Two daughters and their mom pose for a photo. Courtesy photo
Two daughters and their mom pose for a photo. Courtesy photo

“Wonderfully Made” – the Diocese’s first Mother-Daughter Tea in St. Denis Parish, Manasquan – served to “help moms and daughters develop a relationship of trust and open communication throughout every stage of being a woman,” said Peg Hensler, associate director of the diocesan Marriage Ministries and NFP.

The May 15 sold-out event of 110 attendees included a core group of families from St. Denis Parish as well as participants from across the Diocese, and other New Jersey and Pennsylvania dioceses. Publicized through the Trenton Diocese’s Family Life Facebook page, diocesan media, parish bulletins and Eventbrite, the invitation was extended to more than 9,000 families across Ocean and Monmouth counties.

“We wanted to assist moms in a meaningful way to find space to build relationships around their common experience of being created a woman,” said Rachel Hendricks, diocesan coordinator of Respect Life Ministry. “We wanted to open a space set aside especially for them – along with grandmothers, aunts and other special ‘mom’ figures – to learn more about the wonders of fertility and how this impacts our bodies from puberty and beyond, and how it impacts our actions and future relationships.”

Michelle Bellusci, a St. Denis parishioner, found the event “absolutely helpful and a beautiful day to share with my mom and daughter to feel more comfortable with these topics instead of her getting information from social media, internet, her phone or peers.”

“The overall goal was to empower moms to pass along the wisdom of their experience of being a woman from the Catholic perspective to their daughter,” Hensler explained, “and to provide [them] with important information about human dignity, positive body image and introductory fertility awareness so they can fully embrace God’s beautiful design for marriage and family.”

Designed as a parish-based program, the curriculum “was created by the Diocese as part of the Mother-Daughter connection – the primary theme of this year’s Natural Family Planning Awareness campaign in our Diocese for 2021-2022,” Hensler said.

The afternoon was divided into three segments with three separate speakers: Enza Cerami, who spoke on chastity; Catherine Zeismer, who addressed fertility awareness; and Jennifer Maher, who talked to the women during the Mothers Only panel discussion.

A certified catechist and professional speaker on the topic, as well as a mother of two daughters, Cerami has presented the pro-life and chastity message to youth and young adults for 14 years, serving in the Dioceses of Trenton and Metuchen as well as the Archdiocese of Newark. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology from Farleigh Dickenson University and a master of science degree in clinical social work from Columbia University, N.Y. Cerami is a licensed clinical social worker and has worked with victims of domestic violence as a counselor and helped train domestic violence response volunteers in Union County.

Zeismer, who received the Bishop O’Connell Scholarship for full tuition to Catholic University of America, Washington, holds a bachelor’s degree in art business. She has worked extensively in various volunteer ministries and service in St. Denis Parish, with a strong foundation in Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” From 2017-2020 she served St. Denis as assistant to the director of religious education.

A convert to the Catholic faith, Maher holds a master of science degree in mental health counseling from Divine Mercy University, Sterling, Va. She has served the Diocese for the past 14 years by facilitating Theology of the Body focused Pre-Cana and marriage enrichment programs. Maher is a clinical traumatologist who specializes in working with survivors of childhood abuse and sexual trauma.

Bellusci, who received an Evite to the event from the Diocese, attended with daughter Ella, 13, and mother Georgianne Perez. She said it was the first time she had attended an event of this kind; it was a first for her mother and her daughter, too. Michelle and her husband Andre have three children, and are all St. Denis parishioners.

“This was a perfect time [to attend] as Ella is being confirmed this Friday,” Bellusci reflected. “I loved how the panel of ladies and mothers spoke about the importance of positive body image in relation to our Lord and the Catholic religion.”

Ella, she said, was able to partake in a teen-only breakout session, and also, “enjoyed the time we shared together along with her grandmother.”

Gina Finn, whose family also belongs to St. Denis Parish, attended the event with her daughter Jaclyn, 14, and mother-in-law, Beverly Shields. She appreciated the perspectives of the speakers while her daughter enjoyed the breakout session and craft.

“Enza spoke about the dangers of the internet and social media – which I think all these kids can relate to – as well as girls focusing on their dignity and worth,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of girls in this age group are exposed to respecting one’s body and self image from a Catholic standpoint.”

Hensler and Hendricks both noted the contrast between what was offered by the diocesan program versus popular opinion.

“The secular culture gives a very different message about fertility,” Hensler said. “From the Catholic perspective, the reproductive system is a miraculous gift from God, and the woman’s ability to bring another human life into the world is a great privilege.”

Hendricks agreed, pointing out that “today’s culture teaches over and over that women can only achieve equality with men and have success in life by shutting down the very essence of what makes us women: our fertility. Society teaches that our fertility is something that can get in the way of our success … something that we should be able to ‘shut off’ for most of our lives but expect to ‘turn on’ when we decide we want a child.”

The manipulation of that fertility at all costs, Hendricks continued, obscures its reality as a gift and the woman’s identity as a created daughter of God. “Restoring the true understanding of the gift of fertility allows us to begin to realize our true identity as daughters of the true King … with that comes responsibility to learn about our gifts and respect them, ourselves and those around us … [and] can have an enormous impact on our future physical, mental and spiritual health.”

Relationship between adult women and the girls and teens in their lives is key to gaining understanding of fertility from a Catholic perspective, Hensler explained.

“All girls need a mother figure to teach them what it means to be a woman,” she continued. “As Catholics we believe in the notion of feminine genius – an idea brought to us by Pope John Paul II, that women are equal in human dignity to men, but they are different: ‘In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a ‘new feminism’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination’, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.’”

Once the Mother-Daughter Tea has taken root in parishes throughout the Diocese, Hensler said plans include a similar program for fathers and sons. “This year our NFP Awareness initiative for 2022-2023, which will be launched during NFP Awareness Week July 24-30, our overall theme will be the Father-Son connection, including NFP for men.”

Finn said she would encourage others to attend future events, noting that for both her 14- and 19-year-old daughters, “I wish we were able to attend something like this when they were younger!”

Bellusci recommended the program wholeheartedly to all Catholic mother/daughter or aunt/grandmother family members, “to bring the women of the family together to understand, relate, and let your teen know: it is awkward to discuss these topics, but we are all women and have been there.”

To read more about the NFP Awareness campaign and the Mother-Daughter connection, visit www.dioceseoftrenton.org/nfp-info-for-mother-daughter-connection.