry.
OSMM offers both the ordinary and extraordinary form of the Mass. The co-founders credit Father Chad Ripperger, who often presents at the conferences, as a mentor for fostering their love of the Latin Mass. Father Ripperger is a member of the Society of the Most Sorrowful Mother, the Doloran Fathers in the Archdiocese of Denver, and an exorcist.
Bishop Paprocki receives at least a yearly invitation and tries “to get over there once a year for one of their retreats,” he said. Every time he’s been there, he’s seen “a good attendance, usually a full house in the sanctuary,” he said. “I’m pleased to see they’re drawing people from a lot of different places, coming from other parts of the country.” He added that they’re building “something that is worthwhile.”
Father Timothy Byerley, an adviser, sees OSMM as “a tremendous ministry to individual souls to give them healing and draw them deeper into the heart of Jesus and of Mary.” The priest is also vice postulator for the cause of Servant of God Maria Esperanza de Bianchini (1928-2004), who received Marian apparitions under the title “Reconciler of People and Nations” (approved in 1987 in Venezuela) that were the inspiration for OSMM’s Mary, Reconciler of All People and Nations House.
According to Keck, “The ministry has always had healing as part of the charism, but it went from apologetics to a deeper and more intimate encounter with God.”
Msgr. Swetland pointed out that, over the years, OSMM changed “emphasis to personal and spiritual family healing. They used to do a lot more apologetics than today. But the ministry of healing and restoration is emphasized because of the need. Any ministry should grow and adapt as God leads it. They have been very docile to the Holy Spirit to be led to this kind of ministry. They’re good people and take seriously their vocation and call to witness.”
Joan Jenne of Kansas City, Missouri, who has attended OSMM events since 2000, continues to grow in her faith. “At OSMM I discovered the treasures and the richness of our faith, who Jesus is and who I am as a child of him,” she explained.
“Every time I go I feel like I receive another piece of enlightenment, another piece of heaven. I have grown so close to Our Lady and truly see her as my Mother.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.