In 1543, while in Rome, Ignatius established the House of St. Martha, a ministry dedicated to women living on the margins, mainly those trapped in prostitution. At the same time, he established the “Company of Grace,” a confraternity of lay people who became involved in the ministry, and were its earliest supporters.
In October of 2004, in an address to Creighton University on Jesuit-Lay collaboration, then Superior General Fr. Kolvenbach, S.J., when speaking about Jesuit-Lay collaboration in ministry, referenced the “Company of Grace” as one of the earliest examples of Jesuit-Lay collaboration:
When he established his first ministry in Rome, the House of St. Martha, he also established the “Company of Grace” a confraternity of lay people who became involved in this ministry with prostitutes and were its earliest supporters. In the days of Ignatius, confraternities were a popular means of involving lay men and women in church ministries, and he enthusiastically embraced them as partners in the works of the Society. He established other confraternities as he began other ministries, establishing a historical pattern for the way Jesuits precede in ministry.
Today, in 29 cities throughout the country, over 850 hundred lay women and men volunteer in the ministry of ISP and well over 1,000 women and men financially support this important ministry. With nearly 2,000 women and men involved in ISP, another “Company of Grace” has taken root. We began the Company of Grace awards in 2012 and have since honored 14+ women, men, and organizations.
Members of the Company of Grace
2012: Fr. Bill Creed, SJ 2013: Mr. Ed Shurna 2014: Amanda Asque, Sr. Patricia Crowley, OSB 2015: Sr. Marian Cowan, CSJ (St. Louis), Sr. Marion Renkens, CSJ (St. Louis); Wayne Richard, Rochelle Sims; The Labre Project at St. Ignatius High School, John Carroll University, and Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland) 2016: John Foppe (St. Louis), Sr. Connie Probst, OSF (St. Louis), Members of St. Patrick Church (Providence, RI), Fr. Greg Boyle SJ, Neli Vazquez Rowland 2017: Gary Meier (St. Louis), Kimberly Ritter (St. Louis); James Johnson (Cleveland), Linda Catanzaro (Cleveland); (Providence, RI); Rev. Michael Pfelger, Lisa Nigro
If you have an idea of someone who should be honored, or are interested in finding out more about hosting a Company of Grace event in your city, email Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org
This past June, after a year of preparation, we welcomed San Diego to our growing Network. The team held their first Women’s retreat at a local church downtown.
The retreat proceeded as many ISP retreats do — there were a few transportation hiccups, the schedule unfolded not exactly according to plan, and, in the end, the sharing was entirely profound.
A participant at the end of the experience had the courage to pen this reflection:
Discovering one’s treasured worth is one of the incredible gifts of the ISP retreat. A retreat itself a gift. It’s a precious time to be with God. And more, it means that you, the participant, are worthy of the gift. Especially for our sisters and brothers who have experienced homelessness, claiming this gift of inherent dignity is a powerful grace.
A special moment happened over lunch. The hall the team had reserved was needed by the church for a funeral banquet. Given the favorable weather, the team moved the meal outside into the courtyard. A team member even put white table clothes and small vases of flowers on the table. It was a simple meal of incredible beauty.
People often ask, why retreats? Because like that meal, with a simple flower in an otherwise unadorned spot, retreats communicate that for even just a moment, as the participant realized, you deserve love.
There are lots of things to be thankful these days around ISP. In my work with Stewards and benefactors around the country, I’m constantly amazed at how generous people can be with their time and their resources. It’s particularly inspiring to see the way the ministry of ISP impacts volunteers and participants. I saw this list at a referring agency during one of my visits.
As part of their recovery program, the homeless women were invited to reflect on 20 things they were grateful for. Many women were recently released from prison and had long battles with addiction. At first, 20 seemed to me like a potentially long list.
And yet, as often happens with ISP, I was moved when reading their genuine authentic responses:
Clean water. Freedom. Coffee. Friends.
As I think about what might be on my list, I recall again that what really matters are the simple and still profound things that make up my day: the tiny joys, the clean water (and coffee!) I may take for granted, the relationships built. I feel blessed to be working at ISP, which reminds me — in the office, or in a shelter — to express gratitude for these small things.
The role of a volunteer on an ISP retreat requires a delicate balance. As a leader, the staff member must model effectively the substance of our ministry and inspire confidence among the participants that they too can lead, or perhaps be led by, this retreat. At times it requires both steadfast reliance on our tested format and creative openness to each retreat’s uniqueness.
The “Healing of Memories” meditation is often a significant moment for the retreatants. It is an opportunity to perhaps feel free of something for the first time in a long time. And sometimes, people miss it. “Benjamin” (pseudonym) arrived at the chapel late. As people were filing out and the team was preparing for a check-in, he was exasperated. “I’m so sorry,” he began. “I just started these new meds and they are messing with me.” Benjamin moved further into the chapel and plopped down on a chair in front of the altar. He may have been late, but he was here now and didn’t look in a hurry to leave.
We were then faced with a decision: ask Benjamin to leave so we could begin the team meeting, or use this time as a space to let him share. Looking around the room, we let him continue. Benjamin went on to tell us what became a spontaneous faith and salvation history. Most profoundly, sitting there in the humble chapel, he looked around and said, “I feel really at home here. I’ve never really felt comfortable around God before.” Benjamin may have missed the formal mediation, but sitting in the chapel at that moment with the whole team assembled, he was able to share something and we all received something in return. The team, in that moment, needed to listen, and it made a difference.
Recently Jay Burke, ISP Coordinator and IVC volunteer in Boston, compiled some reflections from our retreatants. We are delighted to share these with you! And many thanks to Jay for putting them together!
Note: The follow is an essay written by Marina from Denver about her experience with ISP. This is her story in her words, and quite an inspiration.
When was your first retreat?
I attended my first ISP retreat in April of 2011. It was several months after having had my 3rd heart attack in 3 month’s time. I had gone to live in women’s shelter to get off the streets and drugs I was grateful this agency had a place for women to go and get help to get back on their feet.
Some friends I made in the shelter raved about the retreat, so of course I was very excited to get to go. I had a preconceived notion that this was a retreat introducing us to God. I was so worried I wouldn’t be allowed to go because I felt I had a good connection with Jesus! (Laughing out loud) I found out how silly that was because each person came with a different level of spirituality and through our sharing of experiences and stories I believe we each came away with a stronger relationship with our Lord. My anxieties dissipated instantly with the genuine love and acceptance by the women of ISP. The location was amazing; I felt a sense of peace and tranquility that was so foreign to me. I had never been on a retreat before but it was everything I had needed. It was life-changing!
What do you remember about that first retreat?
The first thing I remember was how welcome I felt. Walking into the room there was a circle of chairs with a pretty neat and serene centerpiece. There were women of all ages with beautiful inviting smiles on their faces, and arms out-stretched for a warm embrace. I have always had a real issue with hugs but I have learned through these special women not only how to receive a hug but I now on occasion give hugs! That is huge for me.
I really enjoyed the interaction of course I knew I would be able to relate to my peers but what helped to break down some of my barriers was the women of ISP opening up and sharing why they are involved in this ministry. I know a lot of times we as addicts wonder what could people who are not addicts be able to understand or teach us. Addiction does not just affect the addicts it affects all those around us just as much. I came to a better understanding of how selfish I could be without accepting how much my suffering had caused my loved ones too.
How was the retreat helpful for you?
The retreat was helpful in a multitude of ways; I feel like I’m still to this day reaping the benefits of that retreat! I would say a lot of the walls I had put up to keep people out had come down as a result of that retreat. I’m not saying it was all at once but gradually over time my light shone brighter as my armor came off.
I came to learn I didn’t have to do the whole A.A. or N.A. which for me often left me wanting to use. I learned that The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and the Twelve Steps were very similar. I cannot even tell you how many times during times of struggle I have reflected back to a spiritual exercise and came to realize dang that’s just like in A.A… Things are not always crystal clear to me the first time I hear it or experience it, so when I end up hearing from two different sources I am pretty sure it is something I really need to consider.
What happened for you after the retreat?
I mentioned earlier that the retreat was life-changing and I can tell you I am a better person because of my continuing relationship with the Ignatian Spirituality Project. I was a woman coming out of a 25 year addiction to alcohol and crack. I had spent ten long, lonely, traumatic years living on the streets of Denver, Co. surviving the best way I knew how…as a prostitute. A lot of baggage came with that lifestyle. I had spent so many years trying to stay away from people. I had it in my mind if I reject them first they can’t reject me. I did not go to the follow up retreat for several reasons, all having to do with my own low self-esteem. Each month I received a call inviting me to attend their Friday night gathering on the third Friday of every month. I eventually gave in and started attending, and it is still something I look forward to. I have learned to build up some incredible friendships with the women of ISP. I became more involved and with that I became aware of my self-worth. I have been transformed! I attend college, I became a witness. I have spoken at a few fund raising events. I attended the National Witness Retreat held in Pa. where I became a certified team member of ISP. I just facilitated our October retreat with some incredible women I have much admiration and affection for. I have an office job on campus that I enjoy tremendously. Would I have all this if I had not gone on that first retreat? I doubt it very much because for the first time in my life I had people who genuinely cared about me and my feelings. I had people that really listened to what I was not saying. I began to feel comfortable in calling for support, I had people to pray for me at times I could not pray for myself.
Of course the retreat has helped my relationship with God enormously. The exercises from the retreat were a huge blessing and still are. I remember sitting in that circle where we heard the scripture of the woman accused of adultery and the rowdy crowd itching to dole out punishment while Jesus is writing in the sand suggesting anyone without sin could cast the first stone and they disappear one by one. We were asked to share who we could relate to in the story. I was fascinated with all of the answers because they were not necessarily right or wrong they were our interpretation to our level of understanding. I have come to realize I do not always see the big picture my vision has been clouded over at times by my own pain and suffering it’s refreshing to get the perspective of other spiritual people to help discern the present situation. Sometimes I fall back to doubting myself but I have living testimonies of God’s love for me through all the wonderful friends He brought into my life to help lift me up!
How has ISP continued to help you?
I can definitely give a lot of credit for my continued sobriety to my ISP connections, because feeling connected has always been a big issue for me. I have found calling on my friends from ISP has always been exactly what I needed. The fact that I even feel comfortable in reaching out now is truly a miracle. I am amazed that I have the understanding and presence of mind to know not to succumb to the impulses or urges that come out of nowhere occasionally. I feel the presence of my angels of ISP when I am fighting my inner battles. I feel like I walk with an army now even when I am alone and have feelings of not feeling safe or strong.
I have grown so much over the years because of the relationships I have built with ISP team members as well as the former retreatants. I have come to know what healthy relationships look and feel like. I feel it has helped me be able to build and maintain all of my relationships past and present.
It is really hard to say if anyone has noticed the change in me or has connected the change in me to my first retreat. I know my boyfriend Mike has commented more than a few times how good my involvement with ISP has been for me. When he sees me going through things he encourages me to call on my good friends Theresa or Sister Liz. What is even more impressive to me is the effect of my involvement with ISP that has happened to my boyfriend Mike! He has been a part of our annual picnic and even cooked one year. He even gets involved with helping me pick music to play on the retreats and suggested I burn CDs of the music so the women can have a reminder of their experiences on the retreat.
I think I have learned to make a lot of positive changes in my life. Choosing to go to school was the best thing I ever did for myself. I was so emotional walking on campus the first day just tearing up wishing my mom was there to see me. I choose who to be friends with and make sure I don’t allow myself to be taken advantage of. I realize now that saying no is ok. I know I can’t possibly please everyone but living my life so that it pleases our Father really brings me the most happiness and peace in my life.
What is your spiritual life like now?
I never in my life expected to live to be the age of 46; I honestly didn’t expect to see 21. I have always struggled with the spirit of depression and thoughts that the world would be better off without me. I now come to see those times as God wanting me to get closer to Him and to lean on Him, to the world I am one, but to ONE I am the world!!! Personally I get to listening to some of my favorite Gospel songs and start praising God! It is true when praises go up blessings come down! A woman shared at a recent retreat “Pain and misery are inevitable but misery is optional” I don’t let my emotions determine my next move I ask guide to guide my steps to what He has for me.
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience”
I love this quote by the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who was a Jesuit priest. I fell in love with this quote after one of my many stints in jail! It was during that time so much was revealed to me. I realized sometimes good people do bad things it does not make them bad people! If it was true for me then it was also true for all those that had hurt me intentionally or without knowing. I learned for me to be forgiven it’s just as important for me to forgive. It’s not where or how I grew up but more about how I chose to fill the voids in my heart.
What was your life like before the retreat?
I grew up in a great neighborhood. I had great neighbors who were affluent; lawyers, anchor men, doctors, even a couple of mayors. I went from a Catholic schoolgirl involved in girl scouts, sports, cheerleading, drama and book clubs to a teenager on the honor roll.
So far so good right? I had parents that made sure I didn’t miss out as so many children do today. I was surrounded by awesome people. What went wrong many have asked? In hindsight I lacked for nothing physical. My pain was more emotional. I suffered from low self-esteem. It was instilled in me that I was a nobody. I was told all I inherited the worst traits of both my parents.
My answer to trying to fill the huge void left in my heart was to fill it with spirits. I filled it with drugs and alcohol. Alcohol is still often referred to as spirits which I find fascinating. I preferred to associate with people who were for a lack of a better word “beneath me”. This opened me up to spirits they had. When you allow one spirit in seven more follow, as described in Matthew 12 verses 43-45.
Looking back I could go on and on seeing with vivid clarity how I could have avoided so much of the pain and suffering that I caused not only me, but to all those around me that caused us all to become miserable.
Presently my spiritual eyes are open. I recognize that there are spirits all around us and in us; spirits of confusion, loneliness, fear, self-hatred…. The list goes on and on. Presently I have a relationship my family. I recognize that he did the best he knew how to do. I recognize I allowed the demons to enter my body and wreak havoc in and through me. Presently I can move forward in my life and encourage others because I learned to forgive. I forgive others very easily, but I have to constantly work on forgiving myself.
What hopes do you have now?
My plans for the future are to continue to let God guide my footsteps as well as open the doors that He wants me to go through! In conclusion my belief that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but that we are spiritual beings having a human experience has freed me from all the things that kept me in the bondage of my addictions. I believe in second and third and fourth chances because sometimes good people do bad things and it does not make them bad people!!!
This past October, we were able to hold our first retreat in Canada.
Of the many things we have to be grateful for, among the newest organizationally is our success across international borders. And yet, in one sense, it’s quite true to who we are as one of the many gifts of the ISP ministry is to see that one’s story is connected to the story of a much larger community: hope is found when one can recognize that one’s burden need not be carried alone. The ISP retreat blurs borders.
One young gentleman in particular had a powerful experience on the retreat. A man of just thirty years, “Aaron” (not his real name) came to the retreat as a survivor of many of the horrific struggles our retreatants commonly face. His encounters with violence, abuse, and neglect left him disposed to turn to the temporary salve of intoxicating elements. This was the start of his addiction which robbed him of his genuine sense of self and his hopeful outlook. He previously received a degree in early childhood education because he wanted to give back to “kids like him” who didn’t have the best shot in life. Unfortunately, his addiction proved too powerful a force and eventually found himself on the street. On the retreat, he began to notice something new emerging in himself. When asked about his greatest fear, Aaron said: “My greatest fear is that I’ll die without making a difference in someone’s life. I want to make a difference.” This desire signaled a significant change in his outlook, attitude, and being: he saw the world again as a place he wanted to belong and change.
As luck would have it, Aaron was presented with the opportunity to work on his dream just a few hours later. The ISP retreat features a witness statement where someone is invited to share his or her story. The team asked Aaron if he would share. Aaron gave an honest and inspired account of himself and his relationship with God. “I realize now that I never really gave God a chance because of all the bad stuff that happened to me,” Aaron said. “I think I need to give him that chance now.” Afterward, someone said, “Your story gave me hope Aaron.” He smiled and said thanks.
Aaron’s dream might not be that far away.
The team invited Aaron and everyone else to attend the follow up in a few weeks. It is hoped that this inaugural experience will prove the foundation of other transformations yet to be realized.
I went on my very first ISP retreat in the spring of 2010. My friend, Rose, who had been on a retreat told me it was an experience I should have. I don’t remember exactly where it was, but I remember that I was both excited and scared. When I look back on it, I remember how scary it was to sit in that circle of women. These were people I had just met and I didn’t know how or what to share. It was a relief to discover that we all had so many things in common. After that first retreat, I felt like a new person, “renewal” is the word that comes to me. I found out things about myself that I didn’t know, feelings that I didn’t know I had. It was exciting and motivating.
Since that first retreat, I went to another one about a year later. Since then, I’ve been a witness at two retreats. I was a total wreck the first time I did my witness statement, I was so terribly nervous. I wondered how my story could help anybody else. I shared the story of my alcoholism with the group, telling them how my desire for recovery led me to separate from my husband in 1997, although it took eight more years for me to get and stay sober.
During that time, my husband committed suicide in 2005. Then in 2009, my thirty year old son also committed suicide. At that time I had been sober three years, and I am proud of the fact that, even with the shock and pain of my son’s death, I did not go back to drinking.
I’m not used to thinking of myself as a leader, but giving that statement showed my that I can give hope to others, and this motivated me as much as the group.
My best friend of 42 years died a year after my son. I think about what she would say about me now since I’ve done these retreats. I think first of all she would be proud of me. As my best friend, I think she always knew I was a gentle, loving person, but I think she would also say, “Judy has turned over a new leaf. She’s willing to share, is more outgoing, and is just a more positive person”.
I went back to college when I was fifty-seven years old. I enrolled in a women’s program, “Choices, Challenges, and Change”. I think now that that is what life really is, and I have made positive choices, have risen to challenges, and I have truly changed. I’m in a job training program, and working as a receptionist at a YMCA. Although I was estranged from my daughter, I’m now very close to her, her husband, and my four grandchildren. I love being a grandma, if my best friend could see me now, she would say “Judy’s face has been beaming for two years!”
What have the ISP retreats done for me? I like to say that I’ve had a spiritual awakening. Between AA and ISP, my spirituality has come alive. I try to do the right thing, I take one day at a time, and I try to keep the past in the past, and let myself heal. Every time I share my story I keep my spirit renewed. It’s funny, I didn’t really think I had a “story”.
Sharing it has taught me that I do, and that it can help others. Telling it helps me accept who I am and keeps me motivated. I’m enlightened myself every time I tell it. When I thought of that first ISP retreat, I thought of the word “renewal” and my spirit still feels renewed every time I go on a retreat. I have one last thought—the sharing of my story has brought me totally out of my shell, and lets me see the bigger and better picture of what life has to offer!
Photo: Ernestine on ISP’s Inaugural Witness Retreat
Three or four years ago, I was staying at a Salvation Army shelter in Milwaukee, WI and my case manager suggested that I go on a retreat with the Ignatian Spirituality Project. At the time, I had been in recovery for more than six months and I was spiritual. It was my first retreat. It was at the St. Vincent Pallotti Center in Wisconsin. I was excited about getting out of the shelter. Before going on the retreat I had never experienced a spiritual awakening. After the retreat, I felt big doors had opened wide in my heart.
On the retreat, I heard a witness share her story. I felt it was such a blessing. It made me want to share my story. So I will share it with you:
My parents were both alcoholics. I had my first drink at 12 years old. At 26 years old I started using cocaine. I used until I was 50 years old. In November of 1992, on Thanksgiving, I was abducted off the street and taken into a building. A man threw me out the window and then raped me. My head was swollen to this size of two heads. My left leg was twisted the wrong way. I was not able to do anything for myself. Someone had to feed me, bathe me and I was not even allowed painkillers because of my drug-use.
Even this would not stop me from using. I continued to use until I became homeless. I was sleeping on porches and in abandoned cars. I was going to Heart to Heart and getting Wal-Mart certificates.
It almost got to the end. When I was asked where I stayed, I said I stay in a semi-truck. This was in October, and someone asked me if I wanted help. I said “yes”. She wrote a letter and got me into a treatment center. In the treatment center, I had a wake up call from God. I had fallen into the cocaine crisis and no matter what I do I can’t break the cycle. This was on August 19, 2006 and I have not used drugs since.
As I said, I had never had a spiritual awakening before I got to the ISP retreat. The Pallotti center was so calming and relaxing. Before the retreat, I did a lot of praying to prepare and asked God to lead my words. So I was not too nervous or scared, the spirit just lead me.
On the retreat we talked about fear. When I was asked what my fear was, I said “I have no fear since God lifted me up.” Two hours later, I went to the chapel and I experienced fear. Tears just came to me. And I had to ask for more forgiveness, I’m not sure what he did to me but even more burden became lifted off my shoulders. When I came back to the group, God gave me confirmation of his presence through that fear. I realized that experience of fear was the presence of God. He comforted me and let me know He was there on that retreat. I don’t know what God did on this retreat but he was there. I must have cried a half a bucket of tears. The tears were burning my face but it was the Lord touching me again.
I feel like tons of weight was lifted up off of me after the retreat. I feel at peace. I feel like I took a big stretch of every bone in my body. I feel real good about myself and about telling my story. God lead me to meet these women.
The presence of God was there on that retreat. It is the only way I can explain my experience. I had space to share my story and I realized it made a difference. After the retreat, I found myself laughing more. Laughter from the stomach. I had never had something to laugh about. The retreat opened me up.