Three hundred thirty women from across the Diocese of Portland and beyond came together to celebrate and be strengthened in their faith at the sixth annual Maine Catholic Women’s Conference, held in Portland on Saturday, April 29.
“I love being around women of God,” said Lori Pezanowski, a parishioner of St. Brendan the Navigator Parish, Camden. “It really makes my heart soar because I know there are other women looking for Jesus and helping him be the center of their lives.”
“It’s nice to be together as women,” said Rosanne Smith, adult educator coordinator at Holy Spirit Parish, Wells. “It gives you a time to relax, like a retreat time, and to be with women of faith is always a good thing.”
The theme of the conference was “Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire,” words from St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast day coincided with the date of the conference.
The theme was reflected both during the conference’s opening Mass, celebrated by Bishop Robert Deeley, and during the keynote addresses by Leah Darrow, a former model who is now a public speaker, sharing a message about true beauty and God’s design.
“I think it is very appropriate for this gathering to be held on the memorial of St. Catherine of Siena. She reminds us of the many good and holy people down through the centuries who have lived the Gospel in the world,” the bishop said. “Hers was an unquenchable thirst to know God in Jesus and to bring his love into the world. She knew Jesus’ love, and she was confident in his guidance in her life. His was the Way she sought to follow. His was the peace she strove to live in.”
“St. Catherine of Siena says, ‘Be who God made you to be, and you will set the world on fire.’ It’s important that you remember that St. Catherine of Siena wasn’t really talking about individual little matches,” Darrow told the women. “We have been made to be in communion with others. And when you get one match and another match and another match, and they’re all on fire, and you put them all together, what do you have? You have a big flame. That is what we’re called to be. Think about and imagine all the women in this room, if we could allow God to come into our life to change us. If we said, ‘Lord, I want what you want. I want your definition of happiness. I want to love like you love. I want to help others.’ If we allow that Spirit within us to enflame our lives, and then we work together, that’s when you see change. That’s when we change the world.”
Darrow spoke about her time as a contestant on the reality television show “America’s Next Top Model,” and her seemingly successful modeling career, during which she earned thousands of dollars each day. But, she said, the fame and the money led to emptiness rather than happiness. She said that is because she chose the imitation love of the culture over the authentic love of Christ.
“Imitation love -- it touts freedom and experience and independence. Imitation love says it’s no big deal. It’s your body. It’s your choice. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s just a personal choice. It won’t affect anybody else. When did anything you’ve ever done only affect just you? Never,” she said.
On the other hand, Darrow said that authentic love is full of peace and joy and is meant to be shared with others.
“Authentic love is that love you’ve been made out of and made for. It’s the deepest desire of the human heart,” she said. “When you experience authentic love, the whole world knows. It knows by your life … The most perfect, perfect authentic love is Christ on the cross. He freely gave his body, his life for us.”
Darrow shared her conversion experience, saying it came during a modeling shoot. She said she looked up and saw an image of a man, looking disappointed, and heard five words on her heart: “I made you for more.”
She said she couldn’t get the voice out of her head, and she knew it was the truth. She said it made her realize, “I had made the world everything, and I had made Jesus a nobody.”
She urged the women at the conference to embrace those five words.
“We have that amazing calling as women. We have a gift and power that God has given to all women: to love, to have compassion, to speak with sincerity and with truth and with bravery about the One Man who will change our lives and make this world better,” she said.
The conference drew women from all corners of Maine and from other states as well.
Sarah Meyers moved to Washington State from Portland in late summer, but her experiences at last year’s women’s conference and the connections she made led her to return for this year’s event.
“I had just never been to something where there was just so much love,” she said. “It just blew my mind to see so many women come together, and everybody just being so wonderful.”
Theresa Bonner and her daughter Delia, members of the Parish of the Precious Blood, Caribou, traveled more than four hours from the town of Easton to attend.
“The topic, I felt, was really true today and how people are maybe putting more focus on the exterior instead of the interior and what’s the most important part of why we’re here: to serve God and to have everything radiate from inside rather than from the exterior,” Theresa said.
“I think it’s so easy to really think that we can perfect the outside of us, but then, coming to these conferences is really all about working on the inside of your spirituality and really focusing on how that can then affect your outward appearance and how you treat other people,” said Delia.
Anna Keeley, a University of Maine at Orono student, who is originally from Readfield, said she heard Darrow speak at the SEEK 2017 gathering of college students in San Antonio, Texas, and wanted to hear her message again.
“It was mostly about authentic beauty and how to be modest, which I think anybody can take away from that, especially in the college setting,” she said. “I absolutely loved it.”
Conference organizers said they made a special effort this year to reach out to young women in high school and college, and judging by the faces that filled many of the seats at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, they were successful.
“In my town, it’s hard to find Catholic friends, and that fellowship is important. So, I knew I had a couple friends that I met at youth ministry events who were coming here, and I wanted to see them again,” said Rebecca Griffin, from Saint Mary of the Visitation Parish, Houlton.
“It’s great to have the fellowship. We have to stay strong as sisters of Christ,” said Ashley Pezanowski, a UMaine student, who attended with her mother.
In many cases those attending came as families – grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters sharing their faith journeys together.
Judy Ouellette, parish secretary at Christ the Divine Mercy Parish in Millinocket/East Millinocket, attended with two of her four sisters.
“We’re here for this great day to celebrate and to grow in our faith,” she said. “Especially with young women today, where beauty is superficial, we want to find the inner beauty. And we want to let that shine forth so that people see Jesus in us and not just see the superficial side of us.”
She said attending this year’s conference was especially important because her family is dealing with the recent passing of their father.
“It was important for us to be together and to just kind of gather our thoughts and where our faith will lead us on this journey where we just experienced this tragic loss, and where we can go and how we can grow from that loss. I think this will help us move forward,” she said.
The mission of the Maine Catholic Women’s Conference is to come together as sisters of Christ for a day to nurture and strengthen the faith of the Catholic women of Maine, so they may share the abundance of God’s mercy and love and the fullness of his truth with others. The mission is entrusted to the Blessed Mother.
“We pray that the women be enriched and strengthened in their faith to better share God’s love and mercy with others, and they be open to the Holy Spirit,” said Lori Cloutier, one of the organizers.
In addition to Darrow, other speakers at the women’s conference included Cindy Nickless, executive director of The Presence Radio Network, and Suzanne Lafreniere, the Diocese of Portland’s director of the Office of Public Policy.
Throughout the conference, the women had an opportunity to spend time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.