St. Gianna’s Maternity Home a place of hope, renewal

by Kristina Lahr | New Earth

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St. Gianna’s Maternity Home in Warsaw. (Kristina Lahr | New Earth)

Across the street from St. Stanislaus Church in Warsaw, is one of the North Dakota’s best-kept secrets in building a culture of life.

“I’ve talked to people five miles away in Minto who don’t know what it is,” said Crissy, who was a resident there from 2007-09.

St. Gianna’s Maternity Home, a 9,000 square foot historic building originally used as a boarding school, is now a home, a place of hope, renewal, and life. St. Gianna's is a place for women who are pregnant and need a safe place to live. Their mission is to show these mothers the love of Christ and the joy of experiencing that love.

“Our mission is to help women who find themselves alone and pregnant and have no place to go and no support,” said Mary Pat Jahner, director of St. Gianna’s Maternity Home. “That isn’t every unplanned pregnancy. Sometimes there are family or people who can help. But one of the things we’ve learned with this work is how alone in the world some people are. Some people truly have no one. They live couch-to-couch or in a car before they find us. The women who come here… everything else and everyone else has failed them. Our mission is to serve them, make them feel loved and raise their dignity.”

Like many women who once lived in the home, Crissy remembers fondly her experience at St. Gianna’s. She was 15 years old and 20 weeks pregnant when she moved there and called it home until she was able to finish high school.

“I was really scared at first, but it’s like a family,” she said. “I became comfortable right away. I still talk to Mary Pat all the time. The girls who live here become like her grandchildren.”

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Mary Pat Jahner, director of St. Gianna’s Maternity Home, holds Aubrey during a past housemother’s wedding on June 9 at St. Stanislaus Church in Warsaw. Past residents of St. Gianna’s, Geianna and Kassity were bridesmaids and Aubrey, born to one of the mothers living at St. Gianna’s, was the flower girl. (submitted photo)

Crissy is now married, raising three children, studying to be a nurse, and helping out at St. Gianna’s as needed.

“I’m so grateful I can fill in here now and then because it’s a way for me to give back for everything they did for me,” she said.

Many mothers who arrive at St. Gianna’s come having experienced fear, rejection and loneliness. Expecting a child can be overwhelming especially if a mother is not getting the support she needs from family or from the father of the child.

“As these women enter the home, their dignity is raised,” said Mary Pat. “They’re not expecting a beautiful home. They’re expecting a shelter with used and dirty things. But we keep it clean and well-kept so that these women will see their dignity just by entering the building.”

With a chapel in the home and the presence of housemothers, St. Gianna’s can be a place of calm and reflection for women who have some big decisions ahead. What will they do with their baby? Are they able to parent or will they give the baby for adoption?

“About a fourth of the women will place for an adoption,” said Mary Pat. “It’s not an easy option. It’s a beautiful, selfless option, but it takes encouragement and counseling. At St. Gianna’s, they have time and a place to make these decisions, especially after some of the chaos that may have been their life to this point.”

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Father Joseph Christensen walks Crissy down the aisle before celebrating Mass for her wedding. (submitted photo)

When then Bishop Samuel Aquila blessed the home in 2004, he said these words: “Just as our blessed mother carried the love of Christ with us, we as Christians must in turn reach out to others with the same love. The St. Gianna Maternity Home will now reach out to women in need, who out of fear and desperation might otherwise choose abortion.”

The first woman to live at St. Gianna’s came in 2004, and the first baby was born Oct. 22 of that year. That child is almost 13-years-old today.

“We started off calling ourselves a pro-life shelter. Now we call ourselves a pro-life home of formation,” said Mary Pat. “It’s not a place where they have a bed and a little to-do list and live their own life. We very much live as a family here. There are some rules… very limited cell phone use, limited TV and computer. The first couple of weeks are an adjustment for people but after that, they don’t miss those things. They see a different lifestyle. Some of them may come from a life where they stayed up until 2-3 in the morning playing video games, sleep until noon and then eat frozen pizza on the couch. So while we see our life here as very peaceful, they’re changing radically to come here, but in the end have a much healthier and productive life if they give us a chance.”

When a woman moves into St. Gianna’s, they are asked to say grace before meals, attend Sunday Mass and gather for night prayer.

“If there’s one thing we want to instill in them, it’s a sense of gratitude,” said Mary Pat. “We’re blessed to live in a beautiful home and we’re blessed by other people’s sacrifices and prayers. We live the faith here, celebrating the traditions and living as a Catholic family.”

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Little Aubrey assists Father Christensen with lighting the candles before Mass in St. Gianna’s chapel. (submitted photo)

In some cases, the women will join the Catholic Church and have their babies baptized.

“I joined the Catholic Church while living here,” said Crissy. “It was amazing to just have that, on top of everything else they’d given me. It really is a family. Girls move in and move out and I still talk to a lot of the girls I lived with. They’re still my best friends, my sisters really.”

Robbyne Sands, who was once a housemother and is now on the board of directors for St. Gianna’s, said, “So many seeds have been planted and now they’re sprouting all over. So much that Mary Pat and the housemothers and Father Christensen have given them is immeasurable.”

“It’s a big team here,” said Mary Pat. “The people who are involved with this work are six faithful board members, housemothers who live here, and Father Joseph. We have top-notch people here. It’s beautiful to see who God brings together.”

When St. Gianna’s was just an idea, Mary Pat fondly remembers urging prayers for “nuns and funds.”

“As we were praying for a religious community, we assumed it was going to be nuns, but God answered with brothers and priests instead,” she said. “It’s answered our prayers more than we thought. Almost every woman is here because the men in their life have failed them and they don’t know what a holy man is. Their own fathers and fathers of their babies have abandoned them. So for them to see Father Joseph and Brother Francis, they see what a holy man can be. And that’s not just me saying that. Some of the women who’ve stayed with us have said that too.”

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A statue of the pregnant Virgin Mary at St. Gianna’s Maternity Home. (Kristina Lahr | New Earth)

The average stay for a woman is about a year. In that time, she is able to give birth to her child with dignity and is assisted with shelter, food, clothing, finding a good doctor, counseling, and educational opportunities, including the chance to learn job skills and parenting skills.

“Education is very important,” said Colleen Samson, president of St. Gianna’s Maternity Home. “Whether it’s high school, college classes, or nursing aid classes, the home makes arrangements so that people can better themselves. If they don’t have their high school degree, that’s required whether they’re teens or 40 years old.”

“Some are here for only a few days, and we know the Lord wanted us to love and pray for them for that time,” said Mary Pat. “Even those who were here a short time... we hear back from them, thanking us.”

Mary Pat once received a phone call from a 12-year-old girl who lived at St. Gianna’s six years ago with her mother. She thanked everyone at St. Gianna’s for what they did for her family and recalled fond memories of the place.

“It’s a place where people feel safe and people feel loved,” said Mary Pat.

Mary Pat also said that half of the work at St. Gianna’s is with women after they leave the house.

“They still struggle,” she said. “They still don’t have a lot of people to support them so their home, their family, is us. So we continue to work with them and their needs and joys and struggles. While the women are transitioning out, we encourage them to work, we get them a bed and a down payment for rent and usually they have a little money saved. So we give them every opportunity to start a new life.”

“Mary Pat can remember everyone who’s stayed here and their child,” said Robbyne. “She has this love in her heart for every single person here. It doesn’t just stop here when they leave. She is in contact with all these women and children. It really is amazing.”

“St. Gianna truly loved life and that’s what we try to imitate here,” said Mary Pat. “We try to love life and live life in the spirit of St. Gianna.”

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The chapel in St. Gianna's Maternity Home.

St. Gianna Molla was a pediatrician who was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness but refused treatment while pregnant with her fourth child despite knowing her refusal could result in her own death. She died in 1962 and was canonized a saint in 2004. Her daughter, Gianna Emanuela, is alive today.

“I’ve been helped by the home as well,” said Robbyne. “My sister was pregnant with her fourth baby and found out that the baby could be born very ill. She had spots on her brain and her heart. And Mary Pat reached out with the relics of St. Gianna here in the chapel. And Gianna, the baby, was born completely healthy. This place has touched so many hearts.”

St. Gianna’s intercession has been powerful for couples experiencing infertility as well. Some couples even conceived twins and triplets after asking for St. Gianna’s intercession.

“This home, it’s a message of hope,” said Colleen. “It’s a place of hope for these ladies who have no other home otherwise. There’s a whole army of supporters who have really given their lives to support this great mission of life.”

If you know anyone who could use any of St. Gianna’s Maternity Home’s services, please share with them this place of hope and renewal. Women of all faiths are welcome.

Visit www.stgiannashome.org.