Mei was in her mid-30s when she became pregnant with her third child and was facing a forced abortion in China.
Despite not knowing anyone in the United States, and not speaking English, she arrived in Chicago on a traveler’s visa and stayed at an airport hotel until she found Heather’s House, part of the pro-life program Aid For Women. Her baby is now 6 months old and the staff is working with immigration attorneys who are trying to reunite her with her husband and two other children.
Mei’s situation is not typical of the support that women receive at Catholic maternity homes, but the focus is the same: They care about the girls and women; they care about the babies; and they give mothers the opportunity to make positive changes for themselves and their children.
A young woman called Aid For Women in Chicago and said that she chose life, but now she had no place to live. She was walking the parks by day and seeking refuge in the subways by night.
|A mother holds up her child at Heather’s House maternity home in Chicago. Courtesy photo
“Maybe I should have had that abortion after all,” she said.
Her need for continued care — and the needs of other women like her — was one of the reasons that the pro-life organization in Chicago opened Heather’s House in 2011.
“We felt a calling to help women who choose life and to be there to continue to support them,” executive director Susan Barrett said. “One thing that makes our program so successful is that we are really trying to help them to get on their feet. They can attend classes at the community college and do whatever they need to become independent and self-sufficient.”
About 35 women and 40 children have gone through the program that houses 16 women at a time. The average stay is one year, but residents may stay up to two years. Monica’s House, named after the patron saint of mothers, will open later this year to provide transitional housing for women and their children who need extra time to move on.
Janessa was 19 when she felt overwhelmed by a crisis pregnancy. “I felt like I belonged,” she said about going into Heather’s House. “We became like sisters, and everyone here wants to help us.”
She said it was “breathtaking” when she saw her son, Christian, for the first time, and that she wanted him to have a better foundation in his life to “be a strong, good man.” She’s attending college for an undergraduate degree in medical records administration, confident that higher education will give them both a better future and set an example for him.
Heather’s House has a strong faith component, with a chapel, Masses, faith hour and ecumenical Bible studies.
“Many residents have no previous faith experiences, and it’s very important to help young women grow in their faith,” Barrett said.
Janessa and Christian were received into the Catholic Church in 2012.
Divine Mercy House
Divine Mercy House in Jacksonville, Florida, has room for five women and their children — sometimes a resident has a preschool-aged child in addition to the baby that brought them to the maternity home. They stay an average of six to eight months but can remain up to a year after their babies are born if they are still learning or improving their life skills.
|A mother holds her child at Divine Mercy House in Jacksonville,
Fla., where residents learn life skills during their stay. Courtesy photo
The house is owned by the Diocese of St. Augustine and leased to the nonprofit. The work is supported by St. Joseph Church, donations and sales at the thrift shop that is part of the Divine Mercy Ministries. Bill and Jackie Hardy (a licensed clinical social worker) serve as co-executive directors. He is retired from the military, and they previously worked in local government or nonprofit management.
“Divine Mercy House gave us an opportunity to work together on something we believe in,” he said.
Some of the residents are homeless or have minimal or no support.
“One woman had a tent in the woods,” Jackie said. “Some come from families that are so dysfunctional that they can’t stay there.”
Residents learn child care, personal interactions, money management, job interview skills and even how to drive a car or get a GED if needed. All are required to attend a church of their choice.
“They have a case manager, and they set goals,” Jackie said. “We help them to find housing, and no one leaves unless they have a place to go.”
One resident called Divine Mercy House an answer to her prayers. “They gave me shelter, food, love and warmth,” she said. “Most of all, they gave me the tools and the confidence to bring a life into this world. If it wasn’t for this program, my baby would not be here, and I don’t think I would be, either.”
Annunciation Maternity Home
Annunciation Maternity Home in Georgetown, Texas, was founded by Deacon Michael Aaronson and his wife, Christie, who serves as executive director. She realized the need for housing when she was working on a pregnancy hotline.
“All the calls were from abortion-minded girls, and one of the reasons that they wanted to get an abortion was because they were going to get kicked out of the house,” she said. “They all needed housing, so we thought this would be a good follow-up after we convinced them to keep their babies.”
One girl told her, “It’s so easy for you to tell me to choose life. You’re going back to your house, your car and your husband. I don’t have all that.”
God worked miracles, Christie said, when the right people helped them launch the program and support came from local churches, the diocese and the community.
There are two homes. The Rita House hosts up to 16 underage mothers who are still in school. The Gabriel House has room for 10 adult women who are mostly 18 to 25 years old, and they are encouraged to attend college or training schools.
“Our counseling helps them to see what healthy parenting looks like so that we can break the teen cycle of pregnancy,” development director Alyssia Woods said.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
Jessica O’Mary had the unwavering support of her family, especially her mother, when an unexpected pregnancy interrupted her sophomore year in high school. She stayed at home, remained in school and, after her daughter, Lily, was born, she landed a part-time job helping founder and executive director Christie Aaronson organize the office of the Annunciation Maternity Home in Georgetown, Texas.
|Jessica O’Mary, right, along with daughters Lily, left, and Mina, and husband, Anders Engquist. Courtesy photo
By her senior year, O’Mary was really feeling the challenges of attending school while parenting.
“I asked if I could participate in the home’s on-site University of Texas charter school classes,” she said. “Christie didn’t hesitate to allow me to attend this special program, and Lily stayed with the child development assistant while I was in class.”
She enrolled in a program that allowed her to simultaneously earn college credits. That enabled her to complete an undergraduate degree in psychology in only three years at the University of Texas in Austin. Then she obtained a master’s degree in nonprofit and philanthropic studies at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
Although O’Mary didn’t live at the maternity home, she bonded with the girls who did.
“I remember sharing our hopes and wishes for our futures,” she said. “I was surrounded by people who genuinely wanted me to succeed and offered generous support to make it happen. I was blessed to have this special opportunity to be in such a supportive environment.”
In 2009, O’Mary married Anders Engquist who, she said, “embraced Lily from the beginning,” and they now have a 4-year-old daughter, Mina. Earlier this year, the family moved to Sweden where O’Mary works as an alumni relations officer at the Stockholm School of Economics. Lily is now 14.
“There is no doubt that Annunciation Maternity Home played a pivotal role in my ability to succeed both in my own education and to prepare Lily for future success in school,” O’Mary said. “They helped me to know that having a child at a young age didn’t mean that I had to sacrifice all my many dreams and ambitions.