Q & A with Sr. Mary Montgomery, leading retreats for busy Catholic moms

Sr. Mary Montgomery became a Sister of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1967 and has since served in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois.

For the past five years, she has facilitated an annual retreat for "busy Catholic moms." Montgomery also coordinates the internship program at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods' White Violet Center for Eco Justice, where interns are responsible for tending to the center's chickens and herd of alpacas, which Montgomery describes as "gentle, contemplative creatures."

Montgomery spoke to GSR (and also introduced the alpacas) at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods a few days after this year's Retreat for Busy Catholic Moms wrapped up.

GSR: Since we're here with the alpacas right now, I'd like to ask about them. You told me earlier that they're contemplative creatures. What do you mean by that?

Montgomery: When the Sisters of Providence were trying to decide on which kind of animal to bring onto our land, we looked at some studies and found that alpacas are very gentle on the land. As far as their temperament, it just feels to me like — look at them now. [The alpacas quietly eat straw.] They're doing what they want to do now, and they're focused only on that. As humans, sometimes we go in different directions. We're trying to do too many things at once. We can be scattered. The alpacas, though, stay focused on one task at once.

Do you think it's important for people to be more like that, doing just one thing at once?

Absolutely. Our lives can be so busy. That's what retreat is: a pause that refreshes. The pause that recalibrates. You know how a GPS will say it's recalibrating or recalculating? Retreats are like that.

Tell me about your background with retreat work and how you got started doing the Busy Moms retreat here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

I'm beginning my fifth year doing formal retreat work, though I have done some form of retreat work since — well, a long time! A few decades. Even when I was in youth ministry, another sister and I created a freshman and sophomore retreat. I worked in Kentucky at that time at the Louisville Diocese.

The idea for the Retreat for Busy Catholic Moms came from my two nieces, my sister's daughters. Between them, they have nine children. We were together at Thanksgiving in 2014, and they asked me, "Would you ever consider doing something for mothers?"

I said I would love to, but I didn't think any mothers would come — just because of the nature of the life of a mother. You are so busy and multitasking, it would be hard to get away.

Both my nieces agreed it would be really hard. And then my niece Stephanie, after a pause, said, "But we really need it. We really could use it."

I said, "OK, let's see what we can do."

We figured out a weekend, did some advertising, and 15 people showed up that first year. Since then it has grown. Last year, we had 25 moms.

What are some of the aspects of the retreat? What activities do you plan?

We always start on Friday with shoulder massages and wine right when the moms arrive. We have three or four sisters who volunteer do to the shoulder massages. The moms love meeting the sisters because there aren't that many sisters out in parishes.

I also plan readings. One of the things I like to introduce folks to is Mary's Way of the Cross. The prayers are from Mary's perspective of what her son is going through. The moms will say, "I've never heard it from Mary's point of view. I've thought about it, as a mom. She must have been just torn up."

I generally change up the readings and music every year, but one thing I always include on Sunday is called a Gathering of the Graces. This is a chance for the moms to reflect on what spoke to them, what was helpful to them, over the course of the retreat. We have a meditation time in the morning to hear what God wants to say to them. Then they write a letter to self. But it's really God writing the letter. Then I send the letters a few weeks later, after the retreat has finished. The moms get very busy again, but they receive the letter, and it's a chance to remember, "Oh, yeah! This is what's important." So it's like a treasure. It's a treasure to them.

I'm so interested in what the experience is like for you as a vowed religious woman facilitating retreats for moms.

I have such admiration and appreciation for mothers. They have the most important work in the world. From conception on, they're nurturing this child, and then for the rest of that child's life, as much as they're able. Each one has unique gifts and talents and shortcomings, and it's just a mixed bag, but I think that moms don't get enough credit.

In what ways has doing the moms' retreats changed or affected you?

They help me have more awe. I've lived this for a while. It's not dull — it never gets dull — but it gets sort of tapped down or something. Serving the moms keeps it fresh for me. To see their deep faith and their hunger and their growing faith.

Was your own mother partially responsible for your choice to become a religious woman?

Yes. My mom and dad were so important in my upbringing — my mom, especially. Without her, we wouldn't have prayed the rosary together. I think if it were just my dad, he would have gotten us to church, but not the rosary. Every night, we prayed the rosary, kneeling down around Mom and Dad's bed, all seven of us kids.

Wow. That illuminates the degree to which moms are often responsible for the spirituality of their families. Does that come up in retreat?

All the time. The moms are always having conversations like, "What encourages your kids to keep going to church?" Simple things like that come up often, which are actually not simple when you're in a family and trying to have an active, practicing faith. They're looking for nuggets they can use with their family, even just prayers or sayings. That's a really valuable part of the retreat: Mothers getting together with mothers and sharing their wisdom and sharing their faith. It's powerful.

Do the relationships last beyond retreat?

Yes! During the last retreat, an idea came up among a few mothers that they would like to come rent hermitages together here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and do their own private retreat. I love that idea. I won't plan that; they can plan that!

Outside of the retreat, which costs $220 per mom, does Saint Mary-of-the-Woods offer support to mothers in the community who might not be able to attend the retreat or can't afford it?

We don't have anything formal, but many people come here to our grounds just to walk. They can also volunteer in the gardens or volunteer with the animals. Spirituality just kind of oozes out of the space here. In many ways, the place is the retreat.

[Georgia Perry is a journalist originally from Indianapolis.]