When Deacon Stephen Imbarrato counsels a pregnant woman or her boyfriend against abortion, he can truly say: Been there, done that. While living a secular lifestyle 30 years ago, he got his girlfriend pregnant and consented to her abortion. After coming back to the Catholic Church in 1980, he began seeking ways to amend for his past sins — and found meaning and direction in the pro-life movement.
Having nurtured a long and successful career in retail management, restaurant ownership, business education and consulting, he now turned to working as youth-outreach coordinator with Lifenet, giving talks on chastity in his home state of New Jersey.
In 1987, his pro-life convictions led him to adopt a 9-year-old boy from Colombia and become a single father. His son is now 26 years old and married with four children of his own.
This is an unusual path for a man called to the priesthood. But Deacon Imbarrato found his vocation while praying and counseling outside abortion clinics and dedicating himself to the cause of truth and life. He entered Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., in the fall of 2000, and last year was ordained a deacon. In May, he is scheduled to be ordained a priest, at the age of 53, for the Diocese of Santa Fe, N.M.
Although he is leaving Connecticut, his work will continue at the St. Gerard Life Center, a crisis-pregnancy facility he helped establish across the street from a busy abortion clinic in Hartford, the state capital.
“God is good,” says Deacon Imbarrato. “If he can take a sinner like me and put him on the right road, then there is hope for anyone.”
The road has not always been smooth. One obstacle was the fact that participating in an abortion is normally an impediment to receiving Holy Orders. He applied for and received a dispensation. Guiding him along the way has been Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life.
“He has so totally shaped my vision in the pro-life movement and as a seminarian who hopes one day to be a priest,” says Deacon Imbarrato.
Since entering Holy Apostles, Deacon Imbarrato has “broadened and organized the pro-life mission here,” says Basilian Father Douglas Mosey, seminary rector. “He has great leadership capabilities. He leads by example, of course, but he also has a great talent for encouraging other people to get involved, drawing on his experience in business and management before he came here. He’s been a great blessing to us at the seminary.”
Deacon Imbarrato has served as coordinator of the seminary’s Holy Apostles Life League and, for the past two years, has worked with Priests for Life as executive director of Seminarians Life Link, an online service for pregnant women seeking help. In 2002, he arranged for the remains of a 10-week-old aborted baby, named Adam, to be buried on the seminary’s grounds and given a memorial headstone. Father Pavone led the burial and dedication services. Seminarians maintain the site, where they hold prayer services.
Deacon Imbarrato also has overseen the expansion of pro-life materials in the seminary’s library, which now occupy one wall of the building. Pamphlets are offered free of charge to anyone on issues from abortion to contraception to stem-cell research.
His most significant work, however, has been the St. Gerard Life Center, which opened last June. The center reports counseling 80 pregnant women in the first six months and saving 20 babies from abortion, including a set of triplets. Deacon Imbarrato helped to locate the offices across from the abortion clinic, secure funding and line up volunteers. He serves as both business adviser and spiritual adviser to the center.
“Deacon Steve has revolutionary ideas that get people moving,” says Debra Camerota, a member of the life center’s board of directors. “People were trying to get something like this started for years, but he was the one who put the thing together. He took it in his own hands and moved forward, taking a few people and convincing them that they could make it work.”
Tim Barr, a fellow seminarian who is the new head of the Holy Apostles Life League, says Deacon Imbarrato “isn’t afraid to challenge people to do more, not just in pro-life work, but in living a more Christlike life.
“Steve is always on the go, always organizing something for Christ,” Barr adds. “One of his great talents is to help people get involved, to set things up so that it’s easy for them to take part and make a difference on their own.”
Deacon Imbarrato is active in post-abortion healing programs for women and men, drawing on his own experience. “I realize that a man has two healing processes,” he says. “One is healing from his lost fatherhood. The other is healing from having abandoned and victimized his girlfriend when she was in need.”
Regarding the connection between priesthood and his pro-life apostolate, he says: “You can’t separate the two, priesthood from pro-life work. This is because pro-life work isn’t just about saving babies; it is about saving souls, about converting individuals and the culture. And the priesthood is all about saving souls.”
“I’m awed at the prospect of becoming a priest,” he adds. “The Lord expects much of those to whom much has been given. I know the Lord expects big things from me, because he has given me so much.”
Stephen Vincent writes from