As I walked into the suburban banquet facility last March, I was amazed at the diversity of the gathering of 1,200-plus women of all ages and walks of life.
This particular conference, held outside of Buffalo, N.Y., had the theme "Behold, I Make All Things New" and was hosted by WLOF Catholic radio (101.7 FM, The Station of the Cross, an EWTN Radio affiliate).
What brought women to this conference?
"I attended because I think it’s important to spend some time away from the normal daily pressures to really focus on growing in my faith," commented Jennifer Reichenberg, a mother of three young children. She added, "I expected some great speakers, and that’s what I got."
The lineup of speakers following morning Mass was impressive: Catholic media expert and EWTN host Teresa Tomeo, Mother Olga Yaqob, known as the "Mother Teresa of Baghdad," and Leah Darrow, a former model who speaks about faith and fashion.
Reichenberg’s favorite speaker was Mother Olga, the foundress of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, who shared her reflections on how God can use us despite our imperfections under the theme "Becoming a Willing Vessel for God’s Noble Purposes." Mother Olga, who was born and raised in Iraq, lived through four wars in that country. In 1993, she started a lay movement to serve the needs of the poor in Iraq. Two years later, she established the first order of religious sisters in the Assyrian Church of the East in 700 years. She immigrated to the United States in 2001 and became a member of the Catholic Church in 2005. She established the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth in 2011.
"Mother Olga was unlike any speaker I have ever heard," said Reichenberg. "She radiated holiness, humility and obedience to the will of God. Her stories of her childhood in Iraq were amazing. I felt that I was in the presence of a modern-day saint."
Sarah Albanese decided to attend the conference because she knew a group of women from her church were attending, and she had heard about it on Catholic radio. She said it was well worth her time.
"Since I am a mom to three young boys, age 4 and under, it was difficult to devote an entire Saturday to attend. I was still nursing my youngest and was worried about being gone so long. However, in the end, it was worth the time commitment, and my boys had a great time being home with Dad."
She added, "Returning from the conference made me realize how important it is for me as a mother and wife to take time out of my busy schedule to focus on enhancing my spirituality and my Catholic faith. It was important for me to have this time away from home and to connect with other women of the same faith."
Both Tomeo’s and Mother Olga’s talks were beyond her expectations, Albanese said. "Listening to Mother Olga and later shaking her hand were profoundly moving experiences," she said. "Teresa Tomeo’s talk on the importance of how we as women view ourselves in the midst of a culture that objectifies women was an important point. For mothers and daughters of all ages and stages, we need to tell women everywhere that they are valued and loved."
A conference like this just doesn’t happen, however.
Sarah Buttino, executive assistant and conference coordinator at WLOF, was part of the team who put together the conference.
"Each year we conduct a survey and ask our listeners to share with us who they would most like to appear at a conference. We also look at which programming on Catholic radio is the most popular with our listeners," said Buttino. "We pray about our selections, and then conduct the research and requests based on our spiritual needs and financial abilities. We also take into consideration if the speakers have recently been to our area or if they have not been back to the area in the last few years."
Advanced publicity was also key. "As a radio station, we have one of the best means to get the word out about our conferences, so we play multiple spots on Catholic radio in the months leading up to the event; we asked the speakers themselves to record these spots as well. We also used our website, newsletter and email database to get the word out," said Buttino. "Last year, we recruited a devoted group of individuals as ‘parish captains,’ who conducted a grassroots effort in individual parishes, with posters, bulletin stuffers, pulpit announcements and word-of-mouth business cards that promoted the event."
As a presenter, Tomeo enjoys meeting people at conferences. "I love seeing how God is working in the lives of his people, and I see so many women hungry for a deeper relationship with Christ. I get a great deal of encouragement to continue with my ministry. I also get to have some wonderful fellowship and prayer time and also greatly enjoy hearing other speakers."
She says that many women can identify with her journey back to the Church. "There are so many reverts out there, and it is good to know we are not alone — and that U-turns are possible."
She says conferences are important in the current culture: "I would love to see these types of events in every diocese. Women are under attack in our culture like never before. The real ‘war on women’ is being waged by the promoters of the HHS [Health and Human Services] mandate. But so many women are misinformed and believe that abortion and contraception represent freedom.
We need to shine the light on the difference between radical feminism and real — or new — feminism. These conferences help do just that."
Added WLOF’s Buttino, "On the whole, we got wonderful feedback, as many of the women felt spiritually nourished with this one-day conference/retreat. They loved our lineup of speakers/music, Mass and confession and vendor/ministry tables. They felt the joy of having 1,200 women gathered in one room to be refreshed and renewed."
The sixth annual Columbus Catholic Women’s Conference is expected to draw 2,000 women in February. Speakers are cookbook author and EWTN TV host Father Leo Patalinghug, Susan Fowler of the Light Weigh and four Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
"We get amazing feedback on the conferences. So many women come back to the Church, return to the sacraments," said Michele Faehnle, the board secretary for the Columbus Catholic Women’s Conference. "I have gotten emails and been told by women that it had been 20-30 years since they went to confession, and they will go at the conference.
"Many of my closest friends now are women who help work on the conference, and I am so thankful to God for this beautiful opportunity to share the faith with so many."
Christine A. Smyczynski writes from Getzville, New York.
Upcoming women’s conferences:
Columbus Catholic Women’s Conference, Feb. 23, 2013, Columbus, Ohio
Phoenix Catholic Women’s Conference, March 16, 2013, Phoenix