Sr. Mary Jo Chaves leads a prayer at the end of the St. Agatha School retreat at the Franciscan Spiritual Center. “This retreat isn’t ending at 3 p.m. for you; it’s beginning,” she told the group. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Sr. Mary Jo Chaves leads a prayer at the end of the St. Agatha School retreat at the Franciscan Spiritual Center. “This retreat isn’t ending at 3 p.m. for you; it’s beginning,” she told the group. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
MILWAUKIE — Life hit Terry Cappiello hard in 2003.

In March, her father-in-law died suddenly. Along with their grief, she and her husband became aware of how much caretaking he had done for Cappiello’s mother-in-law, a task that now fell upon the rest of the family. Then her nephew — her godson — was diagnosed with bone cancer.

A friend told Cappiello that she should look into talking with a spiritual director.

“What’s that?” Cappiello asked.

“It’s about your relationship with God,” the friend told her.

“I don’t have one,” Cappiello said.

“Exactly,” the friend replied.

When a second friend told her she should talk with Franciscan Sister Mary Jo Chaves, who works at the Franciscan Spiritual Center and is a renowned spiritual director, Cappiello acted.

“She was so gracious and welcoming,” Cappiello says. “Right from the start I knew it would change my life.”

Cappiello now has a connection with God, one that she describes as personal and relational. “When I take time for the relationship, God is there.”

The Franciscan Spiritual Center, across the street from St. John the Baptist Church and backing onto the parish school’s playing fields, has become known not only for its spiritual directors, who work out of its quiet offices, but also for its program that trains spiritual directors.

Larry Peacock, the center’s director, says that when Sister Mary Jo began the formation program in 2008; the first two-year course drew six students. The course that began September 2018 has 18 students, and six students have already signed up for the seventh group, a course that begins in September 2020, including one person from Alaska.

“Her goal is to train people to do it well,” says Mary Myers, a graduate of the program. “It’s a good model.”

Sister Mary Jo has been a spiritual director since 1996, and meets with 30 to 40 people each month. “I see it as companionship on the journey,” she says. “My role is not to give advice but to listen, to help them unlock their own spiritual journey, which is written on their hearts.”

Sister Mary Jo has accompanied the dying and also pregnant women. “So many aspects of being a spiritual director fill me with such wonder and awe,” she says.

In addition to spiritual direction and the formation program, the center’s staff also host retreats, lead pilgrimages and present workshops.

Cappiello has taken part in the Martha and Mary hermitage, a retreat that allows participants to take on the role of Mary, the one who chose to sit at the Lord’s feet instead of staying busy. Cappiello has also traveled to Assisi with the center’s tours. And she finally convinced her husband that he should give spiritual direction a try. He chose Tom Welch to be his spiritual director and asked Cappiello, after eight months of direction, “Why did I wait for so long?”

It’s important to have the right fit, Cappiello said of her husband’s choice of spiritual director.

Welch, who is also a psychiatrist and a valuable resource for the center when there’s a question about whether someone needs additional counseling, says he loves the listening he’s able to do in spiritual direction without having to worry about diagnoses or treatments. “I enjoy hearing people’s stories and doing deep listening and have the freedom to talk about how God manifests in their daily lives,” he says.

Peacock, director since 2016, says the center’s offerings reflect Franciscan hospitality and Gospel values, including prayer, peace, rebuilding the church and creation. “We think all four are key and attractive,” he says.

Peacock, a retired Methodist minister who previously led a retreat center in Massachusetts, said he was a “closet Franciscan” long before he applied for the position to lead the Franciscan Spiritual Center. The place, he says, touched all his Franciscan heartstrings.

On a sunny Friday afternoon earlier this month, a dozen educators from St. Agatha School came to the center for a retreat that included walking the center’s 25-foot “Petite Chartres” indoor labyrinth.

Before they began that part of the prayerful retreat, Sister Mary Jo reassured participants that they could not get lost as they walked the winding path. Labyrinths are not mazes, offering choices in direction and dead ends. Labyrinths have one path, representing our spiritual journey, which always leads to the center. Should a traveler become turned around, arriving back at the starting point, Sister Mary Jo said the person should simply begin again.

She suggested each person ask a question as he or she walked along the labyrinth’s curves, perhaps even “Where did my essence go?” And she urged each participant to listen for God’s voice along the way.

The teachers and staff from St. Agatha began walking on their own timetables, most taking plenty of time to pray and consider before beginning.

Some of the educators embraced each other as they walked, when a turn on their path coincided with another person’s position.

Afterward, when each member of the group had walked the labyrinth and then taken time to reflect on the journey, they came together to share. Their comments were personal, warm and sometimes funny. “I meant to take a nap outside afterward but the sprinklers came on,” one said.

“That’s our peace garden,” Sister Mary Jo replied, evoking laughter.

Another shared she had felt doubts about the point of labyrinths, but that she was glad to be shown she’d been wrong.

Another said how much love she felt from all her coworkers, and how affirmed she felt about a life choice she was embarking upon. “I feel blessed to have walked this path with all of you,” she said.

Another thought about one of her students as she walked, a child for whom she felt concern.

Sister Mary Jo then told the group about a student she’d taught in the 1970s, and the call that came from a hospital in Eastern Oregon decades later. The girl, now a woman, was dying of terminal cancer and she’d asked the chaplain to find Sister Mary Jo — who drove to the hospital the next day.

“I want to tell you I love you,” the woman said to her. “And thank you for loving me.”

Sister Mary Jo told the group that their retreat wasn’t ending at 3 p.m.; it was actually beginning. “Take this in your heart,” she said. “It’s not by chance you are together in this place and time.”