It's a long way from Guyana to New York, but that's where Samantha found herself at 19 years old. Alone, pregnant, working in a bar — a stranger in a strange land — she worried about what kind of future her baby would face. Not to mention her own dim prospects for avoiding a life of poverty and instability.
Later she would thank God for leading her to the Nazareth Life Center in Garrison, N.Y., where she was nurtured and aided in putting her baby up for adoption. She spoke with the couple who ended up adopting the child — a son — and left with newfound hope.
“She blossomed like a flower here,” recalls Franciscan Sister of Peace Marita Paul Hammond, director of the center. “She told me, ‘I want to be somebody. I want to further my education. If my baby tries to find me someday, I don't want him to find me in a bar.’”
Founded in 1980 to provide women in crisis pregnancies with an alternative to abortion, Nazareth Life Center offers not only a warm and caring place for young women in need but also a connection with loving couples looking to adopt through the Catholic Home Bureau.
“There is no other place I know of where they put such a focus on adoption,” says Sister Marita Paul, who has been the center's director since it opened. “Our trilogy of purpose is, first, to redirect the girls’ life and take care of her while she's pregnant; second, to give the baby life; and third, to give couples a chance to become a family.”
Everyone wins, from the couples who go home with an expanded family to the girls who come from various backgrounds and circumstances. The latter have been as young as 12 and usually not older than 21. They might live here from their fifth month of pregnancy until delivery.
“We're here to nurture,” Sister Marita Paul says. “We want the girls to enjoy themselves so they make a positive direction in life when they leave.”
The center relies on donations and the young mothers’ care is free, including excellent medical care. The girls live in a family atmosphere and a confidential, spiritual, recreational environment. They can continue studies privately.
God's Hand at Work
“The symbol and the pattern for this is the Blessed Mother,” says Father Eugene Keane, the center's chaplain. “The care of these girls is like what Mary did when she hastened to Elizabeth, from the point of view of God. It's God's pattern in many ways.”
“Not only is the center pro-life, but it's also therapeutic progression for the mother,” he adds. “Every adoption is a noble act. It's the prime act in ‘therapy.’ They come out feeling they have done something noble and unselfish.”
Sister Marita Paul always clarifies misunderstandings on this point.
“Some people think girls surrendering for adoption don't care about their babies, but that is not true,” she says. “I want people to know they care even more because they're not making the selfish choice. They're doing what's best for the baby.”
Weekly, the Catholic Home Bureau of the Archdiocese of New York, which provides the preap-proved adoptive couples, visits to counsel and help the girls with adoption plans. The girls meet with and choose their prospective adoptive couples.
“We try to have couples without a baby so there's no competition,” Sister Marita Paul says. “That's our priority.”
She pauses, then adds with a hint of knowing in her voice: “Sometimes, after adoption, God chooses to send them a baby of their own.”
Sister Marita Paul says it's not unusual for the mothers to request a “rich or good-looking” couple for their baby. “We try to say, don't think a rich couple is what's best for your baby; that's not what it's all about,” she says. “A good-looking couple might not necessarily make good parents.”
Yet most girls, she says, are more inclined to ask surprisingly mature questions. “They ask, ‘How would you bring up my baby? What do you consider important in education? What about discipline?’” she says.
Carole Battaglia, who's worked with Nazareth Life Center for 13 years as the bureau's senior social worker with the maternity program, remarks how impressed she's been with the love and support Sister Marita Paul offers the girls.
“She provides a non-stressful environment, so nurturing and supportive,” she says. “She gives them a lot of security and caring.”
An adoptive parent herself, Battaglia says she's constantly discovering “the hand of God” at work here. She lists case after case distinguished by some remarkable turns of events. It might be something small — a couple having their baby born on their anniversary or some other date special to them — but the signs all point to one thing. “I believe the baby who goes to a couple is meant to be theirs,” she says.
Father Keane puts it this way: “The couples admire the birthmother and her sacrifice. They see God blessing them through this girl. It's a story of faith and God's providence.”
As for the young mothers: “You have to acknowledge the work of God,” Father Keane says, “in the life of these kids.”
Once a retirement home for the Christian Brothers, the facility housing the Nazareth Life Center is a stately, turn-of-the-century mansion on 24 acres in the Hudson River Valley. It's an ideal setting to house and help eight pregnant young women at a time.
Father Keane credits a friend known only as Griff as the “angel” who picked up the mortgage so the sisters wouldn't have to worry. The peaceful atmosphere has a positive effect on the girls’ state of mind, he adds.
The center can accommodate up to 10 at a time, but lately the nuns haven't had a full house. Sister Marita Paul attributes the drop-off not to a decrease in unwanted pregnancies but to American society's acceptance of promiscuity, single parenthood and the bad example set by pop stars, actors and other celebrities.
“I don't thing teen-age girls have good role models,” Battaglia says in agreement.
In 1991, as one of five workers on the program, Battaglia placed 13 babies herself. In 2003, only three. She laments the law allowing young girls to get abortions without notifying parents.
“Try to place a baby at 14 without the permission of the parents,” she adds. “And it's acceptable for teen-age girls to keep their babies.”
Still, the doors at Nazareth Life Center are open and ready, and the nuns don't worry about the empty rooms.
“When we don't have the girls,” Sister Marita Paul says, “we wait for God.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from