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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
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