The need to balance body, mind and spirit has become a common refrain in the secular world, but Vici Armsby of Our Lady of Victory parish in Troy has taken it up a notch.

Some years ago, she began hosting "Divine Sisterhood" retreats for women in the Albany Diocese.

With a background in fitness training and leading dieting workshops, Ms. Armsby well knew the importance of physical health and a positive body image. Also pastoral associate for faith formation at Our Lady of Victory parish, she found herself asking a group fitness class held during Lent, "Why don't we do a 40-day challenge?"

Her exercise students liked the idea. Ms. Armsby focused on three simple goals for them: doing some kind of physical movement each day, doing something that made them smile and being still for five minutes.

Soon, the class was complaining: Sitting still for even that brief a period of time felt impossible.

Ms. Armsby realized that, to "create the best version of themselves," people needed some more help in working on their emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

Many of her students were either lapsed Catholics or nominally active Catholics who admitted that, while they attended Mass, their faith lacked something. Ms. Armsby began hosting retreats in her home solely for women, calling them "Divine Sisterhood" days and focusing on healthy eating and a spiritual theme.

"It's hard enough today being a woman, and being a woman who follows her faith," she said. "We need to be a source of strength for each other, and encouragement."

Karen Gurley was an early retreat-goer. A resident of Pittsfield, Mass., she'd been attending Mass at OLV with her best friend, Patti Kennedy, even though she wasn't a Catholic.

"I believed in God, but I wasn't raised with religion," Ms. Gurley told The Evangelist. The Divine Sisterhood gatherings brought her joy: "It's so wonderful to spend time for yourself with other women. You think about the things you'd like to do more of; you're bonding with other women [and getting] in touch with God. It's a renewal."

Time of growth
The Divine Sisterhood concept grew. Ms. Armsby chose themes like, "The cup of life: half-full or half-empty?"

From offering retreatants the chance to pick vegetables from her home garden and building a bonfire on her 36-acre property, she began offering retreats at Christ the King Spiritual Life Center in Greenwich -- run by the Episcopal Church -- and then at area Catholic parishes.

Our Lady of Victory was the first parish to offer a Divine Sisterhood retreat, sponsored by the parish health ministry. This Lent, St. Michael's in Troy and St. Jude the Apostle in Wynantskill teamed up with OLV for a retreat, attended by roughly 125 women.

Today, the four-hour retreats include some form of movement and do mention healthy eating, but also emphasize prayer and periods of silence. "Not everything is right for every person," Ms. Armsby noted.

Sister Kate Arseneau, CSJ, parish life director for St. Michael's, attended the recent three-parish retreat and described its focus as "75 percent spirituality."

"Women approach things differently, have a different experience of the Church," Sister Kate added. "We are all in this together. We need to support each other."

Finding fellowship
Fellowship is indeed a crucial part of the Divine Sisterhood retreats. Ms. Gurley said the women "grow on you," having found support in changing her diet to combat chronic pain and migraines.

She also found spiritual support: At the Easter vigil, Ms. Gurley was received into the Catholic Church. When she told her fellow "divine sisters" about her decision, she recalled, "Everybody said, 'Yay!'"

She took the confirmation name "Francis" for St. Francis of Assisi, a nod to the bonds to nature she's also found in the Divine Sisterhood.

Being "unconditionally loved by women who've grown up with faith" made all the difference, Ms. Gurley said: "They have history. I'm like a new baby" when it comes to Catholicism.

Coming up
Women of all faiths or none are welcome at the retreats. The next one, May 20 at OLV, will take the theme, "Write your story." Ms. Armsby plans to look at how Jesus used parables to teach people about God. She'll then ask retreatants to look at their lives in terms of chapters.

As always, she'll encourage the women in attendance to spend time getting to know one another -- something she says is lacking in many tightly-scheduled retreats, and something she believes boosts women's self-esteem and faith, as well. "Many people come to church and really have no intimate relationship with God," Ms. Armsby said. But "we're not meant to go through life just being OK. God wants us to be joyful."

(The next retreat will be May 20, 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., at Our Lady of Victory parish in Troy. The cost is $30. To register, call 518-273-7602. Learn more about the retreats at www.divinesisterhoodny.com.)