The annual Desert Formation Dinners were finally back in person after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. This year, ten Desert Meals were hosted by various parishes and Knights of Columbus groups, including the Monroe Knights of Columbus #1266.
Grand Knight Deacon Tracy and his wife, Crysti Espers, co-chaired the February 12 event at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Monroe.
“We think that many people were looking for a fun evening out after making it through the pandemic,” the Espers explained. “After learning about the desert meal, people became interested and were very generous in supporting the goal.”
The Desert Dinner is a fundraising event to support the Seminary’s Desert Formation Experience, a thirty-day spiritual pilgrimage first-year graduate seminarians make each year to the Holy Land. There, they experience firsthand the places Christ walked and taught, suffered, and died while seeking his guidance in their own walk toward the priesthood. The seminary’s goal for the experience is to ensure that the priest-graduate of the seminary is a man of strong character and deep spirituality.
“Our whole life in Christ is a pilgrimage from this world to our heavenly homeland. Sacred Heart’s annual pilgrimage gives our seminarians an experience of intense prayer, discipleship, and community life as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus and some of the greatest saints of our Church’s history,” explains Father Charles Fox, Vice Rector and Dean of Seminarian Formation for Sacred Heart. “The pilgrimage gives a strong boost to the priestly formation of our seminarians, as they draw close to the Lord and closer to each other, all while praying for our supporters, family, and friends back home.”
The Desert Formation Experience costs roughly $200 per seminarian per day ($1500 per week). The Espers’ goal for the dinner was to have 100 people attend the event and to raise $5000, “We were blessed to have a sold-out event with 174 people attending and raising $10,000” explained Crysti Esper.
The evening opened with a cocktail hour and an opportunity to look over the gifts on the raffle table. The guests were then led in prayer before dinner by Father David Burgard, a priest serving St. John the Baptist, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. Anne parishes. During dinner, seminarians Ivan Alatorre and Alexander Kouris gave a presentation on their upcoming trip. There was a door prize drawing where the winner won a beautiful statue of St. Joseph. Finally, the Espers introduced a fundraising game called “Hearts and Tails,” (a play on heads or tails) where guests purchased heart necklaces to participate in an elimination game until there was one winner left. On the way out, guests received a heart-shaped cookie and a big thank you for attending.
Sacred Heart alumni, Deacon Tracy and Crysti Espers were inspired to host the dinner for the school that shaped so much of their life experiences.
“As alumni, we wanted to give back to the seminary because of our positive experiences in our degree programs,” they explained, “Sacred Heart is a special place for us, and chairing the desert meal seemed like a more active way to support priestly vocations.”
Crysti, who graduated in 2020 with a Certificate in Catholic Theology reflected, “Sacred Heart prepared me to serve in area parishes throughout the Monroe Vicariate, but especially at my home parish. The classes that I have taken online were both rewarding and challenging. I found the theological discussions with my classmates to be both enlightening and enjoyable. I think Sacred Heart is such a beautiful and peaceful place to be.”
“Co-chairing this event was not only a way to support the Desert Formation Experience but another way to reach out to our community as a deacon couple and as missionary disciples.” Deacon Tracy who graduated with an Intermediate Diploma in 2017 adds.
Stronger missionary discipleship is the focus for the seminarians attending the trip as well. “Between the pilgrimage and the 30-day retreat what we see is this amazing transformation,” explains Bishop Gerard Battersby, former Vice-Rector at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, “The guys go from a certain callowness to a depth that they really couldn’t get to on their own. And so allowing these men the opportunity to go to those places where myth begins to recede in the reality of Christ’s incarnation, the reality of Christ’s teaching, his death and resurrection are emblazoned on their hearts; it produces a different kind of preacher, it produces a different kind of evangelist, it produces a different kind of disciple.”
For the Espers, investing in this “kind of disciple” is an honor. “As Father Henri Nouwen said: ‘Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission,’” they explain, “The best reward was bringing the community together–both businesses and parish families–to support seminarians and their pilgrimage to the Holy Land and/or Italy.”
Instead of traveling to the Holy Land, due to the travel challenges resulting from the global pandemic, this year, Sacred Heart seminarians will travel to Rome and other pilgrimage sites in Italy following the footsteps of St. Peter, the early Church and saints.