Facilitating an encounter with Christ

Peace Retreats continue a growing legacy of spiritual direction in the Peace Country

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

For more than 16 years, Peace Retreats has provided a space for encountering God.

In all their years of offering retreats, spiritual direction and exercises, the essence of Peace Retreats has remained the same. Whether they are hosting from a church, a community centre or even their own homes, the members try to create an environment where the Holy Spirit can enter and touch the hearts of all present.

“I often say I am the facilitator, but the Holy Spirit is the director,” said spiritual director Denise Laverdure-Sych. She has been a part of Peace Retreats for the past few years, and also offers French retreats through the group. “I’m just facilitating that encounter with God. The Holy Spirit is the one in charge.”

It’s a perspective all members agree on.

“I just call myself God’s servant,” Larry Shepherd, treasurer of Peace Retreats, added. “Throughout each session I’m raising my eyes, calling for the Holy Spirit to speak through me. ‘What is it you want me to say now?’”

Since its inception in early 2006, Peace Retreats have conducted retreats and spiritual exercises across the region – from Peace River, Fairview, High Prairie, High Level, Grande Prairie, Beaverlodge and even Dawson Creek. Their programs come about through a combination of spiritual directors developing their own retreats and offering them to parishes, and through church groups themselves requesting retreats.

Peace Retreats hosts the St. Ignatian Spiritual Exercises every month at St. Joseph’s Church in Grande Prairie.

Their programs vary, not only in location, but in style, theme and in the tools they use. Working within the skills and interests of both the director and the participants, the retreats often incorporate a diversity of elements. That can be audio and music, artwork, physical exercises, various forms of prayer and much more. All of these are incorporated into fulfilling one and the same mission – to provide a place for people to encounter God and to deepen their relationship with Him.

“We evoke presence – to create a place where God can come. That’s what we try to do,” said spiritual director and chair of Peace Retreats Allan Forsberg. “We ask, ‘Where has God shown up in your life and what is He trying to do in your life through that?’”

Peace Retreats traces its beginning to a retreat on women’s spirituality given in Grande Prairie in April, 2005. It was a well received retreat, hosted by Sr. Louise Vanderploeg, SSND and spiritual director Arlene Logan, with 40 women in attendance. It confirmed the thought of Sr. Louise and Arlene that there was a clear desire for more retreats in the Peace Country, and work soon began to create a group that would help make that desire a reality.

“When Sr. Louise started the lay formation program in Peace River, she knew people in the area were thirsting for the Lord and wanting to experience something more – a time to be together in a sacred space, in community and in silence. That’s really what started this,” said long-time Peace Retreats member Sheila Shepherd.

Over the following months the pair began developing a “retreat team” with other locals who had training in spiritual direction or were involved with the archdiocese’s Cursillo Movement. Peace Retreats was officially formed in February of 2006. They were encouraged by Fr. Gerard Pettipas, who at the time was the pastor in Grande Prairie, to apply for a grant from the Redemptorist Growth Society, and that yearly grant has helped sustain Peace Retreats ever since.

Peace Retreats members: (Top row, left to right) Denise Laverdure-Sych, Harold Imes, Cathy Morin, Louise Lee. (Bottom row, left to right) Larry Shepherd, Sheila Shepherd and Allan Forsberg

From this foundation the group grew organically each year, with more people coming to retreats or feeling a calling to be spiritual directors themselves.

Through the years the members have helped others, and themselves, experience life-changing moments of faith, hope and forgiveness. Harold Imes once hosted a “Seventy Times Seven” retreat in Fairview, focusing on the theme of forgiveness. Only a handful of people were able to come to the retreat, but the impact it left on them was enormous.

“I had a member of my congregation who attended,” Imes recalled, who is also a pastor with the United Church in Fairview. He is currently the only Protestant member of Peace Retreats. “She had a son who was paralyzed in an accident when he was 21 and she had never forgiven the driver. But that retreat just changed her life.”

Louise Lee can fondly remember one powerful event she helped organize at a prison during Lent. Within the prison chapel she planned to gather the prisoners, read a Scripture passage and reflection, and then have the prisoners walk one by one up to a person dressed as Jesus and dip their fingers in holy water.

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the April 2022 edition of Northern Light