Thousands find healing after loss through Beginning Experience

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Mari Walker, a member of St. Michael Parish in St. Cloud, remembers the sting of pain she felt walking into church — alone — for the first time after her divorce.

“I felt like I had this big ‘D’ on my forehead and that everyone knew I was there alone. It just felt so obvious to me that I was different, that my life was different,” she said.

Despite her feelings, when a friend told her about Beginning Experience of Central Minnesota, a non-profit organization that works to bring healing to people experiencing loss through separation, divorce or death, she didn’t think she needed to go.

“I thought I was doing all right,” Walker said. “When I felt like I wasn’t, I did something concrete to make myself feel better, like rake leaves or bake cookies. I didn’t think I needed anything else. But the feelings kept returning.”

Walker finally decided to try a BE weekend, and what she experienced there led her to get involved and stay involved. She now serves as president of Beginning Experience of Central Minnesota, an offshoot of the international organization, Beginning Experience, founded in 1975 by Sister of St. Mary of Namur Josephine Stewart and her divorced friend, Jo Lamia.

Local beginnings

Locally, BECM began with a group of people who participated in a grief group in the Twin Cities and wanted to bring a similar experience to Central Minnesota. The first weekend happened in 1978 at the St. Francis Convent in Little Falls.

Sally (Wolf) Watson, a member of St. Peter Parish in St. Cloud, was on the original BE team.

“It’s a real weekend of healing. That’s what we started, that’s what we meant it to be and that’s what it continues to be,” Watson said. “I still get people after all these years that come up to me and say, ‘How do I go on that weekend you went on all those years ago?’ because they know that it made such a difference in my life.”

The weekend is broken into about six talks presented by male and female counterparts who address different topics from a couch in front of the group.

“It amazed me to hear a male sitting next to me being hit as hard by his divorce or widowed status as I was,” Walker said.

Wally Osterholt has been the man on the couch many times. After his divorce, he attended a BE weekend and became a peer minister.

“Men many times don’t share their feelings, they keep them pent up,” Osterholt said. “They have a wall up. That is really what the BE weekend does. It will eat away at that wall until your emotions are bared to others. And for the first time, many men are able to share their innermost thoughts. You have to get that hurt out before you can start healing.”

Osterholt’s wife, Sandy, is also a peer minister.

“Really what the weekend does is to help to teach you the whole healing process, the healthy process to grieve,” Sandy said. “I think that is why Wally and I stay so much involved in BE. It is such a big part of what we believe in and it has helped us time and time again in our losses, in transitions, in all of our grief processes that all of us go through in our lives.”

A hopeful future 

Sandy and Wally are part of a committee planning a celebration of the 100th BE weekend (see box). Though they are excited to reunite with alumni, there is a sadness that Father Alfred Stangl, who passed away Aug. 24, will not be there to celebrate. Not only did he serve as spiritual adviser nearly every weekend, he also attended as a participant, dealing with losses in his own life, especially the death of his twin brother, Alvin.

“Once BE takes ahold of you, you see the transformation of people around you and in your communities,” Sandy said. “Father Al felt that, saw it and believed in it. Over the years, he invited many people to experience BE and their lives were transformed by his simple invitation.”

BE is expanding its outreach for alumni called Continued Beginnings as well as introducing new youth programs including an eight-week youth program for ages 7-12 for those who have lost a parent or sibling through death or divorce. They also hosted the first young people’s program in October for kids ages 12-18. In the works is a plan to create a program for young adults 18 and up.

“If the adults in the family are getting the healing and the children don’t, we are missing the boat on a huge piece of that family unity if the children are still hurting and we never address it,” Walker said.

A community of faith

Whether the loss was one year ago or 50 years ago, BE members say it’s never too late to experience healing. The weekend is open to people of all faiths and begins and ends with prayer.

“It’s a spiritual journey and it’s really about finding yourself. From when they come in until the time they leave, miraculous things happen. God takes over,” Sandy said.

Having served as the judicial vicar of the Tribunal in Sioux Falls, S.D., Bishop Donald Kettler says he was always working with people who were divorced, who were seeking healing through the annulment process. As a pastor, he worked with people who suffered other kinds of losses, often through the death of their loved ones.

“There has to be a reconciliation — even with God — when you’ve lost a spouse, whether through death or divorce,” he said. “You have to work on that relationship with God. … There can be some forgiveness and a chance to start over again.”

Bishop Kettler worked with BE in both Sioux Falls and Fairbanks, Alaska. He added that whenever there is a death — whether it is a physical death or the death of a marriage — there has to be a grieving process that you go through and then an opportunity to be reconciled and to move forward.

“And if those things don’t happen, people get stuck and have trouble fully functioning as a human being,” he said. “That’s what BE offers for these significant times in people’s lives.”

For more information or to apply for a BE weekend, visit