Women of Grace apostolate fosters community, faith formation for women

BEDFORD -- "Do you want to be a Catholic woman leader?"

That question gave Lynne O'Connor pause when she came across it in an online advertisement in 2011. She was a Harvard graduate with a 30-year career in management consulting. She had taught catechesis for elementary school through confirmation classes, but she did not consider herself a leader of Catholic women.

The advertisement was for a conference held by Women of Grace, an apostolate for Catholic women that combines faith formation, spiritual development, and community building through a variety of resources and outreach programs.

After seeing their advertisement, O'Connor attended their annual conference in Malvern, Pennsylvania. She then wanted to share what she learned with others. She now marks her involvement with Women of Grace as a turning point in her life.

"I discovered this community that was very open and wanting to grow in their faith, and also recognizing the role that women had in the Church, which I hadn't thought about or seen so explicitly developed," O'Connor said.

The mission of Women of Grace is "to transform the world one woman at a time by affirming women in their dignity and vocation as daughters of God and in their gift of authentic femininity." Much of their inspiration is drawn from Pope John Paul II's teachings about the "feminine genius," a concept explored in his 1988 apostolic letter "Mulieris Dignitatem," or "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women," and in his 1995 "Letter to Women."

Currently in its 20th year, Women of Grace offers conferences, retreats, books, podcasts, and television and radio shows. The crux of their programming is a foundational course, "Full of Grace: Women in the Abundant Life," which can be presented in weekly sessions. It begins with a chapter about understanding one's identity and goes on to cover topics like the role of prayer, the sacraments, and the Resurrection. There is also a youth version, Young Women of Grace, for ages 12 through 18.

O'Connor believes what makes Women of Grace distinct from other women's ministries is its "integrated perspective," combining individual faith formation and education with building friendships and community.

"Even if you sit in the pews with someone every week, you don't necessarily have the opportunity to have faith-based discussions. So, it opened up this whole new community of women," O'Connor said.

While taking the foundational course herself, she also introduced it in her parish, St. Michael's in Bedford. A few years later, she decided to pursue her Master of Arts in Ministry at St. John's Seminary.

Last year, as she was finishing her degree, she was invited to take on a new position for Women of Grace, serving as the director of mission growth and expansion. Part of her job now is training regional coordinators for the apostolate.

"It's not just a program that we pick up. It's building a community and a support system, so women who want to offer this know that they have the support available to them," O'Connor said.

One of the Massachusetts coordinators is Carole Zupicich of Foxborough, who started listening to Women of Grace's show on EWTN in 2013. Women of Grace proved to be a great source of comfort for her after a family tragedy.

Zupicich, a mother of four, lost her daughter in a car accident in 2015. This caused her to identify more with the Women of Grace's founder and president, Johnnette Williams, who had gone through a similar experience. Williams' son died in a car accident after returning from service in Iraq, and she then lost her husband to brain cancer. These losses were part of what inspired Women of Grace.

After losing her daughter, Zupicich started listening to more of Williams' programming, especially on the topic of suffering.

"I really connected with her and how she dealt with her grief. I was completely devastated, and she was so filled with joy and hope," Zupicich said.

Zupicich began to attend the Women of Grace retreats, and eventually she went through the foundational study program and brought it to her parish, St. John the Guardian of Our Lady in Clinton. Even though the meetings were held on a weekday morning, they drew 50 to 60 women, ranging in age from their 40s to their 80s.

"Finding so much strength in the faith of other women in Women of Grace helps me," Zupicich said, and then added, "It's been a great support system for me."

Some of the most significant lessons Zupicich has learned from it are about forgiveness, acceptance, and trust in God's will.

"I blamed myself a lot for my daughter's death. I felt that, as her mother, I should have been able to save her somehow. That was very powerful for me, to accept what had happened," she said.

She added that with time and prayer from the other participants, Women of Grace has "really helped me to accept God's will, that whatever is happening in my life is God's will, and that God will give me the grace to get through all that is happening to me."

"Johnnette Williams always talks about (how) we each have our own faith story and how important it is to share that. I found that in my experience. Hearing Johnnette's story inspired me to get through what I needed to get through, and now I want to try to offer that to other women," Zupicich said.

A total of about 50,000 women have gone through the Women of Grace foundational study program, including over 2,000 Spanish-speaking participants and over 2,000 in the Young Women of Grace version of the program. Most participants live in the U.S., but some participate virtually from other countries, recently including South Africa, Sweden, Trinidad, and the Virgin Islands.

"I always hear that women really need this, to be with other like-minded women, get the support from each other, and share their faith with each other. And I always learn more from other women than what I feel like I even bring to it," Zupicich said.

More information about Women of Grace is available at their website, www.womenofgrace.com.