Nov. 4, 1991, was a typically chilly autumn evening outside St. John’s Catholic Church in Watertown, Conn. Inside the lower hall, the Council of Catholic Women was in session: business as usual.

Midway through the meeting, Father Robert Rousseau, the pastor, walked upstairs and through the dimly lit church. Turning into an alcove, he stepped into the sacristy. He wanted to switch on the parking-lot lights for the women. Suddenly, he heard a strange sound.

And, he recalls today, he’ll never forget what he saw next. “A shaft of light was coming from the church into the alcove,” he says. “In this shaft of light, a little foot was moving.” Startled, he rushed toward the sight. “There was a cardboard box against the wall,” he says. And, inside the box, “a baby staring up at me.”

Once at the hospital, the abandoned baby was given a clean bill of health: strong vital signs, drug-free — and just a few hours old.

Because it was the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, Father Rousseau and the women named her Carolyn. They added Marie, in honor of the Blessed Mother.

Fifteen years later, the pregnancy-resource center named for that little baby who somehow knew to let out a single cry at just the right moment — Carolyn’s Place (carolynsplace.net) — has saved hundreds of babies and their mothers.

“The mother never surfaced,” Father Rousseau says. “But later, when we came looking for the box, it was gone. My sense was that she was waiting outside, hiding in the parking lot. When the police came and she knew the baby was safe, she took the box and disappeared.”

“That night,” he adds, “it came to me and a lot of people that, somehow, she went through the pregnancy alone.”

With that realization, St. John’s parishioners immediately began looking to help babies and moms like Carolyn Marie and her mother. 

“The basic concept they came up with was that no women should go through pregnancy alone,” says Father Rousseau, who is now pastor of St. Augustine Church in North Branford, Conn.

The parishioners opened Carolyn’s Place on Oct. 1, 1992, in a storefront facility directly across from their church. They organized volunteers to man a confidential 24-hour crisis-pregnancy hotline. And their prayers helped see to it that little Carolyn was adopted.

“God was very specific in the beginning. He wanted that line answered 24-7,” says former emergency-room nurse Ellen Cavallo, one of the women present the night the baby was found and one of the parishioners who prayed and fasted for the answer on how to help.

“The first month we had 80 calls,” she remembers. “We thought if we answered a call and helped one person that would be good. But from the get-go, God had us going.”

Keeping Promises

Go they did: To date, more than 800 babies have been born with some form of assistance or advice from Carolyn’s Place, which has since relocated from Watertown to the larger city of Waterbury. It has also expanded its services, from free pregnancy tests to “Earn While You Learn” parenting classes to outreach and education.

Cavallo, who is now director of Carolyn’s Place, describes how the major education-outreach program began. A 14-year-old named Maria came in for a test. She was pregnant and carrying full-blown AIDS.

“She had a big effect on me and on Carolyn’s Place,” says Cavallo. “Maria died 12 months after she gave birth and made me promise I’d go talk to kids her age because she’d never heard of abstinence. We always keep our promises.”

Today, continuous education on abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases goes on at the facility and at Catholic and private schools, in CCD classes and at public schools. The demand for this service is great.

How to keep up? Prayer, says Cavallo. “No program is going to fix this,” Cavallo says. “We need to pray like crazy for our kids. We started on Wednesdays to fast and pray for the kids and our country, that they’d recognize the beauty of their sexuality. Now more than 500 people have pledged to fast and pray for our kids.”

Saving the mothers and the fathers goes hand-in-hand with saving babies at Carolyn’s Place, beginning with Earn While You Learn parenting classes for those expecting. The latest class was the first in four years to have an equal number of young men coming with the young women. The classes build responsibility: Expectant mothers and fathers learn to do homework as they earn practical things for their children like donated cribs and diapers.

“Prayer warriors pray the Rosary for them on Thursdays,” says Cavallo. “Here we pray constantly.” That includes prayer before classes and the family-style meals classmates have together.

These shared meals are not only enjoyable for all involved, but also informative. Young parents get to hear about, and see, good parenting in action, according to board chairman Virginia Baudinet, who’s been answering the phone lines since 1992.

Courage not to Kill

Carolyn’s place has proved a blessing in many ways to 20-year-old Emily, who is expecting on Dec. 5. She came here for a free pregnancy test after returning from Texas, where she had moved with a boyfriend earlier in the year. He left her with no money or emotional support.

“I’m not clueless about childcare, but I need a lot of know-how,” Emily says of the free classes that teach everything from feeding to bathing to spotting signs of medical trouble. “Any bit of knowledge on how to be a mother is great.”

One story Cavallo can’t forget began as a girl called from an abortion clinic while someone was yelling at her to hang up. Barbara, who was addicted to crack and sick with sexually transmitted disease, said, “I can’t kill my kid.”

“I gave her directions to the office,” says Cavallo. “I didn’t know if she’d get there.” While waiting, she began to read a note with a wedding picture from a young lady in California. “She and her husband wanted to adopt. She highlighted a sentence: ‘We don’t care what color the baby is or if the baby isn’t healthy; we want a child to love.’

“As soon as I finished the letter, in walked Barbara,” says Cavallo. “This was definitely the Holy Spirit. I let her read the letter.”

They got on the phone, and the women sent a plane ticket and, the next weekend, as Cavallo was driving Barbara to the airport, she praised the 19-year-old for her courage to save her baby’s life.

“She looked at me and said, ‘I think he is saving mine,’” remembers the director. “The baby was adopted. Barbara ended up going into rehab and she now has a master’s degree in social work.”

“There’s no judging going on here,” says Cavallo. “God’s mercy can be poured out at any time.” 

Or poured in, like a shaft of light on a newborn baby’s uplifted foot.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.