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Archives Retreat speaker discusses hearing God’s call


By Jessica Hargrave
Contributing writer

NORFOLK – When diocesan Vocations Coordinator Cathy Russell heard Edwina Gateley speak at a conference in Edwina GatleyChicago, Russell knew she had to get this spell-binding speaker with a heroic story to the Diocese of Ogdensburg.

That goal turned into reality as dozens of women heard Gately speak at a one-day retreat on May 5 at the Father Amyot Parish Center in Norfolk.

Full of holy humor and wisdom, Gately spoke of her passion for God, and her journey, which includes missions to Africa and living in prayer in the woods for nine months.

Born in Lancaster, England, Gately’s relentless sense of mission started as a teenager when God’s call led her to serve the poorest of the poor in Africa for three years. Upon returning to England and not wanting to sit on the sidelines, she founded the Volunteer Missionary Movement in 1969, an organization which dispatches lay Catholics around the world.

After a second mission in Africa’s Sahara Desert, Gately left her home country for the U.S., where she earned a degree in theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Gately said after graduation, she was unsure what path to take next.

“I felt God tell me, you must do nothing,” she said. “It was a real trauma for me. I had to spend time trying to listen, trying to understand. How can I do nothing? What am I supposed to do?”

In search of a renewed calling, Gately used her lifesavings to purchase a mobile home, in which she would live and pray in for nine months in the woods in search of where God needed her next.

“As the months past nothing was happening,” she said. “The biggest temptation was to say I’ve done my bit, but I held on to nothing, and I think that’s what we have to do. I think we must learn what it means to hold on to nothing. And I think where we are now in our history and culture there’s not much to hold on to, except God.”
Suddenly, in the ninth month, Gately felt God’s presence. That led her to the streets of Chicago in 1983, where she spent over a year walking with the homeless and prostitutes.

“I realized my call was to tell these women who they really are,” she said. “They’re daughters of God.”

By the end of 1983, Gately founded Genesis House, a refuge for women involved in prostitution, and those seeking recovery from drug abuse and violence.

“My dream from the very beginning was to create a home, a family, not a program,” she said. “One of the biggest problems facing these women is they never felt connected and loved by family.”

While most people would be reluctant to frequent the streets of Chicago at 2 a.m., Gately said she never doubted the call she had to walk beside these women on the streets and in brothels spreading the Great Love.
Today, a resident of Erie, Pennsylvania, Gately continues to give talks and retreats internationally. Her speaking events help fund her program for women seeking recovery through a small foundation called “Sophia’s Circle.”
In all, Gately has helped over 1,500 women leave prostitution.

Gately advised the women gathered on recognizing when God is calling them. Gately said she believes we frequently question ourselves and God’s will, and she advised the retreat attendees to trust their hearts.

“If an idea comes to you and you’re a woman of prayer and you’re doing your best, then go, trust it,” she said.
The Rev. Susan Kohlmeier, from Zion Episcopal Church in Palmyra, traveled to Norfolk with three of her parishioners to hear Gately speak.

Rev. Kohlmeier said she has been attending Gately’s retreats for over 20 years, traveling to areas spanning from Quebec to Virginia to hear her speak.

“She’s just very life-giving,” she said. “And her energy and her enthusiasm and her mystical relationship to God is just really amazing.”

Norwood resident Denise Divincenzo said the event was an opportunity to refresh and renew and step away from the busyness of life.

“I think anytime we can gather more information that helps us become deeper in our faith, it’s always good,” she said.

The Volunteer Missionary Movement celebrates a milestone this year with its 50th anniversary. Gately reflected on her struggle to receive church support in the 1960s to start the organization, which has since sent over 3,000 volunteers to the poorest parts of the world, “I know God can move mountains,” Gately says, “they aren’t out there where all you need is a bulldozer, mountains are within us; mountains of doubt, disbelief, fear, those are the mountains that must be dissolved with a little bit of salt, yeast, and light to leave space for God’s seed within us.”

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