CATHERINE LYTLE and Maria Reyes each discovered they were pregnant shortly before they were incarcerated—not so unusual, given that, nationwide, one in 16 women entering prison is pregnant.

Lytle considered adoption; Reyes sought an abortion. Thanks to Kathy Morrissy and her seven-year-old San Diego, Ca.-based Baby Blessings ministry, though, both women kept their babies and were able to bond with them during regular prison visits.

Lytle, now 24, moved to San Diego from Chicago in 1989. The following year, she had a baby and gave it up for adoption. A year later, hooked on drugs, she entered prison for the first time.

In and out of jail since she was 18, last year Lytle was sent to the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in downtown San Diego for a fraud-related crime and was released after 11 months.

“I made a few bad decisions,” she says of her drug-using days and subsequent imprisonments. Now clean for 18 months, she attends community college and cares for her one-year-old, Jade, who was conceived three months before Lytle's last incarceration.

When she realized she was pregnant, Lytle again considered adoption, while others pressured her to abort.

“I'm pro-life,” says Lytle, who was raised Catholic and now attends Horizon Christian Fellowship near San Diego.

The baby's father, Lytle says, “was not in the picture, and I didn't have a relationship with my mom.”

Behind bars and pregnant, she prayed for help.

Six years earlier, then 26-year-old Reyes had been in the same predicament. Jailed at the Las Colinas Detention Facility in the San Diego suburb of Santee in 1990, she found out she was pregnant just two days before she began serving her sentence. Like Lytle, Reyes had been imprisoned numerous times.

She, too, was trying to pay for a drug habit, when she was caught smuggling illegal aliens into the United States. Once in jail, Reyes tried four times to schedule an abortion. Each time, her plans were foiled: she had a court appearance, she could-n't see a doctor right away, twice she was transferred to another jail.

Then, back at Las Colinas, she met women from the interdenominational Women's Aglow prison ministry.

“They helped me think about it more,” she explains, “and through prayer, I turned it over to God. I finally realized it was out of my hands. I was too far along. I would never have had the baby, but the Lord wanted me to for some reason.”

Morrissy's ministry was conceived the same weekend in 1990 as Reyes's baby, Yolanda.

Morrissy was at a Women's Aglow retreat in San Diego when she heard a speaker discuss prison ministry and the need for people to care for babies whose moms are imprisoned.

“That's when I heard God speak to my heart and heard him say that he had a child for me,” Morrissy says.

That child, Yolanda, was the first of seven that Morrissy has cared for. Lytle's baby, Jade, was Morrissy's most recent charge. She's also helped three women place their babies for adoption.

Morrissy visits jails and prisons throughout San Diego County to make her ministry known. Typically, a chaplain tells a pregnant prisoner about Morrissy, who will then meet with the mom-to-be.

Some inmates are skeptical, says MCC chaplain Father Wilfredo Crespo, an Episcopalian priest who was present at Jade's birth.

“They wonder, ‘Who is she? Why is this free?’” he says. “Then [Morrissy] spends time with the girls so they get to know her. She has the person pray about it. She earns their trust, and then [the inmate] feels secure that it's not a scam. Hers is the expression of love for the inmate.”

Morrissy wants the mothers “to have hope, no matter how desperate their situation is, that a child can be brought to full-term and there can be restoration for families and lives.”

Although each woman and her situation is unique, one thing remains constant—Morrissy's gentle love for the infants and their mothers.

“We're willing to support any woman,” Morrissy says, “because we truly believe what the Bible says—that God has a call on each child's life before the foundation of the earth was laid.”

While a woman is incarcerated, Morrissy brings the baby to visit six times during the first two weeks after birth, then at least twice monthly thereafter. But more than half the women imprisoned in the United States never see their children while serving their sentence, usually because of the geographical distance between the women and their children. When Morrissy visits jails and prisons to speak about Baby Blessings, she hears first-hand the anguish the moms feel over this separation.

“They can't even talk about their kids because it hurts so much,” Morrissy says. Seeing their sorrow confirms for her that her ministry is needed—not just in San Diego, but across the country. As word of her ministry spreads, she's had inquiries from throughout the United States.

After taking legal guardianship of a child through the courts, Morrissy cares for that baby as her own, bringing it to live in her home along with her five children: Luke, 2; Mark, 10; Michael, 14; Christopher, 16; and April, 22. April's one-year-old son also lives with them. Absent is Morrissy's husband, who left to live with another woman when she was pregnant with Luke.

“He chose disobedience,” she says, “but he's still the children's father. We pray for him and care for him.”

Morrissy, who says she's “always had a heart for women and children,” has volunteered at Children's Hospital in San Diego and served on missions in Mexico and Costa Rica through her church, Mission Bay Christian Fellowship. She's also done odd jobs—photography, day care, and tutoring—to bring in extra income, but with her husband gone, money has been tight and she's been unable to care for any babies since Jade.

The state pays the baby's medical costs and about $340 a month to legal guardians, while the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program covers formula. Children's resale shops donate clothes, strollers, and other necessities. But it's not enough to cover expenses, Morrissy says.

“There's diapers,” she says, “and we pay for collect calls from the mother. I take pictures of the baby regularly so the mother can send them to her relatives, which starts healing the family. There's also gas for traveling to and from the jail or prison.”

The visits sustain the mothers as well as Morrissy, who has another family lined up to join her in caring for babies, once the ministry is financially solid again.

“We have to do it,” she says. “That's what encourages me, to see the mother and the child. Even if a child goes to an adopted family, to know that child was given life. …”

When the mothers are released, a critical transition time for them, they move into Grace House, an apartment connected to Morrissy's home.

“When they have support, love, and encouragement,” Morrissy says, “then they're able to place their child first. We teach them how to read the Bible and the basics about what God says about gossip, and telling the truth, how to forgive, and that they can pray for their children and relatives.”

Many women return to their hometowns when released. Those who stay in the area, Morrissy helps—though some, like Reyes, do return to prison.

“But the babies haven't been aborted,” Morrissy says, “so we didn't lose.”

And the blessings come in unlikely places. Reyes's daughter Yolanda, now six, lives with Reyes's mother, who initially wanted nothing to do with Yolanda. But the grandmother had a change of heart when Morrissy took her to the hospital to see the infant.

Morrissy and the grandmother co-parented Yolanda briefly, then Yolanda moved in with her grandmother permanently and says she wants to stay with her always.

“This little girl has turned into the biggest blessing of the grandmother's life,” Morrissy says.

As for Lytle, she says she has “a lot of faith and trust in the Lord.”

“I've quit doing bad things,” Lytle says, “and I have a goal in life now. I live according to God's will. It's hard, but I know God's brought me this far and he's not going to stop there.”

Tracy Moran is based in San Diego.