Schoenstatt movement helping families at Normal parish, beyond strive for holiness

Area families, most from Epiphany Parish in Normal, taking part in a retreat at the Schoenstatt International Retreat Center in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in early December pose for a group photo in the shrine chapel. (Provided photo)

NORMAL — A group of Catholic families striving for holiness at Epiphany Parish here are being guided by, and having an impact on, a Marian movement founded in Germany more than a century ago.

Twelve families — 10 from Epiphany, and one each from Rutland and Peoria — took part in a first-of-its-kind Covenant Family Retreat Nov. 30-Dec. 2 at the Schoenstatt International Retreat Center in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

What made the retreat unique is that it was designed just for the growing Schoenstatt community in central Illinois and its emphasis on renewing and supporting families. The young families — including 46 children — “took over” the retreat center, according to Tim and Molly Olsen, central Illinois leaders of the Schoenstatt movement.

Tim and Molly Olsen of Epiphany Parish in Normal, leaders of the Schoenstatt movement in central Illinois, are pictured outside the shrine at the retreat center in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Provided photo)

This was no silent retreat.

“In this place they want kids,” said Molly, who learned of Schoenstatt six years ago when she made a women’s retreat at the center. The Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary at the shrine “get excited for the noise,” she added. “If the kids run around, the Sisters joyfully accept it.”

A “COVENANT OF LOVE”

The Schoenstatt movement was founded in 1914 by Father Joseph Kentenich and is named for a valley in the Rhine region of west-central Germany.  It promotes a “Covenant of Love” in which individuals and couples call on the Blessed Virgin Mary to lead them to a profound love for God and man in their daily lives.

It is also a shrine-based movement. There are more than 200 Schoenstatt Centers worldwide with shrines that are exact replicas of the original modest one in Germany. The Waukesha retreat center includes such a shrine.

The movement involves “finding out, in your state of life at this time, what is God calling you to be? How does Mary want to use you as an instrument to carry that out?” explained Molly in an interview with The Catholic Post.

When she made the women’s retreat in Wisconsin six years ago, she and Tim had four young children.

“We’d spent a lot of time looking for a way to live out our faith in our family and our marriage,” said Tim. “When Molly came home she was really on fire and said ‘This is what we’ve been looking for.’”

Tim made a Schoenstatt men’s retreat the next weekend.

“I saw a whole bunch of dads — all down to earth, practical people — who were living out the faith. And that’s what I gravitate to,” said Tim, who became Catholic while in graduate school at Illinois State University.

SUPPORTING FAMILIES

The Olsens set aside a place in their home for a small Marian shrine and invited the Blessed Mother to be “the lead educator” of their family. With the approval of Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, and their pastor, Msgr. Eric Powell, they sought to form a traditional Schoenstatt small group community of like-minded couples at Epiphany Parish.

“Getting couples together is difficult,” said Tim, because of child obligations and schedules. So the Olsens discerned it might be better if entire families came. They invited families from the parish to their home when Msgr. Powell re-dedicated their home shrine on May 31, 2017.

Sister M. Isabel, a member of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, presents a rose to Mary and Justin Weber of Epiphany Parish in Normal after the couple made their Covenant of Love. Justin holds their daughter, Therese. (Provided photo)

“We had almost 100 people in our 1,800-square-foot home,” recalled Tim.

That fall the Olsens began hosting monthly Schoenstatt family gatherings, comprised of a potluck meal, a spiritual talk, discussion, and child care with faith formation provided by older children. It soon grew to two, three, and then four monthly opportunities, with other community members eventually hosting or leading the talks on topics such as “What is a Holy Marriage?,” “Prayer Workshop for Marriage,” or “Joyfulness in the Home.”

“We thought it would whittle down,” said Tim. “Instead, it blew up. Mary brought these people to us. They were all young families. How do we serve them?”

At first they called their gatherings “house retreats.” Now they are referred to as Schoenstatt Nazareth Retreats, and more than 40 families have taken part. A Facebook group called “Schoenstatt at Epiphany” has more than 150 members.

“For us, it has been a community of families who are all on the same path,” said Molly.

“I call it a support group for holy families,” added Tim.

When couples began asking how to join Schoenstatt, “covenant groups” formed to deepen relationships. The Olsens explored the idea of a retreat just for local families, and were thrilled to soon learn that the entire December 1-2 weekend had become open at the Waukesha center.

Francesco and Eli Vetri of Epiphany Parish in Normal renew their marriage vos as part of making a Covenant of Love with the blessed Mother during the Schoenstatt retreat in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Provided photo)

Two of the 12 couples that attended, including the Olsens, had already made their Covenant of Love. Ten others did so on the retreat and were accepted into the Schoenstatt Family League. The retreat also included a renewal of marriage vows and a variety of activities for the children.

“It was an incredible, grace-filled weekend for all,” the Olsens, who are now expecting their sixth child, wrote in a report in the Epiphany Parish bulletin.

The movement and its emphases on trust in Divine Providence, childlike faith and joy, and everyday sanctity has been endorsed by all popes since its founding as a way to renew not only marriages and families, but the church.

“If we can inspire couples to live a Christ-like, self-giving love, it could transform the church from the bottom up,” said Molly. She expressed hope that Schoenstatt will spread further in the diocese and invited inquiries.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on Schoenstatt and the shrine in Waukesha, visit schoenstattwisconsin.org. To learn more about the group based at Epiphany Parish, write schoenstattcentralIL@gmail.com or follow “Schoenstatt at Epiphany” on Facebook.

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