Pregnant women and their babies can find help among Rhode Island's Catholics

Expectant mothers, babies, and their families can find comfort and encouragement alongside material help like cribs, diapers, and baby formula through the Saint Gabriel's Call ministry in Rhode Island.

"The Church is always there to help people in need, but this particular ministry is a life affirming ministry specifically to help women and families and what might be a crisis or unplanned pregnancy," Lisa Cooley, coordinator for the Diocese of Providence's Office of Life and Family, told CNA June 2. The ministry aims "to help them materially if they choose life."

Saint Gabriel's Call is a ministry under the Providence diocese's Office of Life and Family. It offers free and confidential services including financial, material, social, emotional, and other support for mothers and children. The ministry can help provide cribs, car seats, and furniture as well as baby clothes, linens, diapers, formula, toys, household goods, toiletries, and gift cards.

The ministry has three locations in Providence, and five elsewhere in Rhode Island.

Beneficiaries include single mothers, single fathers, and young families who are low-income.

Some just need "a little assistance" to get by for a week, said Cooley. Others are "in desperate need" and may be homeless or living at a homeless shelter or rehabilitation facility. Some are just getting their children back from child protective services or foster care.

The ministry allows parents to participate until their child turns five years old. A social worker on staff can provide free help for the bereaved or those who are suffering domestic violence. The ministry can connect women and families to public assistance or to other agencies in Catholic Charities for help with rent or utilities.

"We hope to build relationships with them so that way we they trust us and they are willing to open up to us about their needs more fully and that's when we can get into other needs like spiritual or emotional ones," said Cooley.

Many beneficiaries are long-time residents, while others are Spanish-speaking immigrants. The Catholic charity also helps new refugees. Several years ago, Syrian refugees benefitted from the ministry's work, while at present it serves some refugees from Afghanistan.

Last year, about 600 to 700 families benefitted from the ministry. Its work was impaired by coronavirus pandemic, when fewer volunteers were able to help. Before the pandemic, the ministry would serve about double the number of families, Cooley said, about 1,200 to 1,400 per year.

Some volunteers are trained to meet with beneficiaries. These volunteers support parents directly or serve as mentors or spiritual directors. Volunteers are often referred to the ministry by their pastor or local church. Many handle other work for the ministry in organizational efforts, distributing aid, or holding baby showers at their parish church to collect items for families in need.

Some parts of the United States have suffered a significant shortage of baby formula. According to Cooley, Saint Gabriel's Call has received only a few calls from those in serious need.

"We do have formula on hand and since the shortage has happened, people have donated formula," she said. Those in need "can come here and get formula. We have a good supply. People are really good at responding to things like that."

One beneficiary, Ada, appeared in a January 18 video posted to YouTube by the Diocese of Providence.

"With my first pregnancy, I didn't have the support. I didn't know the resources," Ada said. "We ran out of diapers. We ran out of clothes all the time. I had trouble finding people to talk to."

Ada had found out about the ministry through her OBGYN, who gave her information about Saint Gabriel's Call at her first appointment. She credited Marissa Kelly, who is on the ministry staff, for helping her with diapers and blankets.

"She was very, very nice," said Ada, who learned she and Kelly go to the same church.

The ministry doesn't neglect spiritual needs.

"Again, you don't have to be Catholic to come in, but we do evangelize," said Cooley. Applicants can disclose their religious affiliation, their relationship to God, their prayer life, and their Catholic parish, if they wish.

The ministry's volunteers can help parents get their child baptized and return to church attendance, if desired. If the recipient is willing, a volunteer may give them a rosary or a miraculous medal and explain its role in prayer.

"If they're not willing to talk to us, we're not going to force it on them," Cooley said.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence has announced the diocese will increase its annual funding to $50,000 to help Saint Gabriel's Call assist others.

James Jahnz, Secretary for Catholic Ministries and Social Services, said June 1 that the diocese increased its assistance because of "increased economic stress" due to the higher costs of groceries, higher fuel prices, and supply chain problems.

"It's a critical time for the diocese to redouble our longstanding efforts to support mothers and children," he said. "Low-income mothers are disproportionately affected during these economic and supply chain crises due to so many factors including transportation, access, limitations of aid programs, and retail shortages. Bishop Tobin's assistance aims to help these young families bridge the gap between their means and existing programs."

The ministry also receives support from the diocese's Catholic Charity Appeal.

Donations and volunteers are always needed, said Cooley.

She said the Catholic Church needs to highlight its continuing efforts to help women and their babies, especially as the U.S. Supreme Court appears set to overturn pro-abortion decisions such as Roe v. Wade.

"Programs like this that really show that we can help," she said, noting that some critics claim that people opposed to abortion don't help mothers who decide to have their baby.

St. Gabriel's Call originated the Gabriel Project, which itself dates back to the 1973 Supreme Court decision which mandated legalized abortion nationwide.

In the wake of that decision, Cooley explained, a Catholic parish in Texas pledged to any mother facing an unwanted pregnancy that the church will provide immediate practical help at no cost to her if she is prepared not to abort her child.