Nashville Marian Conference repeats success in second year

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Father Jewel Aytona of the Fathers of Mercy carries a monstrance with the Eucharist during the Nashville Marian Conference held April 28-29 at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville. Photo by Christopher Gunn

The second annual Nashville Marian Conference, held April 28-29 at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville, was a great success. 

More than 200 people from parishes around the diocese gathered to share faith and fellowship, to attend Mass, to shop from Catholic vendors, go to Confession, and listen to Catholic speakers and musicians, said organizer Patti Deffendall, director of adult faith formation at Our Lady of the Lake.

Four English language presenters and two Spanish language presenters addressed the crowds. 

Father Jewel Aytona from the Fathers of Mercy and actress and television host Joelle Maryn spoke multiple times over the two days. Vietnam War veteran Bob Gannon, who spoke at last year’s conference as well, shared his testimony about his combat experiences and struggles to readjust to civilian life. Catholic singer-songwriter Taylor Tripodi was on hand to provide music for the event. Spanish-speaking attendees listened to talks by Teresita Figueroa Mendez and music from Nixson Urias.

Mendez, originally from Mexico, is the leader of a prayer group called “El Ejército de María,” or “The Army of Mary.” The group aims to help families grow closer to Mary through devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and praying the rosary. 

Nixson Urias, previously the youth group coordinator at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, is a current Our Lady of the Lake parishioner who serves God through his musical talents.

Father Jewel Aytona spoke of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Theotokos, the Greek word for “God-bearer.” 

“Mary is the queen of heaven and earth,” he said. “In ancient times, the queen of a civilization was not necessarily the king’s wife, but his mother. She has a lot of say in how the kingdom is run.”

“The title ‘Theotokos,’ or ‘God-bearer,’ is a very special one,” he said. “It is the image of the baby Jesus being physically attached to His mother inside her womb. That’s how close their relationship was.”

He encouraged attendees to grow closer to Jesus through Mary. 

“We say ‘Hail Mary, full of grace,’” he explained. “She’s so full of God’s grace that there’s no room for anything else in her life. And if that is the case, then of course we will also ask her to ‘pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’ If we’re that close to meeting God face to face to receive our judgment, we want her to be looking out for us.”

Joelle Maryn encouraged the crowds to stay close to Mary in times of trouble. 

“You don’t have to suffer alone,” she said. “In your worst struggles, all of heaven is with you and at your side.” The Blessed Mother is chief among them. “Demons are terrified of Mary,” she said. “She’s the new Eve. Instead of bringing death into the world through sin, she helped bring salvation and new life through her son, Jesus.”

“No one can escape suffering. What matters is what we do with it. We need to unite our sufferings to the sufferings of Jesus on the cross through Our Lady’s intercession. Whatever belongs to her is untouchable,” she said.

Perhaps the most moving part of the weekend was Bob Gannon’s talk. Gannon, who served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War as a platoon sergeant for a reconnaissance unit, struggled with post traumatic stress disorder for roughly 50 years after his time in the military. Two tours of duty left him injured and experiencing daily flashbacks, nightmares, and carrying the weight of survivors’ guilt after an ambush left most of his men dead as he was recovering from his injuries in the hospital. 

He isolated himself from his loved ones and took to alcohol to numb the pain. He was angry and bitter towards God through it all. “I was so angry that I swore that day I would go to hell before I would ever bow or kneel before a god who didn’t allow me to be with my men when they were ambushed,” Gannon said.

But during his nightmares, he would often see a young girl coming to bring him comfort. He wasn’t sure if she was American or a victim he had killed during his time in Vietnam. 

Decades later, during a trip to Arkansas, he would come to meet a little girl who looked exactly like the one who appeared in his nightmares. The girl, named Hayley, had special needs. Upon meeting Hayley and her family and sharing his story with them, he experienced a sense of peace he hadn’t felt in years. “This little girl with special needs was sent by God to heal a broken soldier,” he said.

The most popular parts of the event were the speakers and music. 

“I came here because I have a devotion to Mary and want to continue to grow in my relationship with her,” said Colleen Meffe, an Our Lady of the Lake parishioner. “The speakers and music have been my favorite part of the weekend. Taylor Tripodi’s music is amazing and the speakers have been inspirational.”

Her fellow Our Lady of the Lake parishioner, Rose Laughlin, agreed. “I see events like this as an opportunity to reflect on my relationship with God and dig deeper in my faith,” she said. “It’s been great to get to meet so many people from around the diocese and listen to these wonderful speakers.”

Deffendall is very pleased that the event was so well received and can’t wait to bring it back next year. “It’s been so wonderful to be here and see the joy on everyone’s faces and the sounds of love and laughter,” she said.

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