First in a Series
On Cyber Monday, as expectant mothers searched online for deals on baby strollers that can run into the hundreds of dollars, Judy Crowninshield walked past one that was among the donated items there for the asking inside a Ritchie Highway storefront.
Crowninshield is the executive director of Mary’s Center, which describes itself as “a Catholic crisis pregnancy center providing free pregnancy support services as an alternative to abortion.”
“We interact with women who call for material assistance or pregnancy tests, whatever their needs are,” said Crowninshield, a career educator who was asked why she chose to spend retirement this way. “Life is the most important thing. Hopefully, we’re working to preserve the lives of the innocent.”
As the pro-life movement gears up for its signature event, the National March for Life in Washington, D.C., Jan. 24, the Review launches its “Works of Mercy” series with a look at a spiritual work, “Counsel the Doubtful,” as practiced at crisis pregnancy centers, many of which rely upon Catholic volunteers.
‘The most good’
Carol Clews is the director of the ecumenical Center for Pregnancy Concerns (CPC), which in July plans to open a fifth site, adjacent to a Planned Parenthood office in downtown Baltimore. It will join CPC locations in Arbutus, Essex, and on parish campuses at St. Ann in Baltimore and St. Rita in Dundalk.
“We see about 1,000 women a year,” Clews said. “About half are repeat clients. We rarely see a woman who is abortion-minded. Most are inclined to keep their children. Once we open the Howard Street location, I think those statistics are going to change.”
The four CPC sites are among 12 listed in the Archdiocese of Baltimore directory. That number does not include the Pregnancy Support Center of Carroll County, down a hill from St. John in Westminster. It is the home parish for many of the volunteers who make it go, including Jodi O’Connell, its director.
She was recruited for the ministry when it operated under the auspices of Tender Care by Monsignor James P. Farmer, one of its major benefactors and then the pastor of St. John. When Tender Care closed its only Maryland location, the effort reorganized last summer under the same roof.
“The volunteers were already here,” O’Connell said.
They include Dr. Jenny Murphy, the medical director, who worships in the Anglican-use rite at Mount Calvary in Baltimore, and Greg Jollie, its first male volunteer, a St. John parishioner whose fluent Spanish comes in handy in an office where an estimated 25 percent of the clients are Hispanic.
“This is where I could do the most good,” said Jollie, a former federal border patrol agent who was inspired to act after learning what happens to aborted fetuses.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, which researches abortion data, the number of abortions in the U.S. fell from 1,058,000 in 2011 to 862,000 in 2017. As reported by Catholic News Service, Guttmacher said the drop “appears to be related to declines in births and pregnancies overall.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception,” and crisis pregnancy centers would like those numbers to be zero.
To that end, crisis pregnancy centers typically provide, free of charge, an array of clothing; nursing formula; diapers and wipes; and access to sonograms. They also offer structured parenting courses for expectant mothers and fathers, and confidentiality, vital for the former, who, in addition to housing issues and other financial hardships, could be in an abusive relationship.
“You’re so vulnerable as a pregnant woman,” O’Connell said. “A lot of people around them say, ‘You can’t do this, can’t afford it, I’m going to leave you.’ Most have already chosen (life), they just don’t know how to do it by themselves. Ninety percent who come in know they’re going to keep their baby; they just need help.”
Counseling can also provide options.
“One of the most loving decisions you can make is to carry a child and then let someone else adopt it,” O’Connell said. “There can be a stigma attached to adoption. Abortion is easier to hide, it’s more appealing. That’s what we’re up against.”
‘There is hope’
The Westminster center has one paid employee, coordinator Dominique Magalotti, a parishioner of St. Joseph in Sykesville. She learned about the position after illness disrupted her studies to become a physician’s assistant at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa., where she was active at the Dorothy Day Outreach Center.
“God played a very big role in me finding out about this job,” said Magalotti, of the notice in her parish bulletin when she was at her lowest. “A big part of the job is just being there for support. It’s a way for them to talk to somebody without being judgmental. Some don’t have too many friends or people they can talk to.”
Now Magalotti intends to become a midwife.
In addition to its Glen Burnie location, Mary’s Center has offices in Hagerstown and at St. Ignatius Parish in Baltimore. They’re directed by Crowninshield, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park.
She joined the outreach in 1985, when she was teaching social studies in Baltimore County. Until January 2019, when she hired an assistant, she headed an all-volunteer effort.
Its Glen Burnie headquarters is decorated with inspirational messages, including “A Person’s a Person, no matter how small,” credited to Dr. Seuss, and a large print of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the unborn. Its resources include the North County Emergency Outreach Network and Catholic parishes in Anne Arundel County.
Many of the sonogram machines in crisis pregnancy centers are made possible through the Knights of Columbus, through a program supported by the Supreme Council, of which Archbishop William E. Lori is supreme chaplain. At Mary’s Center in Glen Burnie, that was made possible by Knights of Columbus Council 14612, out of St. Philip Neri in Linthicum Heights.
Its material assistance room includes layettes with diapers and wipes, which, according to Crowninshield, “you can’t buy with food stamps”; as well as blankets, onesies and sleepers. It includes clothing for older siblings, too.
“You hear, ‘I can’t take care of the ones I have at home.’ We don’t want that to happen,” said Crowninshield, who mentioned children in custody of their grandparents. “It’s not enough, but it’s something. This is a resource; there is hope.”
The space is awash in knitted and crocheted items, donated by parishioners such as Haydee Aguilar, of St. Joseph in Odenton. When she was a schoolgirl in Bolivia, “everything was done by hand” in home economics class. She heard about Mary’s Center from a group at the Catherine L. O’Malley Senior Center in Odenton, which adjoins her church.
Mary’s Center helped nearly 600 women in 2018. Thirty-nine regular volunteers serve its Glen Burnie location, where every day begins with the praying of the rosary.
“We haven’t had to close because of a lack of volunteers,” Crowninshield said. “I do not lose sleep over funding. If we’re doing what He wants us to do, he’ll send it.”