Woman to Woman
Grieving the death of a baby brother. Suffering through years of infertility. Having a child with multiple birth defects that require many surgeries.
Experiencing even one item from this litany of challenges would bring terrible pain into any family. Yet a woman who has experienced them all has drawn from her experiences to create a life-affirming group called Elizabeth Ministry.
“Elizabeth Ministry is really the legacy of my brother who was born prematurely, lived for three days and died before I ever saw him,” says Jeannie Hannemann, who was only 4 years old when her brother Jimmy died.
When Hannemann and her husband, Bruce, married, they planned to have children together. Eight long years went by before they successfully conceived and delivered first one daughter and then another. The younger was born with multiple physical problems demanding surgery — and much of the Hannemanns' time and energy.
During this period, Hannemann recalls, members of their parish pulled together to bring them a meal every other day. “Not only were the meals great, but it also meant so much to have someone stop by to cry with,” she says. “Frequently people left a little poem, a reflection or statue. Some nights our daughter had a seizure every half hour and at the moment I thought I couldn't take it anymore, I'd see one of those signs of support and I could go on.”
Hannemann says she saw a way to share her experiences when she was pastoral associate at St. Bernard Parish in Appleton, Wis., while teaching new parents about the sacrament of baptism.
Many of the couples had moved away from family and had little support as they faced the trials of parenthood. At the prompting of Bishop Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., and with the help of her good friend Capuchin Father Kurt Gessner, Hannemann launched Elizabeth Ministry.
The program is as simple as it is powerful: When a woman of the parish goes through a tragedy or trial, she's visited by a fellow female parishioner who has been through something similar. The shared experience might be a miscarriage, a difficult adoption or any one of a host of “curveballs” life can throw at women.
The Elizabeth minister, representing the parish at large, usually brings a care package of prayers, resource information and a small gift item. The women might chat, laugh, cry, pray — and heal — together.
Why “Elizabeth?” Hannemann says the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth recorded in the first chapter of St. Luke's Gospel provided the perfect model for the ministry.
“Elizabeth praised, encouraged and built up Mary for her faith,” Hannemann says. “God knew Mary needed a mentor, someone to share the miracles and maternal mysteries with.”
What began in one parish has spread, during the last nine years, to nearly every diocese in the United States — not to mention Canada, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Korea, England and Wales, and many Central American countries. Much of the expansion has come through the work of Capuchin missionaries and military chaplains.
More than 500 chapters have officially registered with Elizabeth Ministry headquarters. Hannemann hopes many more will come on board now that the group has a dynamic website at www.elizabeth-ministry.com.
Bishop Morneau says he was so impressed by the program he knew it had to be shared. “Jeannie [is] addressing a real need of moms,” he says. “I think it's a wonderful way for the Church to connect, to render assistance and reach out to moms even before baptism.”
The books, pictures, statues, stuffed animals and sacramentals sold at the center support the ministering that happens in its prayer and counseling area. Hannemann says she hopes the website will become a virtual place for this kind of support to happen. To that end, the site offers a message board where people can post prayer requests or share stories.
Online visitors can purchase a “blessing bundle” with devotional prayers, books, gifts and other items. The packages are available for almost any family-related situation including pregnancy, miscarriage, birth, adoption, infertility, onset of menses, menopause, grieving child loss and other times of crisis.
Hannemann sees Elizabeth Ministry as an important member of the pro-life community because an essential part of its message is that life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.
“If we want to say we're pro-life, then we have to mourn a miscarriage,” she says. “We're saying, ‘This unborn life is important.’”
”One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage,” Hannemann adds. “It's a grief we've kept silent and private. We've lost a chance to proclaim what we believe.”
Proclaiming life and reclaiming lost opportunities — that's what Elizabeth Ministry is all about.
Nancy Vande Hey writes from Brookfield, Wisconsin.