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Russellville couples nourished with monthly rosary dinner

For 20 years, prayer and shared meal have bonded the families of St. John Church

Published: July 16, 2021   
Courtesy Damien Durbin
Couples in the Rosary Dinner Family smile for a photo May 21, their first meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic began. They are Tom and Rosemary Rolniak (left), Damien and Celeste Durbin, Richard and Clarice Grace, John and Marion Hotz and Art and Deeneen Mendez.

Five couples in Russellville have been bonded by the rosary and a good meal together for 20 years.

The Rosary Dinner Family was established in 2001 at St. John Church for a chance to meet other people who were committed to their faith. 

“I don’t think we have a magic potion we sprinkled out there, I think it just happened,” said Celeste Durbin, 73, one of the founding couples along with husband Damien, 79. 

The couple moved from Texas to Arkansas 25 years ago. After visiting her sister’s parish rosary dinner group, it sparked her desire to help start one at St. John. 

“From my standpoint, we wanted to have a group of parishioners that we could bond together and share the challenges we have in our lives and do it in the sense of a prayerful setting, which the rosary definitely does,” Damien Durbin said. 

Original members include the Durbins, John and Marion Hotz, co-founders, and Art and Deeneen Mendez. Two couples -- Richard and Clarice Grace and Tom and Rosie Rolniak -- joined later. 

The group has had at most six couples. They meet once a month, typically the third Saturday at 6:30 p.m., but are flexible. They rotate gatherings at each other’s homes with a potluck meal.

Each meeting consists of social time, a dinner, the rosary, dessert and discussion on different topics, according to the group guidelines. But the familial bond makes the guidelines merely a formality, with laughter, sharing and spirituality at the heart of it all. 

“The deep aspects of our spirituality and sharing with others is very comforting at times. It takes a long time to feel comfortable, to know people. Our whole group is like that now,” said Richard Grace, 79. 

Anything discussed in the group is kept confidential.

“Just last fall our daughter’s husband took his own life. He was in the hospital at the time, we weren’t sure if he was going to make it. I texted them right away to start praying,” said Clarice Grace, 76.

Deeneen Mendez, 56, along with her husband Art, said they’ve appreciated the wisdom from their friends, knowing that they are “not so broken,” but every person of faith has challenges. 

Each couple recites a decade of the rosary, sharing their intentions, with some taking the time to share more about what is going on in their lives and why prayers are needed. 

“I still have to use the (rosary) book. I get flustered,” said Deeneen Mendez, who converted to Catholicism 25 years ago, adding she often cries during her prayer requests. “You don’t have to know the rosary to begin with. You just have to be open to a prayerful group of people.” 

Celeste Durbin said the group will hash out various topics, anything from abortion and LGBTQ issues to what Pope Francis says and dynamics of parish life. 

“One of the important things is the couples feel comfortable praying together … because you’re going to be sharing stuff and you want that person on board with you,” Celeste Durbin said. 

The group began meeting again in May, after a year-long break because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While a few couples met to livestream Mass, the Rosary Dinner Family did not officially meet. 

“I think once people see the value and getting spiritually fed from this ... they plan their lives around the rosary dinner,” Damien Durbin said. 

While pastors have proposed the idea of breaking the group apart for members to go lead other small groups, they believe the bond is what keeps them strong. 

“You know there really is spiritual warfare out there, and we just can’t let go of our own because that's like our shield, our protection with our faith,” Mendez said. “I wish there was a way to capture that for everyone. I know we’ve encouraged other groups to start. You just have to find the right combination of people.” 

A few years ago, the group did share with fellow parishioners about the longevity of the group, in hopes that others would flourish. 

“It’s like a marriage. People say you fall in love and get married and the reality is quite the opposite. You have to commit to each other before love is ever going to work,” Richard Grace said. “... Friendship is the same way and you commit to help each other no matter what.” 

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