US parishes shift pro-life ministries
to focus on personal accompaniment

A sign for the Gabriel Project on the front lawn of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church in Westwood, Kan., offers the parish's help and accompaniment to pregnant mothers. (OSV News photo/Megan Marley)

When Isabel Font realized pregnant migrant workers couldn’t easily access a pregnancy care center, she brought the care center to them. In April and October 2021, the parish volunteer coordinated a “mission day” at her southern Florida parish, where pregnancy resource center staff from the Archdiocese of Miami met with more than 20 women to learn their needs, provide counseling and spiritual support, and offer material assistance.

“It was a personal thing. It wasn’t a handout,” said Font, 67, a Respect Life Ministry volunteer at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Homestead, Florida. “It’s good for people in need to receive something they need, but where is the charity, where is the love there? Where is the care?

“It has to be a little more than just a handout,” she said. “There has to be care.”

The grassroots, parish-based effort is just one among many nationwide that aim to accompany pregnant or parenting mothers in a holistic way. Many pro-life leaders, including U.S. bishops, have called for these creative initiatives in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion as a constitutional right throughout the U.S., with the June 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Among parish ministries responding to the call are those already part of Walking with Moms in Need, an initiative the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched in March 2020 to encourage parishes to strengthen outreach to pregnant and parenting mothers in their communities through connections to community resources and filling in the gaps.

In November 2022, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore praised the Walking with Moms in Need initiative at the USCCB’s Fall Plenary Assembly, telling his fellow bishops that the Church can “win hearts and minds” to its pro-life vision through “radical solidarity with one another.”

“It’s not just words, it’s witness,” the new USCCB vice president said, speaking in his role as former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. “Our commitment to help mothers bring babies to term is wholly compatible with our commitment to work for a society in which both mother and child can flourish.”

According to 2014 data from the abortion-supporting Guttmacher Institute, about 75% of women who had abortions were in poverty or low-income, underscoring the reality that financial poverty factors heavily into women’s decisions to have abortions.

But another “major contributing factor” is “relational poverty,” and that’s where personal accompaniment of pregnant and parenting women makes a key difference, said Kat Talalas, assistant director for pro-life communications in the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.

“Many of these women don’t have people in their lives whom they can really rely on,” she said.

That kind of support is what Lisa Juriga, 62, had in mind when her parish in a Detroit suburb began its Walking with Moms in Need ministry. She was troubled by the idea of a mother feeling judged for being pregnant and unmarried, or for needing financial or emotional help.

“To me, it’s just tragic that the Church has always been about supporting (women) in every way that they can, but the message that ‘you can make better choices before you get pregnant’ has translated into a ‘you made a wrong choice, we won’t be there for you,'” she said.

Juriga wanted her parish, St. Andrew Catholic Church in Rochester, Michigan, to be a place where women in challenging circumstances could find welcome and friendship. That was first realized in August 2022, when a parishioner called seeking help for her adult daughter, who had recently separated from her husband and had moved in with her, along with 4-month-old triplets. They needed more hands to help care for the babies.

Juriga quickly created a sign-up schedule online. Now, about six women take weekly shifts to spend time with Katie Talerico and her three infants, with 10 to 12 others who help occasionally.

“It shows that there’s good in the world,” said Talerico, 30, who calls the women her “angel squad.” She’s grateful not only for their time, but their spiritual support, which she said has led to a revival of her Catholic faith.

In Phoenix, volunteers at St. Theresa Catholic Church have helped more than 40 mothers since January 2022 through the parish’s Walking with Moms in Need ministry. Parishioners leveraged their professional skills in areas such as social work, business operations and marketing to create the outreach, and then 18 of them volunteered to mentor women one-on-one.

These “companions” have helped women find housing, baby supplies and medical care, said Cindy Ketcherside, 64, one of St. Theresa’s program coordinators and a companion. They have met women for coffee and driven them to appointments. Ketcherside once spent hours at a government office with a woman waiting to enroll her granddaughter in a federal nutrition program. In some instances, time together has led to conversations about faith and what it means to be a daughter of God.

St. Theresa’s outreach is considered the model for the Diocese of Phoenix, where leaders promote Walking with Moms in Need for all parishes. Ketcherside largely attributes St. Theresa’s success to the support of its pastor, Father John Parks. He prays with volunteers, promotes it to the wider parish and backs its fundraising.

“These mothers are coming to us in crisis,” Father Parks said. “Everything from, ‘I need clothes, I need diapers, I need formula,’ to (asking) big questions, such as, ‘I seem to fall in love with the wrong kind of guy’ … or parenting: ‘I’ve got a couple of kids, and I’m not the mom I want to be, and I need strategies on how to deal with that.'”

In crafting its ministry, St. Theresa’s volunteers drew, in part, from the Gabriel Project, a national program for expectant moms known for its “angels,” or mentors, assigned to accompany each woman through the birth of her child and sometimes beyond.

A Gabriel Project coordinator for her parish in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, Melissa Przybysz, 47, has been an “angel” for 10 to 15 pregnant women over the past 12 years. While part of her role is to help them access the material resources they need, she said developing friendships is at the ministry’s core.

“They’re people, and people just need a friend, a model,” she said. “All of these material resources we can also provide, but they don’t speak to people’s hearts the way having someone who has your back and is willing to listen and isn’t necessarily trying to fix all of their problems (does).”

Accompanying others through pregnancy also shaped how she sees her pro-life response.

“It’s given me a sense of being pro-life not as a political thing nearly as much as a way of being, a way of life,” Przybysz said. “You help people where they are at, when you can.”

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