More than 600 take part in the event at St. Pius X Parish
By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
CEDAR RAPIDS — The first ever Women’s Conference of the Archdiocese of Dubuque brought more than 600 women together at St. Pius X Church in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Feb. 4.
The conference, titled “Beauty in Christ,” was designed to help participants understand that their true beauty comes through their relationship with Jesus Christ.
The Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women (ACCW) sponsored the event.
“We hope everyone goes home energized and with spirits lifted,” said ACCW President Sheila Rassman at the start of the day.
Presenters at the conference included nationally known Catholic speakers Leah Darrow and Kelly Nieto.
Darrow is a former professional model and contestant on the reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model.” Darrow walked away from her modeling career after a conversion experience and today travels the country speaking about the meaning of true beauty and the virtues of modesty and chastity.
She gave three talks during the Women’s Conference — “From Top Model to Role Model,” “Decent Exposure: Why Women Must Reclaim Beauty” and “Prodigal Daughter: How a Dad Got His Little Girl Back.”
In her presentations, Darrow shared how she had once accepted a worldly understanding of love and beauty and success but that she eventually came to realize that God had created her for something more authentic than the world offered.
“The world does not love us,” she told those at the conference. “Christ loves us. God loves us, who gave us his son. And God made us for more. He made us for more than the world. He made us for himself.”
Nieto, a former Miss Michigan and Miss America runner-up, is today a Catholic evangelist. Having grown up in a home without religion, Nieto turned as a young adult to the New Age movement and the occult. Despite her physical beauty and having attained fame and wealth, Nieto said she felt empty. Her search for meaning and purpose would eventually lead her to the Catholic Church.
Nieto shared her powerful conversion story in a presentation titled “Finding Peace and Purpose: The ABCs of Faith.” In the talk, Nieto conveyed what she considers the building blocks of the spiritual life: (A) awareness of God’s presence, acceptance of his mercy and love, and abandonment to his will; (B) being still with the Lord, being grateful for blessings and begging God for “working papers” (i.e. asking God what to do in one’s life); and (C) having constant communication with God and the courage to carry one’s daily cross.
Women of all ages and walks of life were represented at the Women’s Conference.
Many mothers and daughters came together to share the day.
Kellee Drewelow, of Marion, brought her young adult daughter Elizabeth Drewelow, of Iowa City, to the conference. The mother-daughter duo was familiar with Leah Darrow, and after learning she would be speaking at the conference, decided to attend.
“Leah’s morning talk was inspirational,” Kellee Drewelow said at the conference. “We’re having a really good time today.”
Rose Hartung, of Dubuque, also attended the conference with two of her adult daughters. At age 91, Hartung felt confident she was one of the older women at the event.
Referencing Nieto’s presentation, Hartung said, “My favorite part was her conversion story – hearing how she became Catholic. It was very good.”
Her daughter Nancy Glab, of Swisher, agreed and said she found Nieto’s presentation personally inspiring.
“So much of what Kelly said really hits a person to the core,” reflected Glab. “We can sometimes doubt God’s love and mercy, but she reminded us that God’s throwing it at us; we just need to accept it.”
There were many groups of friends who also attended the conference together.
Six 20-somethings from the Cedar Rapids area came to the conference together and sat with each other in the front row for Darrow’s talk on modesty.
One of those friends, Jerica Christensen, said of the presentation, “For us, as young adult women, Leah’s talk was very empowering.”
Her friend Kristin Soukoup said, “It is nice to be able to celebrate true beauty and learn how we can show that to the world and bring grace to others through that.”
“It’s been inspiring to come and share this together and be surrounded by women seeking true beauty in their lives. You don’t find that much today,” their friend Ashley Marsh added.
In addition to Darrow and Nieto’s presentations, the women at the conference also had the opportunity to celebrate the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.
During his homily at the morning Mass, Archbishop Jackels spoke about the universal human need for affection, attention and affirmation. He said that all of these essentials of the human heart can be fulfilled by Jesus, who offers them “unbounded and unconditional, no strings attached.”
He also said, though, “If you want to have, you have to give. If you want to have disinterested, unconditional, unbounded affection, attention and affirmation from God, from others, you have to give – give to whomever, somebody in your household, somebody in your family, somebody in the circle of your friends, somebody among your acquaintances, even strangers that you don’t know, even enemies.”
The planning for this year’s Women’s Conference was spearheaded by Joanne Pohland, the director of catechetical services for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, and Mary Pedersen, the archdiocesan director of adult faith formation.
“The excitement and response has been overwhelming,” Pedersen said, when she had a chance to reflect during a short break at the conference.
“There’s been such a sense of solidarity with each other,” she said of the women there that day. “I’ve had several people come up to me and say, ‘oh my gosh, this talk spoke to me.’”
“This day has just been so awesome,” Pohland added. “Praying together has been amazing.”
Pedersen and Pohland both expressed appreciation to the committee that helped plan the conference and to a group of volunteers who helped make the day possible, including a number of men who were there to lend a hand.
“They were all phenomenal,” Pohland said. “They really helped make it a fun day for the women who attended.”
Leah Darrow, one of two keynote speakers, talks at the Women’s Conference in Cedar Rapids. (Photo by Jill Kruse/The Witness)