Christmas in Elizabeth House
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In Mary's loving presence
An inspiring grotto housing the statue of Mary seems only fitting for the backyard of Elizabeth House, a transitional housing program supported by the Diocese which welcomes pregnant and parenting women who need a safe place to live.
Mother Mary is symbolic of womanhood and motherhood and Elizabeth House staff are hopeful that the resilient women who access the house and services provided there will find the grotto to be a place of healing and hope as embodied in Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Dave Curry, who built the grotto with the help of Peter Dugandzic, shared that the project was meaningful to him because the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe holds pro-life significance. He spoke about the hard work of constructing the beautiful brick grotto in the summer heat last year and how it was recently completed.
Dave said that it was “beautiful doing something for Elizabeth House and for Mary”. Dave is a member of the Knights of Columbus Don Bosco Council at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and built the grotto with the help and support from the Knights of Columbus.
Elizabeth House has capacity to house seven women and their babies. This program offers resources, support, and a safe place for women to start their motherhood journey. Elizabeth House states that through their program courageous mothers are empowered to work towards a transition to independent living as well as pursue the education or job skills training necessary to help set the foundation for a bright future.
Marin Lepp, an Elizabeth House staff, said the grotto and statue speak to the “the incredible support and spiritual foundation that this place has for all of the women who we welcome from every background, every walk of life. This represents strength in womanhood and in motherhood and that looks so different for all of our ladies based on their circumstances.”
Marin called the the grotto a grounding place, and a guide in Elizabeth House’s approach to reconciliation for Indigenous peoples. She reflected that at the centre of the work is “motherhood, womanhood and the strength around that.”
The special garden area where Our Lady of Guadalupe has taken up residence was blessed recently by Bishop William McGrattan of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary.
“I think the legacy of Elizabeth House is something that we’ve received from the religious and I think it’s something that allows us to witness to and continue the sanctity of human life and to know that we’re helping families, especially women who want to make this choice. It’s counter-cultural and I think the Church needs to be present and allow them to go forward with this particular support that they need,” said Bishop McGrattan.
Bishop McGrattan emphasized the importance of making sure that Elizabeth House continues. He stated that the program has important donors and volunteer associations who value and support the work of Elizabeth House and stated that this work is “an important commitment as well. Just the experience of them being here supporting these young women and their children is something. They know they’re living their faith.”
Bishop McGrattan also reflected on the significance of Mary as a symbol of grace, joy, and hope for all. He stated that “First of all, she is Christ’s mother. The mother of the visible and the image of the invisible God. But she is also the image and the model of the Church and she is an exemplar. In Mary, the Church joyously contemplates the image of all that the Church itself desires and hopes wholly to be. The Church recognizes in Mary the model of the path and the practice it must follow to reach complete union with Christ.”
Bishop McGrattan hoped that when people from Elizabeth House are outside in the backyard the grotto the statue of Mary will catch their eye and that “they might be drawn into a moment of reflection, a moment of prayer. And that’s what images and statues are for. They draw our attention, they focus our thoughts and our sentiments. Often we formulate the words of prayer. This is how I think it will be an important statue here in this backyard of Elizabeth House,” he said.
“We know that those who come here in this yard and are able to pray, and contemplate, will ponder as Mary did in the silence of her heart the truth and the gift of human life and the gift and choice that they’ve made. We pray and hope that this will be a time and a moment where they see the hand of God through our Blessed Mother that they have made a choice for life and that we are supporting them.”
Written by Mario Toneguzzi & Elizabeth House Staff for Faithfully. Photos courtesy of Marin Lepp.
It is a beautiful thing to birth a baby and nurture a child through life. Motherhood, which is arguably the pinnacle of the experience of being a woman – whether through birth, adoption or spiritual motherhood – is highly underrated in the mainstream. We know that women are essential to life giving love, and with the example of Our Lady, women walk this journey in dignity and strength.
But women who come through adverse circumstances are almost a truer testimony to the strength of character and the resolve that it takes to be a mother. Add a global pandemic, and you’ve got a myriad more problems to work through.
Michelle Haywood is the program manager at Elizabeth House. Listening to her speak of what she has witnessed at one of Calgary’s a homes for pregnant women at risk, was balm for the soul as she told success stories of the women who resided there in the past 2 years.
“They are coming to us in crisis, and they’re leaving with sometimes a whole lot more confidence and resourcing than they came in with. They have to decide – its that choice that they made to do it and they’ve got to work hard to make this happen. I’m seeing dogged ethic and determination in every woman in her own way.”
I often imagine Our Lady in her own adverse circumstances, and am thankful for the relative ease with which I’ve raised my children by comparison. But Our Lady has special meaning for Michelle and Elizabeth House:
In its original location in an historic building in the heart of the city, Elizabeth House, founded by the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, had a grotto with a statue of Our Lady. Unfortunately, the grotto did not make the move when Elizabeth House moved to a more suitable location. The statue, as Michelle put it, “followed us without a dedicated home.”
The Knights of Columbus at St. Peter’s parish who have been instrumental in creating a homey atmosphere in the front and backyards at the house with landscaping and upkeep, arranged to have a new grotto built for the original statue, which has also been repainted.
"We asked the St Peter's Knights of Columbus to rebuild the grotto and they came through as always. They even found the gentleman who was the original brick layer to build the new one!" Michelle said.
A dedication ceremony will take place with Bishop McGrattan at the beginning of June.
“I believe that all the women that come through are under her mantle and enfolded in Mary’s robes. I constantly think of that as being part of the leadership that we are all in her presence always, and it helps us get through some really difficult moments.”
Difficulty doesn’t even begin to describe what it must be like to be newly pregnant and unsupported by family, friends or community and without a place to go;
“Some of the research has shown that one of the most substantial reasons that women choose abortion is that they believe that they can not provide the optimal conditions for motherhood,” Michelle said, adding that housing is also a major contributor,
“If you have no idea where you’re going to sleep or you can’t guarantee in your mind that you can keep this baby safe from harm, that’s what might lead a woman to that decision. They want to feel like they can be the best mother possible.”
The proof that Elizabeth House moms can and do achieve the best motherhood possible is in their stories. Michelle emphasised the determination and hard work that many women have shown her over her 15 years there, especially the last two years in the midst of global pandemic,
The public health restrictions had a myriad of consequences for Elizabeth House. Some of the regularly accessed programming was closed, outside visitors were not allowed at times, and isolation for symptoms had to happen in the four walls of a small bedroom.
“We saw more acute mental health needs and crises,” Michelle said, adding that being in a staff position was very difficult, because inevitably acting on the public health measures made them feel they may be doing harm.
Despite the hardships faced, there were also silver linings.
“We had only one isolated case of COVID-19 in a place where people are coming and going, and that speaks to how well we cared for one another,” Michelle said.
Strength and resilience of the community showed through as well when amidst the fear and the struggle, victories were won.
“We were seeing women just circling the house – nowhere to go. Schools were closed. We have from time to time women who are in post-secondary education. Now they were online with a baby, and guess what? They did it. They absolutely did it.
“We had one woman finish her post-secondary degree at home with a brand new baby during COVID. This is what can happen. This is what I’m speaking to, just the resilience, the strength, the courage, the sheer determination of the women here. This isn’t about the program; this is about them. We are simply giving them the space to shine.”
Another woman was able to purchase her first home during the pandemic, which is a first for the program.
“We’ve never had a woman move into that situation before, but she worked so hard to get everything in place for her next steps.”
Michelle and the staff at Elizabeth House have been grateful for the financial and physical support that continued despite the pandemic.
“It slowed down understandably but it never ended. We were overwhelmed both Christmases with donations and still getting people who want to volunteer as soon as restrictions are lifted. In those incredibly dark moments, the support and care never ended and that really mattered.”
After only a few minutes of talking to Michelle, I noticed and admired how she spoke about the women Elizabeth House serves. She spoke with admiration and respect, and emphasised the dignity of each woman, saying that it is their hard work that makes the difference for them, and that Elizabeth House, just like a midwife to a birthing mother, holds up a mirror to them saying “You’re doing it. You’ve got this.”
“They’re powerful – they just don’t know it yet – and we are helping them to see that and to practice it so that they can move forward.”
Elizabeth House will again be participating as a partner charity in the Ride for Refuge ending on October 2, 2021. Our goal is to support the great work that Elizabeth House accomplishes, in offering young pregnant women and young women with babies a safe and loving home, while empowering their journey to independent living. This year our ambition is larger and with your help we hope to reach our lofty goal!
#NOBIKESREQUIRED to participate at 2021 Ride for Refuge! Register yourself, gather your friends, and select a fundraising activity you love. Do whatever you can, wherever you can, and sky is the limit. Of course you can still do the 5km,10km cycling, or the 5 km walks, but you don’t have to!
So what's next?
We can do a lot with a little
This Advent, Calgary area single mothers and babies may get a boost thanks to a generous benefactor.
An anonymous donor has announced they will match all financial contributions to Elizabeth House up to $20,000 before December 24, 2020.
“It’s so encouraging to get a phone call out of the blue...because we tend to be head down when times get tough,” said Michelle Haywood, Elizabeth House program coordinator. “This was a real lift in the spirit and confirmation that God will provide no matter what.”
Elizabeth House is a transitional home for single at-risk pregnant and new mothers with a child up to two-years-old. They typically serve mothers under the age of 25 who are working through a history of domestic violence, trauma/mental health challenges or substance use.
“We used to say we set people up for successful independent living, but we know the reality of being there out on your own as a single mom,” said Michelle Haywood. “What we hope to do is build resilience so that when stuff happens, which it inevitably will –– when hard things happen, they can get back up again. They have those inner resources and are connected in their community.”
Normally Elizabeth House can take up to seven women at a time, but it’s less these days due to social distancing restrictions. For the moms currently living there, the pandemic adds an extra layer of stress.
“Living in a shelter is a completely different world than facing a pandemic in your own home. The restrictions are stronger, the isolation is greater,” said Haywood.
If a woman needs to isolate she would have to quarantine inside her bedroom. Her overall access to community support is diminished at a time when she is trying to build skill and connections to be able to transition out of Elizabeth House.
The news of this donation matching program has brought hope to these women and a feeling of worth.
“Matching the contributions are making this possible for them because we are that net that can catch both mom and babe for that time period,” said Haywood. “But it’s also about them knowing there is a community out there that cares and is willing to donate.”
The Calgary couple, who asked to remain anonymous, has been donating to Elizabeth House for 20 years because they sincerely believe in the cause. After having visited the house and researching the organization, they are certain it is a reputable, well-run charity by the Catholic Diocese of Calgary.
“There are a lot of charities that have big names out there. This is one that does good work, but maybe doesn’t get the same recognition as others,” said the donor.
“We also realize it’s a difficult time for charities. Realizing it’s a tough time for a lot of people, we are still called as Christians to share what we have.”
This matching program coincides with the diocesan I Am Blessed Campaign, encouraging the faithful to give generously through either acts of service, financial donations to parishes, schools, diocesan programs or prayer for others such as a Mass, rosary or novena.
For those who cannot give financially to Elizabeth House right now, prayers are also welcomed as is looking into the process to become a volunteer. But for those who can give, Haywood said this money will sustain Elizabeth House for some time.
“When we say we’re in this pandemic together, here is the action you can take. We can do a lot with a little,” said Haywood.
Written by Sara Francis for Faithfully
One of Calgary’s newest vegetable gardens is located in the backyard of Elizabeth House (EH), a maternal care home that’s now growing ready-to-eat plants alongside healthy babies. In a world hungry for good news, this project fits the bill, says Michelle Haywood, program manager at Elizabeth House.
Opened by the Catholic Diocese of Calgary more than 20 years ago, Elizabeth House provides supportive housing to at-risk pregnant and parenting women who need a safe place to live. Seeded into two new raised beds, this year’s inaugural garden is busy growing everything from lettuce to tomatoes, carrots and squash. It’s also nurturing at least one young resident’s interest in vegetable production—and it all began with a group of Catholic men who dared ask the folks at EH a simple question: How can we help?
The raised beds, like every other landscape revitalization project undertaken at Elizabeth House since 2017, were built by the St. Peter’s Council of the Knights of Columbus. That’s the year the council’s Grand Knight Peter Dugandzic reached out to Haywood. That conversation laid the foundation of a relationship that’s flourished over four years, thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours.
“What the Knights have done here is amazing, but it’s about more than landscaping,” notes Haywood. “There’s also a sense of being cared for by this group of gentlemen offering their hands and hearts to help us. It’s hard to put that kind of support into words.”
Love in action
By 2018, Dugandzic was leading a group of Knights of Columbus in some serious hands-on work. Together, the men transformed the home’s weed-filled backyard into a summer oasis, complete with new sod and a new patio, outdoor furniture, a barbecue, perimeter shrub beds and an underground sprinkler. That same year, another council based in Airdrie provided the labour to re-side EH’s home and detached garage.
Last year, the Knights tackled the home’s front yard, again adding fresh sod, shrubs and irrigation.
“Everybody was pretty excited when Peter brought the idea to the council,” remembers Lu Scarpino. Sworn in as the Grand Knight at St. Peter’s this July, Scarpino was the council treasurer when the project began. “Elizabeth House is doing great work and it’s nice to be able to support that. I think we’ve built a relationship that will continue for many years,” adds Scarpino.
Fr. Jonathan Gibson agrees. The pastor at St. Peter’s parish, Fr. Gibson says the relationship between the knights and Elizabeth House reinforces the governing principles of the Knights of Columbus. Charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism have all been strengthened by the project, says the priest. He views the relationship between the Knights of Columbus and Elizabeth House as a real-world example of how these knights live the heart of the gospel by doing work that cares for the women and children who live at Elizabeth House.
With the vegetable garden beds built and seeded, Dugandzic and Haywood are now focused on relocating a grotto built on the grounds of the original EH site in the Mission district. The stone work will be done by the same skilled tradesmen who built the grotto and one at the new Our Lady of the Rockies church in Canmore. The statue of Mary is being repainted by Dugandzic’s wife, Dorothy Voytechek. The new grotto will include a glass panel to protect the statue from the elements.
The grotto will be added to the backyard; already a place of refuge for residents, their children and EH staff, says Haywood. Given the complications of COVID-19, she knows the Knights at St. Peter’s didn’t have their usual opportunities to fundraise in 2020. That means some of the costs incurred were covered by individual knights and their families.
Dugandzic, who’s already working with Elizabeth House on projects for 2021, says he launched the EH project as a way to invigorate the Knights he led. Looking back, he admits the project’s success goes way beyond the physical spaces they created. “Elizabeth House is dear to our hearts. We like the work that they do. That house is nearly always full and it feels good to know our knights have helped make it an even more special place.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
I lived at Elizabeth House in July 2009. I was initially staying with my Mom’s third cousin in Calgary as I needed to be away from the dad of my kid. We had been together for six years on and off as I always caught him cheating and was emotionally manipulated.
After my US trip, we didn’t see each other for three months and as usual, he was trying to win me back and I thought he changed. It was a one-time deal and then I got pregnant. It was not great news for both of us, since I had just passed on my crown as a national beauty queen in the Philippines, having represented the country in the international pageant of Miss Earth and won Miss Photogenic.
I had also just started my job in the Nestle Philippines when we found out I was pregnant. As usual, he would still have girls around and still be so sweet to me. I realized it was not a healthy situation as he was not committed, and he would always hold me back. He tried to win me back so many times, but as he was not fully committed to me, I knew I had to help myself. So, I left him knowing I would be in a better place.
But living with relatives is harder than I thought. Especially when there’s judgment in the situation and if they don’t understand the many changes in pregnancy. It wasn’t healthy anymore in that house. I even reached a point when I wanted to leave the world, but no, I couldn’t do it because I had my daughter inside of me. So, I remained strong and fought hard. I asked our Parish priest, Father Edmund Vargas, who is also a Filipino, for help. He recommended Elizabeth House.
After being accepted, I found peace. The House was equipped and the people were warm. I like the division of tasks in cleaning, cooking and also the seminars and events every week. I found my family in Canada. Elizabeth House helped me focus more on my pregnancy and prepare for my delivery as well as for motherhood. The social workers were so helpful.
I am so glad that there’s a place like this.
In the Philippines, we don’t have much help like this. That’s the reason why it has been my dream since that time (10 years ago) to put up my own Elizabeth House. And indeed, after 10 long years, I have finally started and our House is now being built.
I believe that there’s a reason for everything and nothing is an accident. This happened to me, so I would know my purpose. I have goosebumps as I write this, but I believe I have finally found my purpose. To build this House that could help many women in crisis. I know what they go through, I know their challenges, I know how to help. And, finally, I can help.
No one thought I would end up being a single mom, I was not the type. But like I said, there’s a reason for everything. I also believe that our worst moments give birth to our most amazing moments.
This amazing moment in my life includes giving birth to a beautiful baby girl, whom I love and cherish the most. I believe she is my greatest achievement, and now this opportunity to launch Elizabeth House Foundation Philippines.
Again, many thanks to you all! May you continue to help women and make them stronger in facing motherhood. Praying for you all and our mothers in the House, always!
We Love you!
Jeanne and Gabby
Hard times and helping hands
She got a headache on the bus ride home from school. Her feet ache from shoes that fit this morning but now strain against swelling flesh. She feels the baby shift inside her pregnant body, and she is both exhilarated and exhausted. Sitting to unlace her sneakers, she starts to cry. Catherine Aghaegbuna heard the girl come in and sees her sitting at the bottom of the split-entry home, her shoulders quivering. Aghaegbuna takes a deep breath and welcomes the expectant mom home. Aghaegbuna is not her mother. But on this day, and at this moment, she is all the young woman has.
Trained in addictions counselling and community service work, Aghaegbuna works at Elizabeth House (EH). Started in 1996 by the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, the house provides a safe and supportive home to pregnant and parenting young women who need a safe place to live. To date, more than 200 young women have benefited from EH, one of two charities operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary. (The other is Feed the Hungry).
Christians engaged in this kind of work often talk about the need to see Jesus in the eyes of the marginalized. An immigrant and a woman of colour, Aghaegbuna sees more. “I choose to work here out of my love for the youth and children,” says the woman whose typical shifts run from 5 pm to 7 am. When the mother of five looks into the eyes of the people she serves, she sees the eyes of her own children. She’s reluctant to say her parenting experience gives her an edge, but the parishioner at Corpus Christi admits that parenting her children, ages 27, 19, 18, 13 and nine, helps her through the rough spots at work. “When the women tell me, ‘I am not your daughter,’ I tell them plainly, ‘I have no reason to deceive you. I have children like you. I am a mother.’”
Moms helping moms
Since 2016, members of the St. Gianna’s Moms Group at St. Luke’s parish have made women and babies at EH house special beneficiaries of an annual Christmas campaign. Named after an Italian pediatrician who sacrificed her life for her unborn child, the moms’ group buys Christmas presents that include self-care items, make up and gift cards for the young moms. “We think about what we can do to make their day special, and some of the gifts include special notes of encouragement,” says group co-leader Michelle Widmeyer, a parishioner at St. Joseph’s.
Herself the mother of four, Widmeyer says members of St. Gianna’s feel blessed to contribute to the important work done at EH, where young women get help completing high school and preparing or starting post-secondary education or training. Life at EH also helps the women hone life skills that range from conflict management to cooking, laundry and housekeeping—all while carrying or caring for their new babies. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young and single mother with very little support,” says Widmeyer.
That grassroots support for EH’s work is greatly appreciated, says Michelle Haywood, EH program coordinator. “We survive off private donations and are not funded by the government in any way,” explains Haywood, who often finds herself coordinating donations that range from money to supplies.
St. Michael’s parish, for example, recently donated a van load of baby and new mom supplies, as well as $4,000 in cash. “They provided everything from nursing bras to baby wipes. It was really something,” notes Haywood.
She also appreciates what members of the Catholic Women’s League and Knights of Columbus do to support EH. A group of Knights from St. Peter’s recently took a lead role in a major landscaping project. Individual Catholics also step up with support, including a woman from the St. Paul Centre of the Catholic school district who organized a donation drive amongst her colleagues, says Haywood.
Given how complicated the work at EH can be, program support translates into emotional support. “We serve vulnerable and at-risk women, and this can be very difficult work. When people care about what we’re doing, it’s like an emotional boost to our residents and staff,” says Haywood, whose professional work is tempered by life experience. The mom of three, including one born during her 12 years with EH, Haywood is a university graduate whose first baby was born when Haywood was still a teen.
To learn more about Elizabeth House, or to find out how you or your organization can support the program, visit www.elizabethhousecalgary.ca or email Michelle Haywood at email@example.com.
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Thank you - Undie Sunday
We would love to thank St. Michael's Knights of Columbus and CWL who joined their efforts to host a successful fundraiser "Undie Sunday" for Elizabeth House and the Drop-In Centre!
This event was a successful awareness and community builder, brought in funds through the Birdies for Kids campaign and much needed supplies for the women of Elizabeth House. We look forward for another Undie Sunday next year, on the fourth Sunday of Lent.
Here is a lovely photo of the warm hand-off of the donation:
We received a thankful note from Lisa Brock, an alumnus of Elizabeth House:
Elizabeth House and it's donors have given me opportunities that my mother never had as a single mother. Thank you for making it possible for the new generation to obtain the help and support they need to start a new cycle of strong, healthy families. At time of writing I am getting married in two days and am in the middle of a wonderful marketing internship, and am set to graduate with my Bachelor of Management next year. All of the connections I made at Elizabeth House have enabled me to create a healthy relationship with my baby's father and soon to be husband. Elizabeth House enabled me to focus on my studies so that I can accomplish my career goals. Thank you and bless you all.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers