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This illustration was used on the program cover for the 1982 "Women and Worship, Women and Spirituality" gathering, the forerunner of the annual Women and Spirituality Conference in Mankato, which is marking its 35th year this weekend. Image courtesy Minnesota State University Gender and Women’s Studies/Ethnic Studies.

The origins of this weekend's Women and Spirituality Conference at Minnesota State University go back to 1981, when a small audience attended an on-campus event, "Women and Worship, Women and Spirituality."

Cindy Veldhuisen, office manager for MSU's Gender and Women's Studies department, the conference's business manager, came aboard as an organizer a year after the inaugural gathering.

"Those first years we had maybe 15 to 20 people," Veldhuisen said.

The United Christian Campus Center was a co-sponsor for the 1982 conference. That event featured group discussions, sing-a-longs and speakers. Mankato native Jeanne Audrey Powers' presentation explained her work with a Council of Churches commission that focused on Bible translations and inclusiveness.

In recent years, the event has attracted more than 1,000 people.

“The conference is a tradition,” Maria Bevacqua, chair of the Women’s Studies Department, said in a 2007 interview. “There are people who come every year, and there are elements here that are constant.”

The conference is intended to nurture caring, respect and understanding among men and women from different spiritual and religious backgrounds. It's open to students, faculty, staff and the public, who may participate in two days of workshops, discussions, exhibits, dialogue, discovery and celebrations, and check out dozens of vendors' merchandise.

Over the years, organizers of the event have done little to change how it is presented. Still, there’s always been room for fresh faces, and even more room for pioneers.

"I love interacting with the different personalities — the people who attend and the presenters," Veldhuisen said.

Author Marge Piercy was the 1982 conference’s keynote speaker. Her numerous novels and books of poetry are considered staples of women's studies and 'must reads" for feminist scholars.

In 2011, sustainable development and renewable energy activist and former vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke spoke at the 30th annual conference.

Last year's keynote speaker, psychic medium Sonia Rose, discussed communicating with spirit guides.

The 35th conference this weekend will be the last time Mankato will be the site of the symposium of psychics, shamans and energy practioners. One of the conference's regular presenters willl carry on the conference in Rochester in the future.

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