The support of the Good Samaritan Sisters was integral to establishing Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats in Australia. With the closing of the Mount St Benedict Centre, the program will continue to be supported by the Good Sams, writes Peter Maher.
BY Father Peter Maher
In 2000, Rachel Vineyard’s founder Julie Kelly brought the retreat program to Australia, which supports women and men to find healing and hope after an abortion experience. Julie and myself began the ministry as a labour of love with no external support. We sought the help of Sr Veronica McCluskie SGS through a friend to assist us with the spiritual and pastoral support of the retreatants.
Sr Veronica’s skills as a qualified spiritual director and psycho-dramatist were exactly what we needed to make up our first retreat team. However, we were also lacking a suitable venue to run the retreats and we had no financial backing to support women and men who could not afford to attend the retreats.
Sr Veronica suggested we ask the Good Samaritan Sisters to support us with the Mount St Benedict Centre at Pennant Hills. After some negotiations, ably assisted by Sr Veronica, Sr Sonia Wagner SGS, the Council offered us the use of Centre for our retreats and we were only to pay what the retreatants could afford. With this generous support, the retreats became a work of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and enabled us to offer the retreat to all who needed it. The retreat team facilitation is voluntary and we have benefitted greatly from the offer of the time and expertise of Sr Veronica over 18 years. More recently Sr Anita Brennan SGS and Sr Agnes Farrugia SGS have joined us to support our team.
After a few years, the ministry was supported by the dioceses of Sydney, Broken Bay and Parramatta enabling us to pay for the use of the Centre. However, without the support of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan this powerful healing ministry might not have survived. The support reaches well beyond the gift of the Sisters for the ministry. It has been the care, prayer and concern we have all felt from the Sisters and the team at Mount St Benedict that has made us feel very privileged to call it our home for the last 18 years.
With the closure of the Centre at Pennant Hills, we are very sad to be moving on. The retreats will now be held at Mt Carmel at Varroville. However, we know the Sisters’ support will remain very much with us, not just through the ministry of Srs Veronica, Anita and Agnes who will continue to be part of the Rachel team, but we know the prayers and heart of the Sisters for our work will continue.
Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats offer women and men a way through the pain after an abortion. They can be confused by the experience and the circumstances around the abortion. They can feel grief and loss because they have no baby and can experience guilt and shame for their part in the decision. The retreat is designed to address this confusion and pain through a healing process that acknowledges what has happened and invites women and men into a safe space to tell their story, acknowledge their child’s life and find self forgiveness, God’s forgiveness and love.
Raised in a very active Catholic family, I never could have imagined that I would one day have an abortion; but it did happen and from that dreadful day I believed myself to be lost forever in the eyes of the Church and worse still, in the eyes of God. I felt resigned to silently carrying a heavy burden of shame and guilt for all time, never being able to forgive myself or be forgiven by others for the awful thing I had done. The turning point for me was reading about the founder of Rachel’s Vineyard in Australia, Julie Kelly. Hearing her story helped me to see that forgiveness was possible, that there was hope beyond the seemingly gloomy horizon.
The retreat was a wonderfully liberating experience when I told the story of my abortion for the first time, publicly named my lost child and honoured him in ritual and song. I began the long journey towards healing through my encounter with the healing Gospel stories of Jesus, carefully guided by compassionate people who showed me the merciful face of God. Hearing the stories of other retreatants was also a very privileged experience and assisted me to begin to make sense of my experience and to chip away at the burden of guilt and shame.
Some years after my retreat I still carry feelings of regret and sadness. Grief never really ever goes away completely, but I have been able to forgive myself and the others in my story, and to turn my terrible experience into a positive one by helping others in their journey of grief and shame. My lost child is an important part of my life that I hold within, and Rachel’s Vineyard has enabled me to bring dignity and acknowledgement to his life. Never fully healed, but well and truly in a much better place with the knowledge that my God understands, loves and forgives.
Peter Maher, a Sydney priest, is co-founder and member of Rachel’s Vineyard Healing Retreat Team, Sydney.