Open Arms

July 21-Aug 3, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 26
Open Arms
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
WHITESBORO — For years, the Utica area offered little or nothing for Catholics struggling in the wake of divorce or separation. Then St. Anne’s parishioner Phil Buttiglieri ventured to Stella Maris in Skaneateles in order to participate in a three-day retreat for divorced and separated individuals and returned to his home region inspired.

“Myself and many of us during this retreat made a connection, it just felt great, the Holy Spirit was so strong,” Buttiglieri said. “A lot of us went through a tremendous amount of healing in those three days. I made a decision right there that I was going to come back to the Utica area and restart one [a support group]. We hadn’t had one in years in the Utica area. I decided that I was going to do that. At the retreat no one knew one another. We met there and there were a few other people from the Utica area and the three of them agreed to help me get this thing started.”

Buttiglieri was married 23 years before his separation and subsequent divorce 10 years ago. Eight years ago, he met a companion and was involved with her for eight years before getting engaged. The engagement ended one year ago in July.

“For the next five months I had no desire to go out and have fun,” he said. “Your brain tells you that you know it’s not going to work, but you’re still in love. I kept praying for God to take the love away so I could go on with my life and eventually one of my friends told me about this retreat at Stella Maris and in three days the love was gone.”

After the Stella Maris experience, Buttiglieri felt compelled to bring that same spirit to Catholics in the Utica area and decided his home parish of St. Anne’s was as good a place as any to base the operation. He found considerable support there from Father Abe Esper, who serves both St. Anne’s and St. Paul’s in the bucolic Utica area community.

“When I came back and told him about the retreat and everything, he immediately volunteered these facilities,” Buttiglieri said.

“I felt a need for that to happen. I supported them and pushed it from the pulpit,” Father Esper said. “My experience is that people who are divorced or separated feel a lot of shame and isolation. The church should be a welcoming place for them.”

Buttiglieri and his group first received training through the Syracuse Diocese under the tutelage of Pat Ennis in the Family Life Office. The group then began organizing in earnest in December. Buttiglieri said that they were still learning to be facilitators as the group grew, so he and the other organizers kept the initial group small on purpose.

“I didn’t want to be overwhelmed when 32 people showed up at the first meeting,” he said.

Attendance has hovered around 10 participants including facilitators, according to Buttiglieri, but he expects to see some growth as the group gains more visibility.

Father Esper said he feels groups such as the one started by Buttiglieri are very important.

“My experience is that people who are divorced and separated feel a lot of shame,” Father Esper said. “The church should be a welcoming place for them.”

“Fran” has been divorced since 1979. Although she was engaged at one point after her divorce, she never remarried. A lifelong member of St. Anne’s, her struggle with divorce was also a struggle with her faith.

“I was the first person in my family to ever get divorced,” she said. “It was terrible; it was gut wrenching. I thought I was going to die. It was like somebody took my heart out of me and I was never going to get it back. I struggled with that personally, with my relationship with God.”

Father Esper noted that many Catholics are troubled by their own divorces, especially in relation to their faith.

“Many divorced people think that they can’t come to the sacraments, but they can…I can’t stress that enough,” he said.

Divorced Catholics are permitted to participate in any sacrament so long as they are not living with another person out of wedlock. Also, if they are pursuing another marriage, they must also seek an annulment from the previous marriage before participating in the sacraments.

The concept of a “broken home” horrified Fran and she labored to instill in her children a sense of family in spite of the divorce. “I struggled and I had two little children, two toddlers. I struggled with the concept of breaking up the home and I always disliked the term broken family, broken home,” she said. “I made sure as I raised my kids throughout the years that we never referred to ourselves as a broken family. We’re a family unit. Your father lives outside this home, but he’s still a part of your life.”

Buttiglieri is heavily involved in many activities at St. Anne’s and he feels that one’s faith becomes most important in a time of crisis such as a divorce.

“Our faith is extremely important to us in any crisis that we go through and all difficult times,” he said. “Divorce — unless you’ve been there — you don’t know. Only divorced people know how emotional and how stressful it is.”

The group meets on the first and third Thursday of each month from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Father Prevost Parish Center next to St. Anne’s, 8539 Clark Mills Rd., Whitesboro.

Each meeting begins with the Lord’s Prayer. Although the group is open to non-Catholics and non-Christians, Buttiglieri believes it is important that potential attendees respect the context of the group meeting set, as it is, within the confines of the parish.

Then the facilitators explain the guidelines of the meeting, placing a heavy emphasis on the fact that the group is not there to advise, but to support. “This is not an advice group, this is a support group,” Buttiglieri said. “We are not advisors, we are facilitators, we keep things flowing.”

After the explanation, each person in the room relays their experience. “Then we go around the room and each person tells a little piece of their story and their life, their difficulties and everything and then they try to help each other out,” Buttiglieri explained. “It’s a conversational kind of help. It’s not that they’re advising them, but they’re telling them about their experience.”

Fran said that finally having a group to share her experiences with has helped her considerably.

“I’ve found souls here and it is comforting to come here,” she said.

Those seeking more information regarding the support group in Whitesboro should call (315) 736-1124 option 0.

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