The caller's voice was tinged with desperation. She was two months pregnant, unmarried and already had two children She couldn't afford another child, and she knew her pregnancy would ruin her job.
When Cathy McConn, co-founder of the Gabriel Project in Houston, asked the caller what her occupation was, the trembling voice on the project's pregnancy crisis hot line explained that she shot herself out of a cannon in a circus act. Part of the act required her to strap dynamite around her waist.
Although McConn thought the caller was joking at first, she soon realized that the woman's plight was real.
“She wanted to be self-sufficient,” McConn says. “I realized she was a typical young lady, probably in her early 20s who has children and has good intentions, but is not yet adult enough to take care of them.”
That is where the Gabriel Project can help. Founded in 1990, the national program acts as a safety net for pregnant women and their families by providing the women with emotional, financial and spiritual support to help them carry their babies to term.
“Each phone call presents a unique challenge,” says McConn. “We are here to listen and provide support in whatever way we can.”
The toll-free phone call a pregnant woman makes to a Gabriel Project volunteer is just the beginning.
After the initial phone interchange, a meeting between the pregnant woman and a Gabriel Project volunteer is arranged at a parish church or rectory. The pregnant woman is assigned a “Gabriel angel,” a volunteer who will determine what the woman's needs are, present these needs to a sponsoring parish community, and help the pregnant woman in any way possible.
Because the Gabriel Project has no centralized office, it's difficult to know precisely how many parishes around the country currently participate in the project. But Rex Moses, who established the first Gabriel Project in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, estimates that more than 400 parishes nationwide have established programs modeled on the one he began in 1990.
The Gabriel Project had its origins in a sign that Moses saw in Saint Michael's Parish in Houston. He was making daily visits to the church in preparation for his conversion to the Catholic faith.
The sign said, “If you're pregnant and need help, this parish will help you in any way.” It had originally been posted by the pastor, Msgr. John C. Perusina, in 1973, the year Roe v. Wade became law.
After Moses and his wife converted to Catholicism, they moved to the Diocese of Corpus Christi to help lead the pro-life movement. In 1990, he suggested to Bishop Rene Henry Gracida of Corpus Christi that signs offering help to pregnant women be placed on the property of all the churches in the diocese.
Bishop Gracida found the idea irresistible, and encouraged every church in his diocese to post a sign bearing a toll-free number that would lead pregnant women in crisis to help.
He promised to channel diocesan resources to any parish that might be overwhelmed by the commitment the sign expressed.
“That courageous and loving act on behalf of Bishop Gracida inspired churches to join the effort,” says Moses.
Within a matter of weeks, more than 100 churches in south Texas had posted signs on their property. The Gabriel Project was on its way.
In 1991, Cathy McConn, a mother of seven and a friend of Moses, approached Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston. She asked if the Gabriel Project, which had been so successful in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, could be set up in their diocese.
Bishop Fiorenza approved her request. Since then 65 parishes in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston have become active in the Gabriel Project.
The project received a national boost when Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life in New York, heard about its success in Texas. He promoted the program on the Eternal Word Television Network and through a color flier published by Priests for Life.
By 1996, the Gabriel Project had taken root in the Archdioceses of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and in the Dioceses of Dallas, Scranton, Pa., and Wilmington, Del.
The grass-roots project is designed to take place on the parish level, where there is strong volunteer support and an opportunity to provide personal assistance to each pregnant woman. The one-on-one relationship between a pregnant woman and a parish volunteer is integral to the project's success.
Elizabeth Griber, communications coordinator for the Gabriel Project in Maryland, says that since 1996, local project members have provided individual support to about 750 women and 760 babies.
“There have been 10 sets of twins, and one client is now carrying triplets!” she says enthusiastically. “Each pregnant woman is known and cared for personally.”
“The biggest challenge is to increase the pregnant woman's quality of life,” explains Annie Byrne, director of the Gabriel Project in Pennsylvania, where there are six established parish Gabriel Projects and three more parishes planning to implement the project.
“Emotionally and physically, most of these women have been through traumatic experiences,” she adds. “They have been rejected by the people they love. In many cases, their parents tell them, ‘If you have this baby, you have to leave.'
Or the man she thought would love and protect her says, ‘I don't want anything to do with you if you have that baby.’ We establish trust with the woman, and try to get her to stick with the project for counseling and job training. We help her to see that her baby is a great reason to get her life together.”
Adds Patty Sherrod, director of the Gabriel Project in Dallas: “Sometimes the girls who come to us are estranged from their parents, living a life clearly contrary to God's commandments, living with a boyfriend or in a negative situation.
A lot of these women don't have a clear direction for their lives. They are pressured to abort the child. They need a friend. They need someone to listen to them.”
Mary Ann Sullivan writes from South Amboy, N.J.