Angels On Call
When a pregnancy test proved positive for 15-year-old “Laura” (not her real name), her single mother gave her two choices: Have an abortion or move out of the house.
Desperate to have her baby, the Florida teen-ager turned to her local chapter of the Gabriel Project, a nationwide Catholic crisis-pregnancy intervention based in Austin, Texas.
“The angel volunteer calmed her overwhelmed mother,” recalls Nancy Farren, coordinator of the program in southwestern Florida. “She found that the entire burden was not on her.”
With someone to talk to, the girl began to get along better with her mom, Farren says. The Gabriel Project, child care at Laura's high school and occasional help from her grandmother made a seemingly impossible situation possible. The teenager gave birth to a baby boy and was able to go on to college.
While Laura's situation had a particularly happy ending, her circumstances are not uncommon. Studies show that most women who decide to abort a child usually do so because someone else — a parent, boyfriend, friend or even husband — has threatened to withdraw support. The Gabriel Project, also called Project Gabriel, throws a lifeline to such women.
“Through the parish acting as the Good Samaritan, Mom receives the love, care and spiritual, material and emotional support she needs throughout her pregnancy and as long as needed,” says Dr. Marcella Colbert, director of the Respect Life Office for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston in Texas, where the Gabriel Project originated.
A catalyst behind the establishment of the Gabriel Project's national office in 2002, Colbert credits the birth of the apostolate to Msgr. John Perusina, late pastor of St. Michael's in Houston. In 1973, after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide, Msgr. Perusina erected a sign outside the rectory offering help to women in crisis pregnancies. “If you will have your baby,” it read, “this parish will help you in every way.”
The initiative gained momentum when Cathy McConn, Respect Life coordinator at nearby St. Cecilia's Parish, took the idea of a wider outreach to Bishop Joseph Fiorenza in 1990. Aware of Msgr. Perusina's work, the bishop gave the project his blessing.
With a central phone number offered on signs posted outside member parishes, McConn put together a resource manual, designed a training program and, armed with a letter of endorsement from Bishop Fiorenza, recruited 50 churches within the first year.
“The ball really got going” in 1993, says McConn, after she made a presentation to Respect Life coordinators at an annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
Today, Gabriel Project signs can be found in front of parishes in 13 states, Washington, D.C., the Virgin Islands and Canada.
“The Gabriel Project is our highest priority here in the Diocese of Venice (Florida),” Jeanne Berdeaux, the director of that diocese's Respect Life department, told the Register.
The U.S. bishops’ 2001 pastoral plan for pro-life activities, “A Campaign in Support of Life,” calls for parish committees to “develop or adopt, where feasible, a parish-based ministry to pregnant women and their children.”
“Gabriel is just that, a parish-based program to mentor pregnant women one on one,” says Berdeaux.
“It's truly amazing how the Gabriel Project has grown and developed,” Dr. Colbert says. “This is not just a social service, but a lay movement based on prayer. It is an outreach and an evangelizing tool.”
The apostolate takes its name from the archangel who tells the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, “Do not be afraid” and “Nothing is impossible with God.” The Gabriel Project sends the same message to those in crisis pregnancies.
“It's a Catholic program because the training is done in a Catholic way. It's a form of evangelization for us,” says Helena Gonzales, Gabriel coordinator for the Galveston-Houston diocese. “The care we give is the care we'd give to Christ.”
“The moms need to be accepted where they are and given a chance to have the material things most of us take for granted,” says Becky Towner, Project Gabriel coordinator for Florida's Lee County. “Once this is done, we can get to their spiritual center and help them find God.”
The Gabriel “angel” coordinates the client's material needs and provides emotional support, but the whole parish participates. There is, however, a rule: “compassion without condemnation.”
Gonzales understands that concept well whenever she looks at her nephew, Aiden. While in high school, she says, her older sister confided her unplanned pregnancy. “She was crying and devastated, but she knew immediately that I was there to support her,” recalls Gonzales. “That impressed on me how important one's reaction can be. It's a human tendency to be judgmental, but we must be like Christ.”
Father Paul Felix feels likewise. Father Felix found the Gabriel Project so successful in Navasota, Texas, that he brought it to the Shrine of the True Cross in Dickinson, Texas, when he became its pastor. When he was a boy, Father Felix says, his mother offered to take in the pregnant daughter of a close family friend. “My mother already had six children,” Father Felix says, “but I learned that that's what Catholics do.”
Thanks to the Gabriel Project, thousands of women across the country are receiving help.
“The Gabriel Project is a concrete means of support for those at risk of committing an abortion,” says Father Felix. “There's a real spirit of joy and hope that springs forth. You see it in the volunteers. There's a deep-seated understanding that they're making a difference.”
Joanne Schmidt writes from Houston.