What happens when the RC charism begins to grow in one of the oldest parishes in Chicago? What’s that thing called when the Holy Spirit starts to touch hearts and lives and begins to transform culture? It’s called The New Evangelization.
Yes, Immaculate Conception Parish, Highland Park, Illinois, has been serving the faithful for more than 170 years. By Roman Catholic standards that is fairly recent, but at the time, Illinois had been a state for less than 30 years and a young lawyer named Abe Lincoln had just been elected to his one term in Congress – as a Whig.
Our story is about the RC charism played out in a parish setting. The players: Eleanor Segraves and Mary Maher, both members of Chicago’s Regnum Christi consecrated community. The charism’s impact on the parish can be seen in various apostolates and activities, but Advent by Candlelight might be the most obvious.
Starting with the punchline, the 2017 Advent by Candlelight event was a remarkable success. More than 300 attended the sell-out combination retreat, dinner and social gathering. This event is the single most attended event at IC, and it’s all women.
While many parishes do similar pre-Advent events and often emphasize the social aspects, most especially table decorating, and by that, I mean, “Who’s table is the ‘best dressed’?” Mary, Eleanor, and the committee of women from the parish wanted to put the focus on the spiritual, with simple meditations on Mary, our model as women, testimonies by women from the parish, beautiful music from a women’s ensemble, and candles. Lots of candles.
“Advent by Candlelight is a spiritual evening for women in the parish and the greater community,” Eleanor said. “They come and intentionally prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ.” Mary added, “We realized when we began working at this parish that people were ready for something more. They were hungry for a deeper experience of God but struggled to find time for prayer. Advent isn’t a peaceful season for most women. Our culture focuses on presents and party planning, but we wanted this special night to be a moment of grace for them.”
The first Advent by Candlelight occurred in 2015. Mary was leading a women’s bible study and one afternoon, one of the members said, “We are receiving so much through this small group, but there’s got to be a way we reach more women of our parish.” After a high-spirited, idea-filled afternoon, they decided to propose Advent by Candlelight.
With a little more than a month before the event date, preparations began.
“They have to have an experience of God’s love,” Mary explained. “That is what we have to offer as consecrated women and this is at the core of our charism—small groups, personal accompaniment, and strong spiritual experiences.”
The Pastor of Immaculate Conception gave his permission for the event before Mary even finished explaining the concept. He had always wanted an event like this for Immaculate Conception.
“It’s the Blessed Mother’s parish, she wants this to happen,” he said.” And I want to pay for the event myself. It will be my gift to the women of the parish.”
The ladies planned, budgeted, purchased decorations and ordered food. They were hoping and praying for 50 women. Days before the event, more decorations were purchased and more food ordered. Registrations had hit 170.
The crowd surprised everyone, perhaps because it was near the 170th anniversary of the parish. Ironically, the crowd number 170, made the food bill a little higher than the Pastor has expected but he couldn’t have been more overjoyed at the turnout.
The 2016 event drew 204 women and, despite a $25 price tag in 2017, the crowd hit 300 – a sellout for the parish facility.
“As I stood outside the room saying goodnight to women the first year, I was overwhelmed by how many seemed to have been deeply touched by the event,” Mary said. “It was almost as if you could feel the Regnum Christi charism in the room. Something had happened that was not our doing. It was a tangible experience that Christ’s Kingdom was among us. He was near—Emmanuel, God with us.”
This year the committee decided to focus the testimonies around three elements: spirituality, communion, mission – the three aspects of evangelization outlined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for Adult Faith Formation, and central aspects of the Regnum Christi charism.
Marta Stepniak, Vicariate I Director of Life-Long Formation, a key leader in the Chicago Archdiocese responsible for advising 70 parishes, attended the event and wrote the following, “Thank you is not enough to express my gratitude for the experience of Advent by Candlelight. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming and the Holy Spirit was truly present. The reflections were joyful, full of trust and love. I want that! I want that joy, that trust, that love! Incredible!”
“Those reactions are so deeply moving for us,” Eleanor said. “We didn’t invent Advent by Candlelight; it happens all over the country. But I do think what makes Immaculate Conception’s event special is the gift of our charism infused into every aspect of the event. Christ wants to touch hearts, and he wants apostles full of love, that reach out to those in need.”
Mary added, “The Northshore of Chicago can sometimes feel like a spiritual desert, but the Holy Spirit wants to do something in and through us. He wants Christ’s Kingdom to come. Now.” There are people in the pews waiting to be invited to share in the mission of Evangelization. Our small groups are one way people can live spirituality, communion and mission. Advent by Candlelight is a powerful example of the transformation from a group of friends to a team of apostles.”
Eleanor Segraves is from Atlanta, Georgia and proud of it! Before she was consecrated she studied at Franciscan University of Steubenville from 2002-2006 and then was a Regnum Christi Mission Corps volunteer in Louisiana. She was consecrated on August 18, 2007. During her formation years in Rhode Island, Eleanor traveled to Toronto and also helped with the accreditation process of Mater Ecclesiae College. She worked on the road team to Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska from 2010-2012. Now she is full time in Chicago working as the Director of Religious Education at Immaculate Conception Parish in Highland Park.
Mary Maher grew up in Michigan, the second of six children. Her family is originally from Chicago, thus her sports loyalties; she’s an especially avid fan of the Cubs and the Fighting Irish.
She’s been consecrated to God for sixteen years and has served in Rhode Island, Mexico and throughout the Midwest. She holds a degree in Religious and Pastoral Studies from the Anahuac University. Her ministry has been primarily focused on faith formation of adult women; she is a spiritual director, and leads speakers series and spirituality groups. She’s also worked extensively with youth, as a spiritual coach, retreat leader, service coordinator, and director of international mission trips. (Building a house for a poor family in Mexico is one of her personal favorites!)
Mary loves to pray hard and play hard; some of her hobbies are running and spending quality time with family and friends. Next August Mary will resume higher studies as she pursues her Doctorate of Ministry (Pastoral Theology) from the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL.