Kairos retreats — a senior rite at Fenwick for the past 34 years — are life-altering for many students, each of whom has ‘a story.’
By Mark Vruno
Most faithful Friars can recite the four pillars of Dominican life: 1) prayer, 2) study, 3) community and 4) preaching. Fenwick’s Kairos retreats blend together three of these pillars (community, preaching and praying), but it truly personifies prayer most of all. The nationally recognized Roman Catholic program is a two-and-a-half day, off-campus experience designed for high school students.
The word Kairos (from the Greek καιρός) “means ‘God’s time,’ ” translates former Theology Teacher Lucy White, who oversaw the senior retreat program at Fenwick for seven years before retiring in spring 2018.
“It is an opportunity for seniors to go apart and experience God, others and themselves in a new way. Fenwick is unique in that, in keeping with the Dominican tradition of preaching, the students, with adult supervision, are the leaders of the retreat,” Mrs. White continues. “We train the student leaders to give talks, lead small groups and guide the retreat. It is an opportunity for the students to be honest, open and supportive of each other in a safe, prayerful environment. Students open up and are supported by their peers in their struggles, pressures and fears as well as their successes. The senior class bonds as a whole, making life-long friendships. Many seniors say that it is their best experience of Fenwick.”
Young alumnus Kyle Gruszka ’17, from Chicago and now a third-class (year) cadet at the United States Air Force Academy, recounts: “Kairos really opened my eyes and helped me connect to my classmates in ways I couldn’t even imagine.” A graduate of St. Giles School in Oak Park, Gruszka is studying astronautical engineering in Colorado Springs.
Over more than three decades, nearly 10,000 Friar students have embarked on the student-run retreats. “I was on the very first Fenwick Kairos in December of 1985,” recalls former Campus Minister Fr. Dennis Woerter, O.P., D.Min. ’86, adding that fellow alumnus John Quinn ’76 was a faculty team member present at that inaugural retreat. Mr. Quinn remembers Kairos’ roots at Fenwick. “Father Peter Heidenrich, O.P., now deceased, was the driving force/founder of the program [here] ,” reports the long-time history/social studies teacher and former basketball coach.
Spanish Teacher and alumnus Jim Reardon ’86 served as a captain of that first Kairos, which was held at the Dominican House of Studies (Priory) in River Forest. A decade later, ’96 classmates turned Spanish and science teachers, respectively, Samantha Carraher and Brigid Esposito, were among the first female retreatants at Fenwick. Social Studies Teacher Gary Richied ’95 was the rector for that first co-ed Kairos in Fenwick history.
Fr. Heidenrich sought a spiritual component beyond classroom instruction. “He wanted to create a cutting-edge retreat program,” Mr. Quinn elaborates, wherein students could serve as living examples for each other. He traveled around the United States to different Catholic high schools and conferences, “probing and mining,” according to Quinn. “The vision was to seek out young people of great leadership and faith potential to be ministers of their own.”
With the school being comprised solely of boys during Kairos’ inception, the wise priest thought it was critical to obtain buy-in from coaches at the time, including Jim Nudera (football and wrestling) and Mike Latz ’81 (wrestling) in addition to theology teachers such as Br. Carlos Griego. “Young men were being asked to take on very different roles as faith leaders,” explains Quinn, then the Friars’ head varsity basketball coach. “Bringing in coaches as part of the Kairos leadership team was an integral part of Heidenrich’s strategy.” Strong support from the top down came from then-President Fr. William Bernacki, O.P., notes Quinn, followed later by Fr. Robert Botthof, O.P. and Fr. Richard LaPata, O.P. ’50.
Adds Athletic Director/alumnus Scott Thies ’99, “Kairos is a great tool for breaking down the barriers that often exist among different groups of teenagers.”
Fr. Woerter continues: “We all have an inherent desire to be and feel loved. Despite what may be going on in a student’s life, Kairos is an opportunity for him or her to simply experience love. Love of God and love of neighbor are two elements of the Great Commandment,” notes Woerter, who left Fenwick this past spring to become associate pastor with the St. Paul Catholic Center (Newman Center) at Indiana University. “Kairos allows the student to feel loved by both God and neighbor. I have witnessed the life-changing effect of Kairos, not only for individuals, but for entire classes.”
In mid-October, 51 members of the Class of 2020 — 25 boys and 26 girls — bused to the Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington, IL, some 50 miles northwest of Oak Park and Chicago. Fenwick facilitates six such retreats each school year, explains Math Teacher Maria Nowicki, who is in her second year of directing Kairos, which falls under the Campus Ministry umbrella. Two similar groups had their Kairos this past June and September, and three more will occur in December and next January and March.
“Our hope is that these young people grow stronger in their faith, get closer to God and actually feel His love during their time at Kairos,” Mrs. Nowicki says, emphasizing that the program is run by the students. A core team of 10 seniors, “who have made their own Kairos,” lead each retreat, she points out, while two others serve as rectors. “These students put on the retreats for their peers,” Nowicki notes, “and are assisted by a team of six adults.”
Kairos days and nights are rich in personal, heart-felt reflections and intimate sharing. More often than not, hearing their peers open up emotionally forges bonds and strengthens connections between classmates. What does it mean to Fenwick students chosen to be retreat leaders?
Joe Zawacki ’20, one member of the current senior leadership team, shares: “The opportunity to be a Kairos leader has to be the blessing for which I am most grateful in my life right now. The chance you have to preach God’s love and then witness it in action among the retreatants as they learn to embrace Kairos is indescribable,” says Zawacki, a musician and soccer player who hails from Oak Park and is a member of the Fenwick Math Team. “I don’t see anything better in life than this retreat and its power to bring our grade together, from one retreat to the next.”
Classmate Kennedy Berschel ’20 adds, “As a Kairos leader, I have never grown more respect or appreciation for the people I surround myself with every day at Fenwick. The overwhelming sense of trust, vulnerability and love displayed on every retreat is something that can only be described as God’s presence.” Berschel plans to study and play women’s soccer (she is a midfielder) at the University of Illinois next year.
Fellow senior and soccer defender Joe Sedlacek asserts, “The Kairos retreat has by far been the highlight of my four years here at Fenwick as I have actively been part of a life-changing program that unites an entire class into one, loving family. It taught me that no matter how different we may seem from each other, we are similar in a multitude of ways and can build lasting relationships.” Sedlacek, who grew up in La Grange Park and attended Park Junior High School, adds, “I am eternally grateful for the Kairos experience and hope every student feels the same.”
What recent alumni are saying
Young alumna Meredith Kisla ’15, who graduated from high school four and a half years ago, relates, “Leading and rectoring Kairos was my greatest experience at Fenwick. I had the opportunity to deepen my relationships with my classmates, myself and my faith over the course of three days, and truly believe it has shaped the way I carry out my life.”
Kisla, who hails from Western Springs (St. Francis Xavier) and graduated from Saint Mary’s College (Notre Dame, IN) added, “Kairos is such a wonderful experience, and I am forever grateful for the many lessons, friends and memories I gained from each retreat.” This past spring, she began a career in public accounting in London, U.K.
Her 2015 classmate Pete Salvino, a former Friar football player and recent neuroscience/electrical engineering graduate of Johns Hopkins, “was lucky enough to take part in Kairos twice; the second time as a leader. It really was unlike any other experience I had at Fenwick and gave me new appreciation for the type of people my classmates are.” Salvino grew up in River Forest and went to Roosevelt Middle School.
Other recent Fenwick graduates echo Salvino’s praise for the retreats. Daniela Echiveste ’16 credits Kairos as the one Fenwick experience that changed her the most. “The experience made me realize how blessed I am and to always keep in mind what other people are going through in life,” says the native Chicagoan (John Spry Community School) who is majoring in advertising management at Michigan State.
“Kairos really helped each person become closer to those around them and helped us realize that everyone has a story, and we don’t know what others have been through,” adds Elmhurst native and fellow alumna Margaret McLean ’16, now a senior nursing student at Saint Louis University. “Showing kindness to someone who is secretly going through a rough time can make a world of difference to them. I am going to carry this with me through my nursing career and offer love and kindness in all that I do.”
Jakarie Gates, their 2016 classmate and a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, notes, “Kairos taught me not to take the important things in life for granted: love and appreciation. Kairos made me appreciate time more.” Gates, who aspires to work in public relations/social media after graduation, also grew up in Chicago and attended St. Malachy Catholic School. He has been active in the North Lawndale Reads project through the Steans Family Foundation.
Anastasia Velliotis, another ’16 classmate, notes, “I absolutely loved Kairos because I feel that is when our class really connected the most. Being able to hear everyone’s story was incredibly inspirational and something that I will truly cherish and remember forever.” Velliotis, originally from Western Springs (La Grange Highlands Middle School), now is a senior in the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business.
Adds Lina, Anastasia’s mother, “I do believe the Fenwick Mission that inspires excellence and educates each student to lead, achieve and serve resonates with Friars long after they graduate. Fenwick should be proud!”
“The Fenwick Mission — that inspires excellence and educates— past parent
each student to lead, achieve and serve — resonates
with Friars long after they graduate.”
So what goes on at Kairos?
There is an air of mystery surrounding Kairos. Seniors sort of know what it is, but they are not truly certain of what happens at the big retreat. There are wake-up and clean-up logistics, of course. “Kairos is simply something which needs to be experienced,” stresses Brother Joseph Trout, O.P., Chair of Fenwick’s Theology Department. “Knowing the sequence of events does not tell you what Kairos is any more than outlining a married couple’s daily schedule really tells you what it is like to be married.”
Alumnus Charlie Myers ’17 reflected on his own retreat experience three years ago. “Kairos was hands down the Fenwick experience that changed me most,” concludes Myers, a junior marketing major at Bradley University in Peoria, IL, who was raised in Chicago (Catalyst Circle Rock Elementary School). “But I won’t say too much — to not spoil it for the younger Friars.”
Classmate Lauren Lombard ’17, of Western Springs (St. John of the Cross), perhaps says it best. “Kairos at the beginning of my senior year showed me the love that surrounded me at Fenwick and allowed our grade to unite around each other for the remainder of our time together.” Now a college junior, Lombard is a chemical engineering major at the University of Notre Dame.
The environment of Kairos is extraordinarily supportive, explains Isabelle Bucolo ’20, a senior retreat co-leader for the 2019-20 school year. “Because of this, most people have found it to be a comfortable outlet for them to open up to others and to themselves. I am typically an open book,” admits Bucolo, an Elmhurst resident and accomplished alto singer (All-District) in the Fenwick Choir, “but Kairos has given me even more of an opportunity, and a great platform, for me to tell my story in order to help others. Kairos shows us that we have our own built-in support system. I think Kairos is incredible for this reason: not only are you helping yourself, but you are helping others.”
More praise for Kairos
“I would love to relive Kairos,” admits alumna Eryn Kulik ’16, a senior advertising major at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. “Kairos is a retreat that will bring classmates together to form life-long friendships. It is also a way for students to get to know God and themselves. Through Kairos I have learned to love and appreciate everything and everyone around me in a more positive way!” says Kulik, a double Friar (St. Vincent Ferrer) from Elmwood Park.
“My Kairos experiences shaped who I am today,” reveals Katie Vulich ’15, a former college swimmer at Bellarmine University in Louisville. “I learned something different as a retreatant, leader and rector. The retreat that stands out the most was my final Kairos and helping Fr. Dennis navigate the process. I owe that retreat for making me believe in my leadership skills,” recalls Vulich, a La Grange Park native (Cossitt Elementary and Park Junior High); she now is a Wellness and Recreation Graduate Assistant at St. Ambrose University in Iowa.
“The Fenwick experience that changed me was Kairos,” says Lorenzano Blakeney ’18, who plays football with his twin brother, Lorente, at Trinity International University in Deerfield, IL, where he is majoring in health science. “Before attending the trip, I had my doubts on whether I would even enjoy myself. I ended up reconnecting with a lot of people I used to talk to and meeting people who I’d never had a conversation with before.” The Blakeney brothers grew up in Chicago and attended Washington Irving Elementary School.
Rachel McCarthy ’17, an English literature/psychology double major at Illinois Wesleyan University, adds: “To me, Kairos was a powerful experience of acceptance and healing.” Ms. McCarthy grew up in Riverside and attended St. Mary School there.