By Caroline Gorman
Special to The Message
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part feature on Siena, a new program for Catholic young women in the Diocese of Evansville. Part two will appear in the June 9 issue of The Message.
“…Now and at the hour of our death, amen.” The sound of voices reciting in unison filled the gym as Ellie Kiesel led the group in their closing prayer.
“St. Catherine of Siena…”
“Pray for us!”
The response rang out from the group of girls, echoing off the high ceilings. They were wrapping up their monthly meeting in the same way it had started – gathered in a circle, heads bowed in prayer, calling the group’s role model and namesake Catherine of Siena.
Earlier that afternoon, the girls had played a game of “hide the fish.” The girls laughed, equal parts giddy and grossed out, as they passed around the large frozen tuna, which was used in the game to represent sin “hiding” in our lives. Then, they broke into groups of three to compete in Lent-themed trivia. Kiesel prefaced one question by saying that she herself just learned the answer a few weeks ago, and she was especially impressed when one group of girls knew the answer. Later, she reflected, “I’m amazed at how much passion and knowledge the Siena girls have for their faith.”
After the games and snacks, following the usual structure of the Siena meetings, they moved from the gym at St. John the Evangelist in Daylight to the pews of the church for faith formation. The guest speaker at this meeting was Father Andrew Thomas, who talked to the girls about forgiveness and then heard confessions. Softly in the background, worship music played as, one by one, the girls entered the confessional and came out glowing.
This meeting marked one year since the idea of Siena was first put forth, but its roots go a little further back. In 2018, the Director of Vocations in the Diocese of Evansville, Father Tyler Tenbarge, began a group for young Catholic men, naming it Savio after the 19th-century Italian St. Dominic Savio. St. Dominic’s mission, as described by Father Tyler, is driven by “four key words: Pray, Feast, Befriend, Sacrifice.” The group quickly grew as a brotherhood for Catholic boys.
After witnessing the good fruit of the Savio program for several years, two young women in the Evansville diocese – Emma Clark and Ellie Kiesel – felt prayerfully called to start something similar for girls. Giving all credit to the Holy Spirit, the leaders said that they were inspired to see “the desire for a bigger community for middle school and high school girls,” so they brought together a team of Catholic women to work with Father Tyler to establish that community. Within a few months, Kiesel said, “Siena came to life!”
That team includes Clark and Kiesel, as well as Sam Marx, Jessie Bacon and Michaela Kunkler. After the initial proposal, in June of 2022 they held a “focus group” session, as Kunkler called it, with a select number of girls and gathered feedback. The next month, Siena was officially announced at the annual Cleric Cup, a diocese volleyball tournament, and played a game against the Savio team.
Siena held its first independent gathering in August 2022. The team leaders were pleasantly surprised by the high turnout, which Kunkler estimated to be around 60 girls. She said that the numbers fluctuate month-by-month, but a good average is about 40 girls. Though the group size has dwindled slightly, the smaller groups are more likely to contain a high number of passionate, committed girls. “It gets smaller, but it gets stronger,” said Kunkler.
The group’s mission is inspired by one of their namesake’s most famous quotes: “Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” The concept of discovering identity –specifically, the identity set apart for you by God – is central to Siena. Kiesel highlighted this as her main goal as a group leader. “I hope each girl who comes [to Siena] grows in relationship with Jesus and comes to better know His plan for their lives,” she explained. Kunkler agreed, saying, “We want to cultivate that foundation so that a vocation can grow out of it, whatever that may be—consecrated religious, single, or married.”
Like its brother group Savio, Siena’s mission can be summarized by four words: virtue, community, growth, and heart. The group leaders, themselves just a few years out of high school, recognized how difficult it can be for young girls to find a group of likeminded, virtue-seeking friends and to “fight the current of the culture” in middle and high school. They have already started to see benefits in that area: “The biggest thing I’ve seen is friendships being formed and strengthened… I want the girls to know they have virtuous friends to turn to and confide in through their lives!” Kiesel happily reported.