Teens can be peacemakers: That's the goal of "Friends of Peace," a new prayer, social and service group for teenage girls that's been hosted by the Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in Niskayuna since last spring.

Two Dominican sisters run the monthly group, which has big goals.

Sister Susan Zemgulis, OP, administrator of the center, wants to give teens an opportunity to learn about religious life and "help them have a sense of how they can be peacemakers in this world."

Recruiting future sisters is not the primary focus of Friends of Peace. Instead, Sister Sue poses the question, "How do you make God an important part of your life and have it still be fun?"

She said experiencing religion outside of the Sunday church environment is important for young people.

The group has been learning to pray using art, gardening and music.

What they do
Member Sarah Durocher, an eighth-grader at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School in Schenectady, enjoyed planting sunflowers in the retreat center's front yard, making paper peace cranes, using a rainstick during a jam session, working at an ice cream social and drawing.

She sees all of these activities as forms of prayer, and she liked having discussions about their significance.

"There are fun ways to be involved in church," said Sarah, who is an altar server at her parish, St. Paul the Apostle in Schenectady, where she also helps the deacon bring communion to nursing home residents on Saturdays. She doesn't find church boring, but knows some of her peers might.

"It's not just going to church and sitting and praying for an hour," Sarah said of Friends of Peace. "We all have fun together, and it's a really good way to make friends. [I hope] there will be more kids out there who enjoy this sort of thing."

Sarah was invited to join Friends of Peace after she attended a program about saints at the retreat center with her mother. She hopes the group can put on plays about saints like St. Joan of Arc or St. Bernadette.

Cool girls
One of her favorite group activities so far was freestyle drawing; she said she let God work through her red, orange and yellow pastels as she created a cross image.

"It was a nice way of meditating," she said. "It didn't really matter what I did. It all meant something. We talked about how the colors [in my piece] looked like fire or the Sacred Heart."

Sarah said it's valuable to be in a girls-only group of young Catholics: "It's a lot easier for us to be ourselves. We have the same kind of views on things. We all feel each other."

When discussing peace, for example, "I just don't think it would be the same" with boys, she remarked. Girls understand the "sentimental value of it. It's really touching when people are peaceful, but it can really get you down when they're not."

Religious life has appealed to Sarah in the past, but she's also thinking about a career in acting or teaching. She talks about her interests in the group, but doesn't feel pressure to consider becoming a sister.

She does like spending time with the Dominican sisters.

"Most people think nuns can be strict and stuff," she said. "They're normal people, and we have fun together."

The group has strengthened her relationship with God and "freshened up" her prayer life: "Every time we go back we always discuss something that gives you something to think about when you go home. We find fun ways to pray instead of just sitting down. I would tell [girls] to come and try it because it would give them a new view on things."