By Jerry Duggan
Growing up, Nelda Turner was taught to share everything – food, laughter and friendship – to consider the well-being of others and not just herself. Decades later, she practices that same principle in her work as a spiritual director and a retreat director.
“In my work as a director, I am here to help people recognize how and where God is working in their lives,” she said. “I want them to feel heard, supported and understood.”
While Turner has always been a woman of faith, she spent much of her adult life unfamiliar with spiritual direction. For 30 years, she worked in her own hair salon. She believes this work prepared her for her next career as a retreat and spiritual director at the Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Coteau, La.
“Working as a hairdresser taught me to be a good listener,” she explained. “My patrons were men and women, young and old, from all walks of life, and they always came in with a story to tell. I made sure I was attentive, not always commenting, just supporting them and letting them know I was listening.”
Turner’s business was quite successful, and she had no intention of switching career paths. Then, a Carmelite sister who helped her facilitate a Lenten retreat at her parish approached her about becoming a spiritual director.
Initially, Turner had no interest.
“I was not opposed to the idea. I just had never considered it and thought the sister had mentioned it in passing and that would be the end of it,” she said.
A week later, the sister approached Turner again with a concrete opportunity. An information session was to be held in a nearby city for prospective spiritual directors. She had arranged for Turner to carpool with other people from her area who would be going to the information session.
“Since she went to all that trouble, I felt I should at least go and give it a chance,” Turner recalled.
The information session revealed that 30 people were interested in just 12 available spots for spiritual direction training. To Turner’s surprise, she was among those selected, but she was not yet convinced within herself that she had been personally called to this ministry.
Eventually, she had a moment of clarity.
“About three or four months into the program, I made a connection,” she said. “Once I made that connection and it all started to make sense, I fell in love with the concept of spiritual direction.”
After several years of training, Turner was so invested in spiritual direction that she made the difficult decision to sell her business and commit to a career of connecting others with Christ through Ignatian Spirituality.
Turner was hired part time at the Jesuit Spirituality Center in 2005. In 2011, the Center closed for 18 months for renovations, and, upon its reopening, Turner joined the staff full time. As a married lay woman with a family, she is also a valued member of the Jesuit family and the only female director on the retreat staff.
In addition to the Jesuit Spirituality Center, Grand Coteau is home to the Novitiate of St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Pavilion for senior and infirm Jesuits, also those Jesuits that work at the Spirituality Center, St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House.
“In Grand Coteau, we all are one family,” she said. “From the novices, who can be as young as 18, all the way up to the senior Jesuits, to the lay staff members, we all get along well.”
What Turner finds most rewarding about her work is being able to watch as those she directs make a connection with God.
“Seeing the change that takes place in those that I direct is very rewarding,” she said. “Each retreatant is unique and for some, the process takes longer. But when they allow God to come into their hearts and start working in their lives, I see such a profound difference.”
In fact, seeing God at work in those she directs strengthens her own relationship with God. She believes that her work at the Center has taught her many valuable lessons she applies in her own life.
“One lesson my work here has taught me is to wait on God,” she said. “Sometimes, it takes a while to understand what God has in mind for me, but it will become clear, when I am patient and listen well.”
Turner feels she has found a niche at the Center in part because she is a lay woman.
“When I first started directing, there were few lay directors, and even fewer lay women directors,” she recalled. “But this work is personal and intimate, and some women feel more comfortable having a female spiritual director or female retreat director. I am happy to be there for them.”
She cherishes how she is able to work among many Jesuits as a dedicated lay collaborator.
“My life experience is quite different from that of the Jesuits I work with at the Center, but we all ended up together to do this very important work,” she said. “After all, God needs all of us – Jesuits and lay collaborators, men and women – on the retreat team.”