Church Bible study groups are especially popular this time of year, and there is usually a core group of parishioners who meet weekly during Lent to study the scriptures as a practical devotion in preparation for Easter.
Now, how about a Catholic Bible study group that meets in a ward every week for 22 weeks a year, is run entirely by lay people, is open to people of all faiths and living conditions, and can attract 100 or more people every week?
Well, not all of the conditions in life. It is reserved for women and it is particularly welcoming to mothers of young children. If necessary, on-site child care is provided for preschoolers while mothers attend the meeting.
It is called “Walking with Purpose” and was founded in 2002 in Annapolis, Maryland, by layman Lisa Breninkmeyer, herself a convert to Catholicism.
(See our Photo gallery a typical program session at St. Isaac Jogues Parish in Wayne.)
Currently, seven of these groups operate in the Philadelphia area, with the groups of St. Thomas of Villanova and St. Isaac Jogues, Wayne, the oldest. Each week, around 120 women attend.
Lisa Corcoran, who was the program coordinator at St. Isaac for her first six years, like many of the group, is a member of a different ward, in her case St. Norbert in Paoli.
âWhen we started we had 40 wives and we grew,â she said. Although each year some members leave to start a new group in another parish, overall there is a retention rate of around 90 percent, year after year, Corcoran estimates.
Every year there is a new study guide; this year it’s all about âKeeping the Balanceâ, but new members are encouraged to take the Basic âThe Best Partâ course.
The group meets on Wednesdays, starting in the fall and ending in the spring, skipping weeks with religious or other holidays. Meetings typically run from 12:45 to 1:15 p.m. Most women do not work outside the home, but some take an extended lunch hour for the meeting.
Currently, there are approximately 10 preschoolers in the child care program who receive their own age-appropriate âKids for Jesusâ program. Corcoran, a mother of nine, has no more children in daycare, but her two youngest were there before starting school.
Group members should prepare for the meeting by reading the study guide and selected Bible texts, with small group discussions during the meeting. There are also monthly inspirational videos and Connect coffee sessions uniting the larger group.
âIt’s fabulous. I’ve always been a Catholic, but it helps me understand my faith better,â Corcoran said. âI went to Catholic school, but we weren’t attached to the Bible. “
She is particularly interested in exposure to those parts of the Bible that she had never studied, especially “the beautiful women of the Bible.” It makes them come alive, âshe said.
Anna Coombs, a member of Our Lady of the Assumption Ward in Strafford, is now St. Isaac’s Group Co-Coordinator with Cynthia Castaldi of St. Norbert Parish.
She has been with the group for three years and joined it after a friend at the local pool mentioned that he belonged to the Bible study.
It’s not just about attending one meeting a week, she explained. It is recommended that members study the lessons which will be discussed in small groups five evenings per week.
âThe course takes us all through various parts of the scriptures,â she said. âWe want to be women walking in life reflecting God’s purpose for us, being the women God called us to be. We are encouraged to embrace the dignity (that) we are daughters of the king. “
For his own life, Coombs said: âI learn to love others through the difficulties they face and to embrace the joys they go through. There is the communion of women and every week I go to a different place in the scriptures that I may not have visited in a while. The Spirit reveals something new and fresh to me.
Jillian Buhl is a member of the Saint-Thomas de Villanova group, but her parish is Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Manayunk. The Villanova group does not have a daycare component because it is divided into two sessions on Wednesdays. One accommodates around 85 women in the afternoon and 35 in the evening. Like the founder of “Walking with Purpose”, Buhl, mother of two, is a convert.
She sits on the board of the national organization, which hosts most of its board meetings through Google Hangout.
Buhl said there are 78 groups in the United States, mostly on the East Coast, and there is also a group in Canada, Italy and Switzerland, although the course material has not yet been translated into languages ââother than English.
“There are about 5,100 women involved, completely secular,” said Buhl. âIt’s a parish program but people can come from different parishes. It encouraged a lot of women.