A taste of wellness

Categories: Around the Diocese

1A vets retreat

Jess DeKozlowski, a former Air Force aircraft maintenance technician, sculpts a cross during a therapeutic clay session, part of the “A Taste of Wellness” retreat for women veterans with the Sisters of St. Benedict in St. Joseph Aug. 15. Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

Sisters, women veterans share camaraderie, healing, spirituality

For three days in mid-August, the Benedictine sisters in St. Joseph opened wide their doors and welcomed women veterans for a healing retreat.

Women have served in every conflict since the Revolutionary War. There are more than 27,000 women veterans in Minnesota and 2 million in the U.S., according to Trista Matascastillo, founder and director of the Women Veterans Initiative in St. Paul.

“We have endured, sacrificed and we continue to give back to our communities, and yet we are often invisible in society,” she said. “We are mothers, sisters, grandmothers, friends and wives. Our service is as important and valuable as that of our male counterparts and our experience is no less than [theirs] either. We have served with pride and honor and have endured.”

Benedictine Sister Trish Dick was inspired to help veterans after reading a series of articles in the St. Cloud Times about their struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after returning home from military service. One story written by Hector Matascastillo, Trista’s husband, caught Sister Trish’s attention and she contacted him with her idea of leading a dog sled retreat in the Boundary Waters utilizing dogs and nature as part of thehealing process.

Vet retreat 2

Sheila Laughton, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, works on a small clay sculpture during a therapeutic clay session, part of the “A Taste of Wellness” retreat for women veterans with the Sisters of St. Benedict in St. Joseph Aug. 15. Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

“Every year, I take a group of college senior students dog sledding,” she said. “Animals and nature are natural healing elements that lead to a transformative spiritual encounter.”

Hector suggested that Sister Trish discuss it with Trista. The two planned for a dog sled retreat but due to unforeseen circumstances — a broken foot for Sister Trish — that retreat did not happen. So she invited Trista to the monastery for a visit.

“When Trista saw our sacred spaces and met the sisters, she knew instantly that this was the perfect place to bring women veterans for healing,” Sister Trish said. “The synergy of both groups created an enthusiasm to make it happen.”

Together, they gathered a leadership team and developed the theme for the retreat, “A Taste of Wellness.” In addition to Sister Trish, who is currently part of the chaplaincy program at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and previously was the spiritual formation director at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, two other Benedictine sisters, Janine Mettling and Julianne Gilbert, helped to organize the retreat. The two women have experience with healing touch ministry.

“We teamed up to work on this retreat for women veterans knowing that we could utilize and complement each other’s gifts,” Sister Trish said. “We all have a passion for using our talents to help others heal spiritually, emotionally and physically.”

It was a good fit for the sisters because they understand the difficulties of living out a specific mission of service in a male-dominated world, something they have in common with women veterans, Sister Trish said.

“Sisters have been trail blazers, just as the women veterans have and we understand how important it is to have the support of a strong community of other women,” she said.

The monastery was a natural fit for the women veterans because it provided a safe and welcoming place for healing and reflection along with opportunities to experience prayer and community.

Retreatants could participate in pottery, gardening, crafting, writing, walking, resting and multiple forms of hands-on healing arts. Spiritual direction was also offered.

“Many veterans chose to join the sisters for Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist,” Sister Trish said. “Being able to socialize with the sisters at meals and in activities created a bond of community.”

The retreat was designed to introduce women veterans to healing and time for themselves to learn self-care, said Trista Matascastillo. “We know healing comes in a variety of forms, and a retreat that takes into account the needs of being a woman and offers healthy eating, mindfulness, body work and, most importantly, sisterhood is exactly what we were hoping to achieve.”

Seeking wellness

Twenty-three women veterans and five non-veteran support staff of the Women Veterans Initiative participated in the retreat Aug. 14-16, including Liz Skilbeck, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served as an explosive ordinance disposal technician — or what she called the “bomb squad.”

“I was looking for peace and quiet and I liked the idea of holistic wellness,” Skilbeck said. “I am also a huge fan of body work and of the delicious organic food they prepared for us.

“With the sisters, there was no judgment,” she continued. “I was able to just relax, refocus and try to find peace of mind. Being in that environment gave us a chance to let our guards down and just feel. A lot of us as veteran women have a hard time letting down our guard.

We wear an armor not just physically but also emotionally. It allowed me to be more relaxed and be in a place where everyone understands.”

Gina Braswell heard about the retreat through the Wounded Warrior Project and thought it would be a great opportunity to have time for herself and connect with other women veterans.

Braswell served in the U.S. Army as part of the Chaplain Corps from 2003-2012. Her husband also is a veteran of both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy, serving in over 60 combat missions during Desert Storm and in Afghanistan.

“The setting and spending time with the sisters was really a nurturing experience,” Braswell said. “I liked being able to experience the types of things they provided like healing massage, crafts and art and also connecting with other people who understand what it’s like to be a veteran and be a woman in the military.”

Braswell said she concentrated on the theme of healing and renewal.

“There was also a spiritual aspect,” she said. “The sisters respected people and met them where they were at spiritually, renewing our spirits and validating us. The stigma of women in the military is that they aren’t allowed in combat but the truth is, we are right there next to [the men]. Sometimes that is overlooked and the sisters understand that.”

What Braswell appreciated most was the chance to laugh. “One of the most fun parts of the retreat was the humor of the sisters and how they joked with us and with each other,” she said. “It was just fun to experience their presence and their camaraderie.”

Sister Trish hopes that the relationships formed over those three days in August will continue and will spark more women veterans to find healing.

“Our hope was that the women would come away from the retreat knowing that their individual stories matter, that their military service is valued by others and that there are things they can do to help heal the trauma they have experienced,” Sister Trish said.

“We wanted them to know that we acknowledge their service to our country. And we recognize the deep pain and struggle they have endured,” she added. “Most of all, we hoped they would feel immersed in God’s love by connecting with us and by sharing our lives and sacred spaces.”