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North Neighborhoods
Spiritual search: Sisters' center geared toward those seeking deeper meaning

Thursday, November 07, 2002

By Jill Cueni-Cohen

The serenity of Kearns Spirituality Center, with its tree-lined labyrinth and wooded reflection area, stands in stark contrast to the busy streets of McCandless that surround it.

Nestled above the bustle of Babcock Boulevard between the Sisters of Divine Providence provincial house and La Roche College, the center is owned and operated by the Sisters of Divine Providence, a community of nuns who offer a variety of programs to promote spirituality and holistic health.

Their mission statement puts it simply: "Kearns Spirituality Center invites people of all faiths, searching for a deeper meaning in their lives, to experience an environment dedicated to the renewal and revitalization of the human spirit."

Last year, 7,251 people participated in various programs at the nonprofit center, ranging from holistic healing and meditation groups to retreats for engaged couples to spiritual conventions during which not a word is spoken for days.

One of the programs offered is Reiki, an ancient Japanese healing art performed by the laying on of hands. Yoga and tai chi classes incorporate movement and meditation, but the real focus of the center is to help people deepen their relationship with God.

Sister Anne Winschel, who has worked at Kearns for the past two years, offers individual spiritual counseling and currently counsels about 40 people there.

Secular instructors head some classes, such as artist Anne Kertz Kernion, who conducts a workshop on the need for silence in busy lives.

A variety of organizations, schools, churches and hospitals rent the center for their programs, such as Birth Partners, Pennsylvania Call To Action, Zen Retreat Center and the Federation of Music Teachers.

Kearns also provides housing for the families of patients at nearby UPMC Passavant and for some foreign students attending La Roche.

The facility, originally a temporary dormitory for La Roche students, has in the past 20 years become a home away from home for those searching for solitude and spirituality.

"Kearns Spirituality Center is really an outreach of our [religious] community," said Sister Agnes Raible, co-director. "It's not the bishop asking us to do this. It's not the church sponsoring us, although we work within the framework of the church, but it isn't even a function of the diocese. We stay within the dictates of the Catholic church, but we're open to other people."

The Sisters of Divine Providence, some of whom teach at the Alpha School on the campus of the provincial house, don't wear the traditional nun's habit. There's a reason for that. Winschel, 70, said the sisters gradually moved to contemporary dress over the past 20 years.

"In some cases, it was beneficial to stand out by wearing habits, but we realized that it didn't serve education -- children either made fun of us or were frightened by us," she explained. The sisters adopted a modified habit, which eventually was done away with altogether to signify that they were coming out in the world as opposed to the previous philosophy that they had died to the world.

The bulk of the funding for the nonprofit organization comes from rental fees paid by the groups who hold daytime programs or retreats there. Additional income comes from class fees and donations.

Those clients receiving spiritual counseling who are able to give money donate a stipend to help support the ministries of the Kearns religious community, but no one is ever turned away for lack of payment, Winschel said.

Last year, a 150-seat chapel was added to the center, which has 27 semiprivate rooms and three suites to accommodate overnight groups. The facility is fully equipped with audio-visual equipment, including pianos in each meeting room and conference space large enough to accommodate up to 250 seats. A fully equipped kitchen is on site. The dining room seats 70.

Many of the sisters are well-educated. Sister Elena Almendarez, spiritual director and vocation minister, holds a master's degree in spirituality from Duquesne University. Kung Hu-Shi is a Western Buddhist nun who occasionally comes to the center to hold spirituality courses. Sister Pat Baker has a master's degree in music education and teaches people to integrate music and prayer.

Winschel has undergraduate and master's degrees from Duquesne University and San Diego State University in counseling psychology, ideology and Gestalt dream work. Before being invited to join the center, she was a teacher and administrator in the Diocese of Pittsburgh for 11 years.

Winschel has been leading people on spiritual journeys for the past 30 years and said she is still mystified by the way God works in people's lives during times of trauma.

"I'm not surprised with anything people tell me, but I am surprised with how people are able to trust enough to tell me their life stories," she said. "Americans are taught to be independent and in control, and it's hard to be needy and trusting. When they share their stories, it really makes me love them."

She recently conducted a well-attended workshop designed to help women uncover messages in their dreams.

Co-director Sister Rose Michele Sieber acknowledged that the organization has been traditionally female-oriented, but in the past six months, the sisters have included men on their advisory board.

"When it comes to extras like programs, it seems that women are primarily the ones who attend," Sieber said. "Now we're trying to get the men's input and see what it is we could offer that would better service them, because their spirituality is different. We try very hard to be accepting of others, and I think we manage most of the time. It's one of our aims."

Winschel agreed that men approach spirituality differently, but she was reluctant to make generalizations.

"There are books written on the differences between men's and women's spirituality, but spirituality is rooted primarily in one's personality and life experiences. If you provide ways for someone to tap into that, they may be interested in different kinds of things, and you have to use the stuff of your life as a way of putting you in touch with the holy. Once you say women are different from men in their spirituality, you're generalizing."

Winschel told the women in the dream interpretation workshop that no book or guide can definitively decipher the meaning of one's dreams because the unconscious mind reveals messages as individual as a fingerprint.

"It's like in counseling, and I am a counselor by profession, where you listen ... and try to discover through their words their underlying desires, hopes, frustrations and dreams," she said. "You just walk with them where they are. I don't tell people what to do, I listen, ask questions, or point out signs, because they need to feel good about themselves in the process."

Stacy Gounaris recently came from Ohio Township to consult a second time with Winschel. She's not Catholic, but the 35-year-old woman has turned to the Sisters of Divine Providence for spiritual guidance during a difficult time in her life.

"I had met one of the sisters in January, and she invited me to come and visit the convent. I learned about the counseling and thought it would be helpful in my personal distress," Gounaris said. "Sister Anne led me in a guided meditation, which was very helpful, and she suggested meditation techniques for me to use at home, which were quite calming."Winschel believes that spirituality is present in all people. "We all have an instinct for reflecting on the meaning of our lives, and we all have spiritual needs, whether we recognize them or not." she said. "In order to find our spiritual paths, we need to listen to our inner voices, which tell us what we yearn for, and then act on what we hear by involving ourselves in intentional spiritual practices that promote self knowledge."

For information on the programs offered at Kearns Spirituality Center, call 412-366-1124.

Jill Cueni-Cohen is a freelance writer.

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