Debbie Pryor and Vanessa Keck first met at a conference that promised spiritual growth but offered materialistic advice. Both had been undergoing conversions. Both felt disappointed. And both were mothers.

They became fast friends — and made plans to organize a conference of their own. That was in 1997.

They made good on their promise, hosting a Catholic event with no funding in their rural town of Vandalia, Ill., in a county only 3% Catholic. With that first conference, Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry was born.

The conference quickly became an annual event, drawing attendees and big-name Catholic speakers from all across the country. And the co-founders added monthly retreats. Looking back, Pryor marvels, “It’s not Vanessa and me. It’s God’s work.”

“Our original intention was to bring the truth to people,” says Keck. “We had learned the truth of the Catholic faith and were so excited by it we wanted everyone to know. Now it’s a deeper experience with the healing and the formation, like God is getting his people ready. We’re amazed we’re part of the process.”

Amazed, too, is Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a vice president at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., and director of pre-theology at its seminary. In 2001 he watched numbers of Catholics come to the area an hour east of St. Louis eager to hear the faith and live it more fully. Since then he regularly emcees conferences and speaks at some retreats.

Msgr. Swetland recognizes the ministry as answering the call to the New Evangelization and adds, “They’ve been able to shape the ministry in the providential trusting in the Holy Spirit.”

That included Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry growing into a work of healing and reconciliation.

“The main thrust for anyone’s healing is the spiritual healing,” explains Keck. “That has been emphasized to us repeatedly. People see physical healings, but when the spiritual, or interior, gets healed, that is truly a healing.”

She describes one young mother who was stricken with aggressive cancer but came to pray primarily for a “healing of the heart” and a closer walk with God. She left saying her prayer had been answered. “That was a real inspiration to me,” says Keck.

“Many people have had profound healings of a spiritual nature; they’ve been able to let go of hurts they’ve received and really seek forgiveness,” says Msgr. Swetland. He points to the long confession lines and notes how “the Blessed Virgin and trust in God have been able to shape the ministry to the needs of those who come.”

Special focus is given to those seeking healing from the traumas of abortion, rape and abuse. Pro-life issues are also at the forefront where conference speakers have included Father Frank Pavone and Father Thomas Euteneuer.

A Housing Happening

The ministry’s first act at its new Bethany House center was the installment of a shrine to the Holy Innocents — a black teardrop of granite, and now a granite wall — with Our Sorrowful Mother and crystal tears, each with the name of a child who has died for any reason, be it miscarriage, abortion, sickness or natural causes.

Bethany House itself is a miracle, explains Pryor. In 2004 with the need to expand before them, she, Keck and friends of the ministry prayed to Our Sorrowful Mother. They had their eyes on a house across the street from their parish, which is where their conferences are held.

The house was up for sale but they had no money to buy it. Two days before Our Sorrowful Mother’s feast (Sept. 15), the house seemed to have been sold. Out of the blue, Pryor called a friend in Missouri who immediately put her husband on the phone.

He had been only once to a conference, but was also praying to Our Mother of Sorrows, saying he’d buy the house if he heard from Pryor that Sunday, Pryor recalls. The next day, with the other deal falling through, he mailed a check for the full amount. Then, in 2007, on the feast of St. Joseph, an anonymous donor bought the house next door for Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry.

“We live by divine Providence and the love of our Sorrowful Mother and her Son,” says Pryor. Everything is funded by donation. That covers Bethany House, a retreat house for priests. And now all the monthly retreats are free to anyone who wants to attend and registers. (Free-will offerings are accepted.)

Providence in Illinois

A top priority: “We want everyone to go away with one-on-one help,” says Pryor. Priests, certified spiritual directors and prayer teams make sure this goal is met.

That’s exactly what Lori Stamos of Lebanon, Ill., has experienced ever since attending a 2001 conference with her family. “It’s a very personal ministry with a lot of personal attention,” she says. “When you go to a big conference there are well-known speakers, but you don’t get to talk to them individually. Here you do. And they have spiritual direction for your needs.”

Events are consecrated to Our Sorrowful Mother and retreats are centered on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

There was no doubt choosing the ministry’s name. Both women had been volunteering with Servite Father Peter Rookie, who had a deep devotion to the Sorrowful Mother. Besides, their parish, the one Catholic church in Vandalia, is named Our Lady of Dolors.

“This ministry prospered tremendously in a short time,” says Father Rookie, their spiritual father. “They’re lifting up the Church in a very powerful way through Our Lady of Sorrows, inspired by that charism of the Passion of our Lord and compassion of Our Lady.”

Pryor and Keck work fulltime for the ministry, which is forming a lay community with a team of people that includes consecrated women from The Apostles of the Interior Life.

“We’re still doing the healing, the message of hope,” she explains, “but also forming ourselves to be what God needs us to be and forming the retreatants so they can go and help others.”

Msgr. Swetland sees Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry as an example of what two faithful people following God’s call and relying on God’s providence can do. “It reminds me of the story of the mustard seed,” he says. “A little start grew into something wonderful.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

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