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
As my pregnancy progressed, medical concerns for the baby’s life and my own life were discussed. The doctors recommended ‘terminating the pregnancy’ at around 27 weeks. I refused all ideas of ‘terminating.’ Then the doctors suggested testing to see if the baby would have chromosomal issues. This would not change my decision, but the result may have affected their ideas on how to treat this high-risk pregnancy with respect. The test came back normal, and we learned that we were having a son. We immediately gave him the first gift that parents can give their child, his name. Brandon Joseph.
It became ‘medically necessary’ to deliver the baby early, thereby terminating the pregnancy, but not necessarily the baby. Immediately after birth, baby Brandon was baptised.
Every day of Brandon’s life had value because of the effect his personality had on each person who met him – his parents, his sister, and the doctors, nurses, volunteer cuddlers, interns, roommates, and extended family. Brandon lived for seven months. Just as any loved one who dies in a family, his memory continues to influence our family to this day.
Today, I am the educational resource consultant for Calgary Pro-Life Association. School teachers invite me to their classrooms to give presentations on positive self-esteem, and the miracle of life/fetal development, to students in grades five to 12!
During one presentation, students hear the sound of the fetal heartbeat that started between 18 and 22 days; then learn that at four weeks, they were the size of my thumb nail; at six weeks their brain was developing, and at 12 weeks they were the size of my thumb! We continue to talk about the development of the fetus until birth.
All of us have a responsibility to affirm life in our culture. We need to ask ourselves: How are we modeling the virtues of motherhood to our daughters and the virtue of fatherhood to our sons? How are we raising men who will support women in that natural affection that they ought to have for their children?
Tell everyone you meet, no matter the age or stage in life, that they really matter and that they have a life purpose that is exciting to watch as it continues to be revealed day by day! This is how we share the pro-life message so that women and men will know that they have the right to life; and the right to choose life for themselves; for their own children now, and in the future.
The Social Justice & Outreach Department is pleased to announce three important pro-life events taking place in May:
About God’s Work
As a testament to what a determined woman can do with God’s help, Thorn began Project Rachel while raising her family of six children. Project Rachel began as a diocesan initiative in 1984, and from there it gained momentum and widespread support across the United States and then Canada, which includes the Diocese of Calgary.
She recalls at that time there were no experts to call upon when she developed Project Rachel. However, she was convinced then and still now practises a post-abortion healing ministry that offers anonymity, has a strong spiritual element and includes a psychotherapeutic component. The name Project Rachel is inspired by Scripture: “Rachel mourns her children, she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).
Thorn knows that mothers of aborted babies go through different types of grieving and often seek forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They are not the only ones who are traumatized from the loss of their child. Fathers who didn’t want the abortion, grandparents and siblings who later learned about it are also devastated.
Thorn has travelled to 28 countries speaking to thousands about not only the impact of abortion on men, women and on our culture but of what God’s ultimate plan is for humanity revealed to us through the science of the human body.
Thorn takes great joy in seeing her children value life. Now they’re all grown, and there are 14 grandchildren for her and her husband to enjoy. Each of her kids, she says, along with their loving partners and her grandchildren “are just a delight to my heart.”
Despite needing to lay low for health reasons, she said she’s still busy looking to expand and develop a framework for post-abortive healing in places around the world because, she explained, “you can’t just use an American model in other countries.” Her research has led her to seek communities of sisters who are already, as she said, “the boots on the ground” serving the people where they are.
In Milwaukee she says, she’s running a program for African American pastors who want to learn about post-abortive healing. There is a great need but “not a lot of help.”
Theology of the Body
This March, she’ll find herself at the Theology of the Body Conference in Calgary to speak to attendees about the science that undergirds the Theology of the Body, much of what she says is “well researched, but not well known.”
We have been seeing the effects of the sexual revolution since the 1960s culminating in what many in the Church refer to as a culture of death. Thorn spends a lot of her time explaining the wounds many of us experience as a result, with scientific studies to help her show the audience hard facts.
What we will hear from her is much deeper than what we heard from high school sex education.
Armed with the facts of male and female biology, the science of attraction and the biochemistry of sex and conception, Thorn will take us through the beauty of God’s plan for the human body.
“We haven’t really understood how awesome we are in terms of our sexuality,” she said, adding that over time the wonder and beauty of sex have been lost. What she’ll share with us will be concrete, uniting what the Church teaches with scientific fact, which will further our knowledge of what she says is “God’s intentional plan.”
Looking at all she has achieved and the ministry she continues to grow, attendees to the upcoming conference will be blessed to be part of her journey and work.
Written by Jessica Cyr
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers