During 1977, a Worldwide Marriage Encounter presenting team couple in Hull, Quebec, Canada became increasingly concerned about the growing number of troubled couples attending their local WWME Weekends. Guy and Jeannine Beland were also dismayed by the fact that the Marriage Encounter experience did not adequately meet the needs of these couples in difficulty, nor, in fact, was it expected that such would be the case.
The Belands presented the first Retrouvaille Weekend as a French language experience in Hull in July 1977. They had made a number of minor changes to the WWME Weekend outline. Rather than expending their time on making major revisions of the WWME Weekend content, they relied heavily on a more somber, healing spirit being present throughout the Retrouvaille Weekend. They realized it was not enough, but they had to start somewhere. All of who have followed thank God they did.
Early in 1978, Ian and Gobnait McAnoy, WWME Area Coordinators of Southern Ontario, learned of the Belands’ efforts. Due to the deteriorating state of marriage, especially in the populous metropolitan Toronto region, they were excited about the possibilities for this healing ministry called Retrouvaille, a French word meaning “rediscovery” or “the finding again.”
The McAnoys asked Joe and Anne Hayden, the local Toronto WWME Coordinators, to take on the project of establishing an English version of Retrouvaille in the Toronto area. The Haydens responded enthusiastically and plans began to unfold in June 1978. The McAnoys asked the Haydens to include Bruce and Marg Bridger, a new couple, fresh from a May 1978 WWME Weekend, as part of the project team. Ian and Gobnait were aware of the Bridger’s history of pain and suffering, and had witnessed their desire for growth and the building of a healthy relationship. They believed in the potential of Bruce and Marg as a future resource for the Retrouvaille mission.
A group of nine couples and four or five ME priests was formed to carry out the establishment of the English-speaking Retrouvaille program in Toronto. The ministry’s grafting took place in the basement of a suburban Toronto home in mid-September as the Belands and the Toronto contingent met for the first time to compare notes.
Word of this new healing ministry spread quickly. The first Weekend in Toronto occurred in October 1978 and had 29 couples in attendance. The second, in December 1978 had 21 couples. Calls came from across Canada and upper New York. In the first 24 months of its existence, two Weekends were presented in Sudbury, in northern Ontario, in addition to 17 Weekends in the Toronto area averaging 25 couples per Weekend.
It must be noted that the ministry flourished quickly for two reasons. Couples and priests facilitating the Weekends were mostly veteran ME team members presenting slightly modified ME talks. Secondly, the Post Weekend phase consisted only of a single renewal evening within the first month after the Weekend.
The ME community was most instrumental during the first two years in providing all necessary manpower, supplies, financial resources and administration.
Early on, however, the WWME District Board, which had formally sponsored Retrouvaille for a one-year trial period, mandated that a formal study be conducted and that recommendations be made concerning the future association of the two programs.
It was determined that Retrouvaille was a “viable, valuable and very necessary ministry, that ME and Retrouvaille clearly had distinct and different mission calls, that Retrouvaille must cease using the WWME outline and overview at the earliest possible time, and that current WWME couple must decide in which apostolate they wished to continue to work.”
With a gift of $1,000 seed money from WWME, Retrouvaille was set free “like any young bird…and urged to fly on its own.”
Bruce and Marg Bridger and Fr. John Vella assumed leadership of Retrouvaille in September 1980. The program was scaled back to only four Weekends in 1981 in order to focus on the development a new program format.
An existing program for troubled marriages, Etre Un Couple (To Be a Couple), was already available in French to couples in Quebec City, Quebec. It consisted of a Weekend and follow up phase. Jacques and Jocelyne Gagnon, Coordinators of the program, agreed to a one-day meeting in Montreal with Bridgers. Also present was Fr. Jacques Morin, Missionary of Africa and team priest from Toronto Retrouvaille. Fr. Jacques acted as language consultant. The goal of the meeting was to share valuable insights and exchange ideas and information that could be used to develop the new Retrouvaille program. It was determined that those couples working in the Retrouvaille ministry should experience the Etre Un Couple Weekend. Twenty-two couples and five priests, all of whom had experienced the Retrouvaille program, attended the Weekend.
Amazingly, bilingual people from the Toronto area not even associated with either WWME or Retrouvaille saw great value in the Retrouvaille effort and volunteered many hours of their time to translate the Etre Un Couple outline from French into English.
In May 1981, Retrouvaille couples attended a two-day workshop after which a committee was formed and charged with the task of developing the framework of what would soon become the Retrouvaille outline. Both Weekend and Post Weekend outlines were completed within nine months.
The first Weekend under the new Retrouvaille outline was presented in February 1982. Upon completion of the outline, the Bridgers and Fr. John Vella became the first Retrouvaille Expansion Coordinators. In 1982, training programs were presented in Halifax, Chicago, California and British Columbia. Expansion efforts in 1983 focus on the Washington, D.C. and Maryland area alone, leaving valuable time for development of the mentality/insights section of the outline..
The first annual International Retrouvaille Council Meeting was held in Toronto in November 1983, a family reunion witnessed with pride and a good deal of astonishment by the couples who participated in breathing life into the Retrouvaille program during its first six years of existence.
The second Council Meeting was held in 1984, and a new tradition was born. This gathering together of the Retrouvaille family was a vision shared by the Bridgers and Fr. John Vella since the early days of Retrouvaille. During this meeting, leadership of the ministry was passed on to Vic and Gloria Tolle and Msgr. Charles Fortier, all of Los Angeles. Also at that meeting, Ian and Olga MacDonald of Prince Edward Island, and Fr. Jerry Foley of Minneapolis accepted the position of International Expansion Coordinators. Tom and Vivien Hipelius became the International Workshop Couple.
Of those early years, Bruce and Marg Bridger write, “We prayed more earnestly for Our Lord to instill greater confidence in our hearts, to give up our desire to control everything and to trust more in His plan.
“We always invited Jesus to be present among us and to help us to be aware of His presence and His role on the team. We prayed that He would increase our compassion and our willing generosity in offering up these hours away from our families or other activities. We asked our Heavenly Father to provide us with the guidance and direction we so badly needed along this uncharted course. We prayed that the Holy Spirit would grace us with the wisdom and discernment needed during those deliberations and decisions. God’s response to our petitions is most evident in the resultant program documentation. We have stated often and to many that we are truly amazed at the content of the Retrouvaille program manual. Surely all this wisdom did not come from this relatively unqualified group of seven people. No, we have not the slightest doubt that this is God’s work put on paper through us.”
The Bridgers further stated, “Hopefully, we have been able to establish the existence of two central themes which prevail in the Retrouvaille ministry. These themes are fundamental to our Christian heritage and emanate from our baptismal commission. The one is MISSION as stated in the scripture quotation ‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’ (John 20:21), and reinforced by Jesus many times throughout His public life: ‘You are the light of the world…. In the same way your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in Heaven’ (Mt. 5:14-16. The second is SERVICE with humility: ‘So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are merely servant: we have done no more than our duty’” (Lk 17-9-10). May it ever be so.”