On God’s Time

Cheyenne Uebelhor of Ferdinand, 20, right, prayed along side Sabrina Kordes of St. Anthony, 19, during a morning Mass in the chapel room at the church.

Story by Tony Raap
Photos by Rachel Mummey

The clocks told the story.

Every clock on the walls in the social hall at St. Mary Catholic Church in Ireland was obscured by paper plates. So were the clocks next door, in the red-brick community center.

“We’re on God’s time,” said Father Jason Gries, a 36-year-old priest with a neatly trimmed goatee and wavy brown hair.

Last weekend, 17 teenagers gathered for a three-day retreat known as Southwestern Indiana Teens Encounter Christ, or TEC for short. The Ireland parish has hosted the retreat since 1991, averaging four TECs a year.

More than 1,500 area teens have gone through the retreat. In fact, Fr. Jason attended one of the first, in fall 1994 when he was a junior at Reitz High School in Evansville.

Cosette Fehribach of Ferdinand, 17, left, carried her bags to the dormitory room after checking in at registration on Saturday morning. Upon arrival, participants check in and surrender their car keys and cell phones for a weekend free from distractions. Participants and volunteers eat, sleep and shower at the church.

Each TEC is filled with prayer and reflection. Much of the retreat centers on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, or what theologians call the Paschal Mystery.

At the retreat, young people are divided into small groups of five or six and encouraged to discuss their faith. They also listen to adult speakers talk about their own spiritual journey. Everyone is encouraged to attend Confession, but it isn’t mandatory. Some teenagers, rather than going through reconciliation, will meet with a priest one on one and talk about whatever is on their mind.

“We pull back from everything,” says Fr. Jason, who serves as pastor of Holy Trinity and St. John the Evangelist parishes in Evansville, “and take time to be with God.”

The TECites began to trickle in just before 10 a.m. last Saturday. Cellphones and wristwatches were checked at the door. Sleeping mats were provided, though some brought their own sleeping bag. Group pictures from previous TECs lined the walls of the cafeteria in the community center.

Kyla Schwinghammer, a 17-year-old senior at Southridge High School in Huntingburg, went to her first TEC in June. She didn’t want to go, but her mother, Linda, kept pestering her.

To minimize distractions, the clocks in various rooms at the church were covered with encouraging messages, obscuring the time of day.

“I finally gave in because she just wouldn’t let up,” said Kyla, who lives near St. Henry. “And I am so glad that I did.”

For her, TEC was an escape from the realities of high school. It was a place where she didn’t have to be afraid that others would judge her or talk about her behind her back.

“In high school, there’s so much drama all the time,” she said. “It’s all lifted when you come here.”
Kyla wanted to be part of it again, so she and her mother volunteered at last weekend’s retreat. Linda, who has attended four TECs — first as a participant, then as a volunteer — says she enjoys seeing “the fire that burns in the youth that are involved.”

“It’s a good way to strengthen your faith,” Linda said. “It’s just very uplifting, and it gives me hope.”

Father Ryan Hilderbrand, 30, of St. Mary Catholic Church in Huntingburg helped lead the retreat. Like Fr. Jason, he attended his first TEC as a teenager. He says it helped steer him toward the priesthood.

“It helped me recognize what I think was already there,” said Fr. Ryan, who grew up near Washington.

He says the retreat is a chance for young people to step back, clear their mind and get some direction.

“When one tries to live as a Christian, it’s easy to think that you’re all alone. But when you come to retreats like this, you receive that support and encouragement,” he said. “We shouldn’t be lonely Christians. Jesus sent them out two by two, not one by one.”

Students have to be at least 16 years old to attend the retreat, but TEC isn’t just for teenagers. Four adult observers also went through last weekend’s retreat. Among them was Sister Jane Burger of the Daughters of Charity. She says TEC was a way for her to learn how to better communicate with young people.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to be with the youth of our church,” said Sister Jane, who grew up in Jasper but now lives in Evansville.

Sara Mehringer of Dubois, 17, center, played an ice-breaker name game with Bonnie Meadows of Ireland, left, Sam Baker of Washington, 17, Lynn Falcony of Evansville, 26, Michael Hayden of Huntingburg, 19, Madalyn Schadler of Evansville, 18, and other participants Saturday in the church cafeteria.

For the Gehlhausens, TEC is a family-bonding experience. Last weekend, Brian Gelhausen of Ireland was the retreat’s lay director, and three of his children — Bridget, 30, Craig, 24, and Eric, 18 — served as volunteers. His wife, Joyce, and 20-year-old daughter, Kelsey, have been involved with other TECs.

“We’ve grown together more by doing TECs,” said Eric, a senior at Jasper High School who attended his fourth retreat. “We’ve grown together on a spiritual level. We’re all here together trying to make something work for the youth.”

Eric attended his first TEC when he was 16. At first, he didn’t want to go, but his family kept hounding him.

“So I finally just did it just to shut them up,” he said.

Tiffany Singer of Ferdinand, 18, left, hugged Lindsay Barth of Jasper, 21, between activities Saturday. Both had participated in previous TEC weekends and returned to volunteer.

He was surprised by how much he enjoyed it. At each retreat, he has made new friends, many of whom he still keeps in touch with.

“I’m happy I got involved with it because it’s a really great organization,” Eric said. “It has a great mindset of trying to get young people active in the church.”

TEC was created in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, which modernized the church by allowing priests to celebrate Mass in their native language rather than Latin. The first TEC was held in 1965 in Battle Creek, Mich. It was designed by Father Matt Fedewa of the Lansing, Mich., diocese. He tailored the church’s message to young people.

Since then, the retreat has spread to more than 59 dioceses, including several outside the U.S. In May 1991, St. Mary in Ireland hosted its first TEC.

Tim Lilley, a spokesman for the Evansville diocese, said church leaders chose the parish because it is somewhat remote, which fits into the “prayerful, spiritual nature of a retreat” and helps young people unplug.

Sara Mehringer, a 17-year-old junior at Northeast Dubois High School, attended her first TEC last weekend. Like others at the retreat, she went only because her parents twisted her arm. The result: It wasn’t so bad. In fact, she even enjoyed the retreat, which she says helped deepen her faith.

“It was really amazing,” Sara said. “I got a lot more out of it than I thought I was going to.”

Catherine Bell, a 17-year-old junior at Jasper High School, has been to other religious retreats such as National Catholic Youth Conference, Source and Summit and Catholic HEART Workcamp.

But TEC was different. The other retreats she has been to were much larger. She liked TEC’s smaller setting.

Michael Demuth of Ferdinand, 20, left, Sabrina Kordes of St. Anthony, 19, Tiffany Singer of Ferdinand, 18, Alicia Betz of Schnellville, 18, Joe Paul Hayden of Huntingburg, 20, and Brad Tretter of Evansville held up posters spelling out "TEC" after taking a group photo Saturday in the church sanctuary. Each poster had a special meaning behind its drawing.

“You get to know the people pretty well,” she said, “and you just want to share with them.”
Catherine enjoyed listening to other teenagers open up about their faith during small-group discussions.

“To have other young adults your age talk about the same experiences that you’re going through, I think that’s pretty amazing,” she said.

“It got me closer to God and the other people I was with.”

Contact Tony Raap at traap@dcherald.com

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