Online Catholic women’s ministry has strong local ties

| April 6, 2018 | 0 Comments
Nell O’Leary Alt, managing editor of Blessed Is She

Nell O’Leary Alt of St. Agnes in St. Paul is the managing editor of Blessed Is She, a national ministry. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

‘Blessed is she who believes’

Early each morning, an email with the subject “Today’s Devotion” pops up in 45,000 inboxes around the world. It contains a link to the daily Scripture readings and a short reflection. The source is Blessed Is She, an Arizona-based women’s ministry that launched the daily Catholic devotions in 2014.

In the past four years, the online ministry has grown to include in-person small-group studies, brunch meet-ups and regional retreats, including one slated for August in St. Paul. It also offers prayer journals, planners with the liturgical year, a podcast and blog, a Catholic journaling Bible and study materials designed for groups to delve into faith topics such as the rosary and the Beatitudes.

Despite its headquarters being 1,300 miles away, Minnesota is the state with the largest share of its daily devotional writers, all of whom are women.

Blessed Is She’s founder, Jenna Guizar, was inspired to start the ministry after struggling as a young mother to find Catholic community with other women, especially one rooted in Scripture. She was impressed by Protestant women’s ministries, but she couldn’t find what she was looking for from a Catholic perspective. So she decided to spearhead it herself.

Guizar sent a call into the Catholic women’s blogosphere, asking for volunteers to write personal reflections on Scripture. Nell O’Leary Alt, a lawyer turned stay-at-home mom in St. Paul, was among those who answered the call.

“I thought, ‘I was the managing editor of a law review. I could help you manage all of these volunteers,’” said Alt, 34, a parishioner of St. Agnes in St. Paul. “Little did I know that this would change my faith life dramatically.”

Alt’s initial volunteer role as Blessed Is She’s managing editor is now her part-time job. Its writers number 40 and come from different walks of life. “It’s the whole gamut of Catholic women,” Alt said.

That’s what Guizar was hoping.

“I wanted us to have a home that every woman could be included in, and it didn’t matter if you were a young mom, a single woman or a grandmother,” said Guizar, 31. She sees the goal as twofold: to engage women in Scripture and to help them nurture friendship with other women.

“I want every single woman to have a friend that she can talk to about the Lord, and talk to when her heart is really incredibly sad, and when her heart is really joyful,” she said.

To that end, Blessed Is She helps women host Blessed Brunches, casual, potluck-style meet-ups that bring together like-minded women in person and build community. Thousands have been held worldwide, Alt said.

The ministry’s name comes from Elizabeth’s words to Mary at the visitation, recounted in Luke 1:45: “Blessed is she who believes that the Lord will fulfill his promise to her.”

Despite its size, Blessed Is She remains a homegrown operation. It’s Guizar’s full-time job, and she and her husband ship Blessed Is She products out of their home in Tempe.

Blessed Is She offers an annual paid membership, but the daily devotional is free and is available at blessedisshe.net, with the option for it to arrive by email.

“The daily devotions are the thing that we have the most pride in,” Guizar said. “We want women to sit down and read the Word every day. That’s our biggest drive, and everything else comes after that.”

With all of the ministry’s facets, Alt admits it can be hard to pin down Blessed Is She. Her elevator speech: “Blessed Is She is an online Catholic ministry that seeks to build sisterhood in real life.”

The ministry’s Midwest Facebook group alone has more than 10,000 members. Their posts testify to the fact that Blessed Is She connects with women at different places in their faith journeys. The environment is nonjudgmental and encouraging, and its members share “dozens and dozens of prayer requests all day long,” Alt said.

Like Alt, local Catholic writers Laura Kelly Fanucci and Susanna Spencer jumped on board with Guizar at Blessed Is She’s inception, and they’re two of eight Minnesota reflection writers. In addition to contributing reflections, Spencer, a St. Agnes parishioner with a master’s degree in theology, is a Blessed Is She theological editor, and Fanucci, a parishioner of St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove, wrote this year’s Advent and Lent journals.

“It’s amazing to look back and see how much it’s grown,” said Fanucci, who directs a program on vocation at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University and writes the Catholic News Service column “Faith at Home.”

“I don’t think any of us ever thought it would become what it is today. … I thought ‘wow, if you can get women in college and you can get women in retirement and grandmothers, and they can connect through the Scriptures together, what a beautiful model of ministry,’” she said.

Like the Blessed Is She website and social media posts, its publications are attractive and feminine. Beauty is central to how it carries out its mission. Both the images and Scripture attract, said Fanucci, 37.

Blessed Is She inspired Spencer, 31, to form her own small group for Catholic women after moving to St. Paul from Buffalo, New York.

“Having a place where I can have other friendships that are based on our love of God and our desire to help each other grow in holiness has been just a complete blessing in my life, and [it] helps me just get through my days, knowing that I’ve got other friends praying for me,” she said.

Fanucci said that in her Catholic circles, she witnesses a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the Church and its future, but Blessed Is She challenges a decline narrative.

“Blessed Is She is one of those places where I find so much hope, in both what the Church is today and what it can become, because it’s so alive, it’s growing, it’s right in the middle of popular culture,” she said. “It has really helped me to see a new narrative of abundance about what’s going on in our Church, and what’s possible when the new evangelization takes root.”


Twin Cities Blessed Is She retreat

St. Mark in St. Paul will host a Blessed Is She “Wild” retreat Aug. 10-11. The retreat begins Friday evening and continues all day Saturday with speakers, Mass, eucharistic adoration and a procession, confession, music, meals and creative activities. Laura Kelly Fanucci, a local author and Blessed Is She contributor, will be the retreat’s emcee and one of its speakers.

The theme is from John 3:8: “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The retreat is one of six scheduled this year; others are in Arizona, California,Texas, Florida and Washington, D.C.

A Blessed Is She retreat “brings this incredible beauty and radical sisterhood together so that women of all ages, all walks of life, come together to be transformed and bring that back to their parish,” said Blessed Is She’s managing editor Nell O’Leary Alt, who’s been to three. “It’s been life altering for me, and I really hope it’s life altering for the women who are able to come.”

Organizers expect the retreat to draw more than 300 attendees and to sell out of tickets in advance. Early-bird cost is $125. For more information, visit blessedisshe.net.

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