Boston-area Catholics anticipate men’s and women’s conferences

BOSTON -- Jim Baker felt the Holy Spirit’s presence for the first time at the 2005 Boston Catholic Men’s Conference. Marty Doyle started a parish men’s prayer group because of that same meeting, and Paul Levesque realized how vibrant and alive the Church really is.

Last year when she was among thousands at the first Boston Catholic Women’s Conference, Barbara Wenc from Fall River truly appreciated what being one in the Eucharist means. “I was most impressed last year to see how we can come together in such large numbers sharing one faith,” she said.

They will all return and bring others with them to this year’s conferences at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center March 17 and 18.

“I was a fallen-away Catholic,” said Baker, 46, who owns a security company in Billerica. “It was incredible to find other men in the same situation, trying to fill that big hole you have inside of you, hungry to find out what the truth is, to learn how to be better fathers and husbands and friends.”

Baker saw a buddy ­­-- who was a pretty tough guy -- cry tears of joy after leaving his first confession in 20 years. “He got all that baggage out of his soul,” Baker said. “We tapped into a group of what I’d call ‘real friends.’ You could feel the Holy Spirit there, and I didn’t even know what that meant beforehand.”

One result was that he formed a men’s prayer group -- Courageous Catholic Men -- which now meets monthly. Members prompt each other to understand and deepen their faith more under the spiritual direction of a priest. “Pastors are starting to realize that their jobs get a lot easier when lay people get energized about their faith,” Baker said.

Likewise in Seekonk, Doyle started a men’s prayer group at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish. “Probably the best thing any man can do this Lent is to attend the conference and let God touch him in a special way,” said the 48-year-old photographer.

“You have a chance to be with other men and share your stories. You have some of the best Catholic speakers in the country,” he said. “And when we gather and give our time to God, the Lord will most likely give us some word we need to hear. It could be through someone on the bus, through a speaker, or a priest in confession. We just have to be aware.”

Levesque, who’s 58 and from Assonet, first went at his son’s invitation. “It was overwhelming to see thousands of men singing, laughing, praying at last year’s conference,” he said. “I thought to myself -- who says the Catholic Church is dead? Everyone really wanted to be there. The music and camaraderie were great and the spiritual talks were pertinent.”

The speaker lineup for this year’s men’s conference is impressive: Catholic author and apologist Patrick Madrid, host of several EWTN shows; Cardinal Peter Turkson, the fourth youngest Catholic cardinal and the first from Ghana; Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus; Father Roger Landry and Scot Landry, 37-year-old identical twins from Lowell. Father Roger is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford and executive editor of The Anchor, the newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River. Scot Landry is secretary for institutional advancement and chief development officer of the Archdiocese of Boston as well as a co-founder of the Boston Catholic Men’s and Women’s Conferences.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley will celebrate Mass at both conferences. Music will be provided by Martin Doman of Christ Music, a music ministry that seeks to renew the Church through eucharistic praise and worship. The men’s day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the women’s from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Check-in begins 90 minutes earlier each morning.

Speakers for the women’s conference will be Immaculée Ilibagiza, author of ‘‘Left to Tell,” a book that describes how she survived the savage 1994 Rwandan genocide; Dana Scallon, a successful former singer turned Irish politician; Johnnette Benkovic, who founded the Catholic apostolates Living His Life Abundantly and Women of Grace; and Sister Linda Koontz, founder of Spirit of the Lord International Mission.

Five awards will be presented to area Catholics -- a layman and laywoman, a priest, a deacon or religious man, and a religious woman -- whose faith and work have inspired others during the past year.

Attendees this year are coming from throughout the Bay State and from Maine to Florida. Eighty exhibitors will be present and about 200 priests will hear confessions. More than 5,000 people are expected to attend each day.

Scot Landry explained that the first men’s conference, held on the feast of St. Joseph, began after his own men’s fellowship group at St. Paul Church in Cambridge felt the need to do something constructive for the Church in Boston.

“We were just a group of regular guys searching for a closer relationship with God,” he said. The organizational team now includes 10 men and 10 women.

Tickets will be $40 at the door ($20 for students, free for clergy, religious and postulants.) Lunch can be purchased for $12.50. The center is at 415 Summer Street, Boston. For directions and parking information, call 617-977-0916 or visit the Web sites, and