By Kenneth J. Souza
MASHPEE, Mass. — When she retired as a social worker with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health in 2009, Karen Mullaly-Sweeney knew she wanted to spend her time doing something productive. But she never dreamed she’d be coordinating a women’s Bible study program at her parish.
“At first I thought: ‘I’m not a holy roller. What would people think of me?’ It just wasn’t my image,” Mullaly-Sweeney said. “I had never done anything like this before, I wasn’t even a member of any women’s clubs.”
But a little nudge from the Holy Spirit — and a suggestion from her daughter-in-law — was enough to encourage her to organize the first meeting of the Walking With Purpose group at Christ the King Parish.
“Lisa Brenninkmeyer, who founded Walking With Purpose, began it at St. Andrew by the Bay Parish in Annapolis, Md., where my son and daughter-in-law live,” she said. “And my daughter-in-law kept telling me: ‘Try this.’ So I sent for the information and prayed a whole lot. I talked to our pastor at the time, Msgr. Daniel F. Hoye, and he said: ‘Go ahead.’ So we started with a Lenten program at Christ the King Parish in 2012.”
If Mullaly-Sweeney had any doubts about this new venture, they were vanquished with that first meeting.
“I set up about 15 chairs and was ready with coffee and snacks,” she said. “Well, 42 women walked in the door! Talk about knowing I was doing what the Holy Spirit wanted — I mean, when do 42 women ever show up for a Bible study? It was those 42 women who confirmed that this was meant to happen and it encouraged me to keep at it.”
In the subsequent four years, Walking With Purpose has continued to thrive and grow here in the Fall River Diocese and across the United States. When the Mashpee chapter first formed in 2012, Mullaly-Sweeney said there were 872 members nationwide. Today, there are nearly 12,000 in the U.S. and more than 60 women are enrolled in the current Christ the King session that began in September.
“We were the first group in Massachusetts, believe it or not,” she said. “But when you see how many parishes there are now, you’ll see how it’s just grown. We’ve already had one group spin off from us — there’s a new group now at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Pocasset — and another woman is trying to get her courage up to let the Holy Spirit guide her to starting one down the lower Cape.”
Founded in 2002 by Brenninkmeyer, a Catholic convert, Walking With Purpose is a Bible study program that aims to bring women to a deeper personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It offers personal study and small group discussions that link everyday challenges and struggles with the solutions given to us through the teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church.
According to its website, Walking With Purpose endeavors to meet women where they are, giving them practical Biblical teaching that is consistent with Church doctrine and uses the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” as an additional resource.
Walking With Purpose has three elements: at-home study, parish-based or independently run weekly small group meetings, and a monthly talk on relevant course material. Parish-based programs are offered during the daytime or in the evenings, and childcare is provided. All course materials have received the imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Md., and vary in length and depth of study in order to meet the varying needs of participants.
“We have four groups that meet on Tuesday morning and three that meet on Thursday evening,” Mullaly-Sweeney said. “That means there are seven different groups with seven different facilitators. The facilitators of these groups are women who love their faith and care about other women. Each group is on a certain lesson — right now we’re studying women of the Bible.”
Each Walking With Purpose program is comprised of 22 one-week courses and a weekly lesson is divided into five days of reading. Each lesson ends with participants making a resolution, based on what they have learned.
“For example, one (resolution) might be: prioritize my activities, giving God my best and not the leftover minutes of the day,” Mullaly-Sweeney said. “Another would be: let go of the past by going to Confession. And going to Confession has been a real weight lifted off of some of these women. The beauty of Walking With Purpose is where else can you express these thoughts to others and have others encouraging you to respond?”
The two-hour group sessions begin with food and refreshments, with members taking turns to bring in the goodies.
“Then we pray together as the Holy Spirit guides us, and in the groups is where real friendships are formed because you get to know people on a level that’s very different,” she said. “We pray together and then we talk about our resolutions, we ask for each other’s help. And you see how your heart opens to them — it’s the Holy Spirit working through us. It’s really important that those two hours are spent together, it’s very prayerful and the focus is very Spiritual. You can really see someone just blossoming before your eyes.”
Walking With Purpose has no age restrictions — current members range from their 20s to their 80s — and all are encouraged to offer support and share their hopes and experiences.
“It’s a delightful experience because the material is so rich and so hands-on and it’s written so beautifully,” Mullaly-Sweeney said. “The motto is: ‘Enabling women to know Christ through Scripture.’ When you break that down, it’s revolutionary for people who were born Catholic. Because, when you think about it, do we really study Scripture? We were taught it and we were told about it, but do we know it?
“By reading the Bible — or what Lisa likes to call ‘God’s love letters to us’ — it helps to see Christ as a real person. We get to experience Him through Scripture and talk about it with each other.”
One of the biggest selling points for Walking With Purpose seems to be the growing number of Catholic women joining its ranks who, in turn, kindle others’ interest with their word-of-mouth praise for the program.
That’s how former Mashpee member Kate Satkevich first got involved.
“My mother-in-law is actually one of the facilitators, so she got me to go to one of the meetings and the rest is history,” Satkevich said. “I never knew what I was going to be walking into, to be honest with you. I’m a mom with two kids and I was of the assumption that there wasn’t an extra minute in my life for anything. And somehow, some way the Holy Spirit changed that whole story for me, whether I was ready or not.”
After a two-year stint with Mashpee, Satkevich approached her pastor, Father David Frederici, about starting her own Walking With Purpose chapter at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Pocasset.
After a successful six-week trial program last Lent, St. John the Evangelist is now in the midst of its first full 22-week Walking With Purpose session with 39 women enrolled.
“The 22-week program can be a little intimidating, so not everybody came back but more wanted to,” Satkevich said. “I think those who didn’t come back (this time) may come back next year. I have women in my group from three different parishes. We just have a night program now, but hopefully next year we can extend it to a day (session) as well.”
Like Mullaly-Sweeney, Satkevich thinks Walking With Purpose is a unique combination of Bible study and Spiritual support group.
“I think it combines the Bible with Spirituality and I think that’s the big difference here,” Satkevich said. “I’ve taken other Bible study courses that are great, but they don’t include that Spiritual component or offer any in-depth meaning. You know: how does it speak to my soul? And I think the way Walking With Purpose combines the two is what makes it such a success.”
Now having successfully spun off a second Walking With Purpose group, Satkevich hopes other women will be inspired by the Holy Spirit to do the same.
“We’re only in our 13th week and I haven’t broached the subject yet, but I think I’m going to see if anybody is interested in bringing it to their own parish,” she said. “One of the hardest things (in starting this group) was breaking off from Mashpee because I just loved the women. And it almost feels like you’re leaving a really big support network behind. But the way I see it is it was a gift given to me, and I feel like it’s a gift I need to share with other people.”
Mullaly-Sweeney said she feels blessed to be involved with Walking With Purpose and she’s grateful to Msgr. Hoye for allowing her to bring the program to Mashpee and to her current pastor, Father Edward J. Healey, for continuing to support it.
“Catholics are hungry for something like this; I mean, this is evangelization at its grassroots best,” she said. “I think Walking With Purpose has come along at the right time. They say we’re supposed to attend to the needy around us — well, the needy around us are sitting in the church pews. Some of these women who have come to Walking With Purpose and stay are women who have never belonged to any kind of social church group before.”
“Lisa is just an amazing woman. She really just found a niche that we were all looking for,” Satkevich agreed. “It’s such a strong women’s network. We all pray for each other and truly care about one another and we’re growing with each other. It’s pretty amazing.”
“It’s a process. That’s why we call it ‘Walking With Purpose,’” Mullaly-Sweeney added. “But of course, with that title, some people think it’s a walking group. They think we walk around saying the Rosary. No, we don’t do that, and we don’t walk around reading the Bible, either. We’re walking with purpose on our Spiritual journey.”