January 1, 2023 | Local News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

A statue of the Pieta – Our Lady holding Jesus after he was taken down from the cross – is seen at St. Joseph Monastery in Whitesville, where Rachel’s Vineyard retreats are often held in Kentucky. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

‘Healing that we don’t understand’

Couple recounts Rachel’s Vineyard retreat experience


Jan. 20, 2013 – a day that brought peace to a couple that had been silently suffering for decades.

Looking back, “Eileen” and “Steven” (pseudonyms used for privacy) believe their Rachel’s Vineyard retreat that weekend provided the greatest healing they have ever experienced as a couple.

“After we went, I understood,” said Eileen. “I realized that God works in mysterious ways and sometimes we don’t understand why things happen.”

Rachel’s Vineyard of Kentucky is a branch of an international program that offers confidential retreats for women and men suffering from lingering effects after an abortion experience. The retreats often take place at the secluded St. Joseph Monastery in Whitesville, Ky., which is home to a community of cloistered Passionist nuns.

“It basically gave us closure,” said Steven, who with his wife of 38 years recently shared their story with The Western Kentucky Catholic.

When Eileen and Steven were dating in their early twenties, they became pregnant.

“I was so scared; I didn’t want to hurt my parents,” said Eileen, who described Steven as not religious at that time, and herself as “Catholic but lost.” 

Today she wishes someone would have sat down with her and said, “It’ll be ok.”

Instead, one of her sisters accompanied Eileen and Steven to a Planned Parenthood clinic, where Eileen had the abortion.

“There was definitely trauma,” said Eileen of the experience, adding that “I completely blocked it out of my mind.”

Steven said he also “blocked out” the abortion afterward and in the years to follow.

“If an ad for abortion came on TV, I’d quickly change it,” he said. “It affected me more than I realized.”

They got married two years later and waited to have children until she was 27 and he was 30. By this point, they had become more invested in their faith, with Steven having become Catholic before they were married.

They felt that their lives were in a good place, though Eileen said she had brought up the abortion multiple times in the confessional. Even while receiving God’s forgiveness, Eileen said she “could not forgive myself.”  

Apart from that, she did not discuss the abortion with anyone else.

When their first child was born, they were puzzled that “it triggered something and I started having anxiety attacks,” said Eileen.

She started seeing a therapist, who encouraged her to dig deeper.

“At first, with the therapist, I refused to tell her,” said Eileen. “I had said ‘I have a wonderful life, etcetera…’ She said, ‘There must be something you aren’t telling me?’ And that’s when I started weeping.”

When Eileen mentioned the abortion, the therapist said, “There it is, that explains the anxiety attacks.”

In the meantime, the couple had been routinely visiting the Fathers of Mercy in Auburn, Ky., to attend Mass with the religious community of priests. There they encountered Fr. Ben Cameron, CPM, who had helped start Rachel’s Vineyard of Kentucky and who serves as the site leader of the Western Kentucky team.

Eileen and Steven said nothing to Fr. Cameron of their personal experience. That is, until Eileen’s sister told Fr. Cameron about the abortion – meaning well, but without permission – and the priest invited Eileen to consider a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat.

“I got very upset,” said Eileen. “I told (my sister) she had no right! But God had a plan and eventually I forgave her.”

Fr. Cameron gently but consistently continued to invite Eileen to attend Rachel’s Vineyard.

Finally, after six years of being invited, Eileen said in frustration to her husband, “Pack your bags, we’re going so Fr. Ben will leave me alone!”

It was on that retreat that Eileen and Steven received “healing that we don’t understand,” she said.

“I realized I needed to forgive myself,” said Eileen. “Before, even though I went to confession and therapy I did not have closure.”

Steven echoed his wife and added, “The retreat gave me closure too, that I didn’t realize I needed.”

Through readings, meditations and prayers, the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat – which features the collaboration of laypeople, a priest, and a professional therapist – helped the couple achieve peace in themselves and even in their marriage.

Before the retreat, “I thought I had reached that healing,” said Eileen. “But many women think they’re healed, and are churchgoing and faith-filled, but there is always something hanging around you.”

The couple, who today have become close friends with Fr. Cameron and volunteer with the retreats, said Rachel’s Vineyard is a “safe place to share the deepest wounds.”

Steven said people can attend even if they personally did not experience an abortion: “You can participate in it if someone in your life had an abortion and maybe you have feelings of guilt that you couldn’t convince them not to.”

Eileen said that unfortunately, “there are so many Catholics in the faith who judge people who have experienced abortion. I would say to them, you do not know what was in that person’s heart that made them do it.”

“People need to stop judging others because you don’t know what brought them to that point,” she said, adding that “it is a loss: you have that pain forever. But when you give it to Jesus, you are transformed.”

Upcoming Rachel’s Vineyard retreats in the region include June 2-4, 2023 in Dickson, Tenn., and Nov. 3-5, 2023 in Whitesville, Ky. Learn more at hopeafterabortionky.com.

Originally printed in the January 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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