A Haven for Moms and Babies: St. Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home
The North Dakota shelter has been welcoming mothers since 2004, the year the home’s namesake was canonized. Moms, children and staff are attending this year’s March for Life to celebrate the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Every day is different at the St. Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home in Warsaw, North Dakota, according to Mary Pat Jahner, the maternity home’s director. Except for love. Love is part of every day.
Since the home’s founding in 2003, single mothers with unplanned pregnancies ranging in age from 12 to 39, their babies and sometimes older siblings, have come from near and far to find refuge in this tiny prairie hamlet of just 60 souls. Five miles from Minto with a population of 600 people, 30 miles north of Grand Forks, and 60 miles from the Canadian border, it is quiet and remote. But inside the walls of the home, it is bustling with life. Here, moms with nowhere else to go have found they belong.
“Those who come here are alone in the world,” Jahner told the Register. “It’s a hard situation. We have a lot of after-birth work, to help them for the long haul.” Moms can stay up to three years after the birth of their babies.
Life at the maternity home often means attending classes to finish high school or starting online college or trade school. Doctors’ appointments are scheduled around other needs such as therapy and addiction counseling. All moms receive prenatal and parenting classes. Helping with chores and making meals are usual activities, as are birthday parties and holiday celebrations, bonfires, games, bike rides and prayers; there is also daily Mass, which is optional, and Sunday Mass, which is not, regardless of denomination — attesting to the home’s Catholic core.
And this month, there has been great excitement preparing for the trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the March for Life to celebrate the overturning of Roe v. Wade. There are 23 in all for their group, including Gianna Emanuela Molla, the now-adult child for whom St. Gianna Molla gave her life and one of the March for Life Rally speakers; St. Gianna is the namesake of the home (along with her husband, Pietro; this past August, his name was added to the official name). St. Gianna is the patron of mothers and the unborn, so she is a fitting patroness of the home. When in the United States, Gianna Emanuela is a frequent visitor of the home that now also houses her holy mother’s relics within the home’s chapel.
Also in the group is Jahner’s adopted 6-year-old daughter, who was born at the home; two teens that Jahner is a second mother to; the home’s chaplain, Franciscan Father Joseph Christensen, of the Franciscans of Mary Immaculate; staff; two moms who placed their little boys for adoption recently; another mother bringing her 5-month-old baby girl; and a few board members and their children. What a group — or, rather, what a family.
An Answer to Prayer
Jahner had been a schoolteacher and spent one of her summers volunteering at a Missionaries of Charity maternity home in Los Angeles. She took a leave of absence from her Fargo teaching job in 2000 to teach second-graders on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in northern North Dakota.
Father Damian Hils, the pastor of St. Stanislaus Church in Warsaw, came to the reservation to give a retreat to help prepare Jahner’s second-graders for their first Holy Communion. When Father Hils learned that Jahner dreamed of starting a maternity home, he shared that he had been praying about what to do about the St. Anthony convent and boarding school in Warsaw. It was built in 1920 and had closed in 1971. The dilapidated building was for sale for $1. It seemed an answer to prayer for both of them.
So Jahner moved to Warsaw that summer of 2001. A board was formed, and between fundraising and hundreds of volunteers, including professional tradesmen, and donations of services and supplies, the 9,000-square-foot school became a warm, beautiful home with play areas, a chapel and a library. The home was licensed and officially opened in 2004.
A Full House
Since then, more than 300 women and children have lived there. Moms have been referred in many different ways, including word of mouth, social services and via the Sisters of Life.
Most mothers have kept their babies, but 20 little ones have been placed for adoption. Jahner noted that this contrasts with more than 1,000 abortions in North Dakota that have taken place in that same time frame.
Sunday Mass, grace before meals and night prayers are required. “We pray in gratitude for those who support us,” Jahner said. “Faith is often a missing link in their lives that hasn’t been developed. They might want more for their baby, but you can’t give what you don’t have. It’s amazing to see what Christ can do.”
Many of the girls have come into the Church and had their babies and siblings baptized. Since this past Easter, there have been six baptisms. Jahner and chaplain Father Christensen are godparents to dozens of moms and children, and the priest even gave one of the young women away at her wedding.
Kassity was the first one baptized at the home. She was a 1-year-old when her little sister Geianna (a variant spelling of Gianna) was the first baby born there on Oct. 22, 2004. The teens are now 19 and 18. Their mother has struggled with addictions and mental illness, so Mary Pat mothered them while still being a support to their mother. Kassity now attends a technical college in East Grand Forks, and Geianna is a high-school senior planning to go to school to become a radiology technician next year.
“I officially started living at the Gianna Home in fifth grade after my mom got involved with drugs and ended up in jail,” Geianna explained to the Register. “Gianna Home is our home. It’s nice because we went from having no family to this giant, big family with open arms ready to help you. Mary Pat has always taken care of me. I’ve always wanted to be here, even when I was little. It’s that good.”
Geianna has a boyfriend who she said also loves hanging out at the house. “I gave him the warning that it can get a little crazy, but he loves coming here. I think about what could have happened if I would have stayed with my mom. Mary Pat is trying to help 24/7 in any way possible. I thank her for the person I am today.”
A Spiritual Father
Father Christensen has been the home’s chaplain since 2007. “Father Hils was a classmate and had recommended me for the job,” he told the Register. His work is part spiritual and part serving as a father figure.
“Father Christensen is more than just the home’s spiritual director,” Jahner explained. “He’s a part of us and does things like help make pizzas or shovel snow, and he helped us build a skating rink.”
“I’m like a spiritual father — that aspect is big and important — even for the staff and residents and children,” he said. “A fatherly presence is important. God created men and women to balance each other. For the residents and children, especially for the mothers, the home is here because the fathers of the children and sometimes their own fathers have failed them.”
Father Christensen noted that he and all the staff work to bring God into these young women’s lives, witnessing to the goods of faith and family. Coming from a family of 12 children from northern Michigan, the priest said he’s comfortable with all the noise and activity that comes from the home’s family atmosphere.
From Housemother to Assistant Director
Father Christensen’s niece, Morgan Christensen, became a part of the home seven years ago, starting as a house mother for three years and then becoming the assistant director. House mothers receive a monthly stipend plus room and board. It’s an ongoing challenge to find housemothers who share the mission and are willing to move to a rural community.
Morgan initially came to the area in 2013 to cook for her uncle’s summer camps. She stayed at the Gianna Home in between camps and eventually applied as a housemother. “This is where I can make an actual difference,” she told the Register, “not just in the baby’s life, but the mom’s life. I help give them security and love and am part of a support system when they are ready to move out. And I will be there if they ever need it again. This is a long-term relationship. I hope I’ve impacted their lives; they have definitely impacted mine. “
Former Resident Now a Social Worker
Emily Hildreth is the mother of 11-year-old Enya, who was born at the home. She is now a social worker for Hamilton County in Cincinnati, assessing cases of child abuse and neglect.
She learned that she was pregnant at 17. “My parents had a very negative response,” she recalled to the Register. It was decided that the teen should leave home for a while. Although there was some talk around her of abortion, she said she never considered it and was grateful for the support of the maternity home. There were two other residents when she moved there.
“It was the closest I had ever been to anyone friend-wise,” she told the Register. “We understood what we were going through together. There was a lot of laughter and love, and Mary Pat never made us feel like we were not living at home. We were welcomed, understood and provided for.”
Hildreth’s parents helped her attend college, and she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work. Her parents adore Enya, she said, and their relationship has grown close.
Hildreth said it means a lot to her that Jahner stays in touch. “I gained so much from not only Mary Pat but other women at home,” she said. “I never thought that my pregnancy … could turn out to be such a positive. I wouldn’t trade being a mom for the world.”
For more information or to help support the home, go to SGPMollaHome.com.
- st. gianna molla
- helping moms and babies
- moms and babies
- dignity of the human person
- patti armstrong