FORT SMITH -- When widower Jim Bolt, a parishioner of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, went on a Beginning Experience weekend in April, he thought he'd been through all the grief of losing his wife to a three-year struggle with lung cancer. Instead, he learned a lot about himself.
"When I left the weekend I felt alive for the first time since my wife's death," Bolt said. "I went, I saw, and I came away a believer."
Rogers parishioner Nancy Dort, who is divorced, also found her weekend to be a life-changing experience.
"It gave me a sense of direction and purpose at a very critical time in my life, and I would strongly recommend that people who find themselves single for whatever reason make a Beginning Experience weekend," she said.
Beginning Experience is for people who have lost loved ones through death, separation or divorce and is being reintroduced in the Diocese of Little Rock with the assistance of the Diocese of Tulsa.
Eddie McInnes, president of the board of directors of Tulsa Beginning Experience, said that more and more Arkansans had been coming to the Oklahoma weekends. The last Beginning Experience in Arkansas was held in November 2000, said Elizabeth Reha, diocesan family life director.
"Our goal is to help get a Beginning Experience team back in Arkansas, either in northwest Arkansas or Little Rock."
On June 22-24, a combined team from the Little Rock and Tulsa dioceses will hold a Beginning Experience weekend at St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith. A second weekend at St. Scholastica is planned for Oct. 26-28.
Betsy McNeil, a widow, and Rita House, who is divorced, attended their first Beginning Experience weekend in the Diocese of Tulsa two years ago. The St. Vincent de Paul parishioners decided to train to become team members and bring the peer ministry program back to Arkansas.
Beginning Experience weekends are for men and women of all faiths and ages.
"We have had participants of all ages from their 20s to their mid-80s," said McNeil, community and discipleship coordinator at St. Vincent de Paul. "The weekend is for people who are at a crossroads, who have worked through some of their grief but are ready to move from the pain of loss to return to an experience of positive growth."
The weekend consists of nine presentations by team members and time for personal reflection and small-group sharing. Although the weekend is ecumenical, priests are available for the sacrament of reconciliation and Mass.
"The spiritual aspects of the weekend helped me know that God is with me and I'm not alone," Dort said.
Msgr. Richard Oswald, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith, has seen the positive benefits his former parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul received from making Beginning Experience weekends.
"Sometimes people who love one another very much can be separated by death. Or sometimes people go through a very painful divorce. In either situation there is a need for healing. The Lord wants us to help people to open up to the healing that only he can give them in that situation," Msgr. Oswald said.
The weekend, which includes lodging, meals, a participant's fee and materials, costs $165. A deposit of $30 is due two weeks before the weekend, with the balance payable on the weekend or in a series of installments. McNeil stressed that no one is turned away for financial reasons.
Registration forms are available by calling Tulsa Beginning Experience at (918) 481-5138 or e-mailing .
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