By Gayle Irwin
Ten years ago, 17-year-old “Elizabeth” (not her real name) lived for several months at Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home. Like many served there, she felt alone and uncertain. One thing she was certain of, however, was that she planned to continue her pregnancy. Also like many women served at the home, she discovered love, acceptance, and encouragement, and after giving birth to a little girl, Elizabeth attended college and today serves as a social worker in Ohio.
“She still keeps in touch. She’s doing amazing! She’s engaged now,” said Mary Pat Jahner, director of the maternity home.
Located in northeastern North Dakota, just across the border from Minnesota and an hour from Canada, Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home celebrates its 20th anniversary, sharing that love and encouragement Elizabeth experienced with other young girls, with women, and with children who call the maternity home their home. The first baby born after the maternity’s opening in 2004 turned 19 earlier in October, Jahner said.
“Part of our mission is one mother, one baby, one family at a time,” she stated.
Some women stay only a few weeks, others stay for a few years. About 350 people, including babies, have lived in the maternity home during the past 20 years, Jahner said.
Although many of the home’s residents come from North Dakota or Minnesota, the organization helps women around the country. Some have come from as far away as New York and California. Jahner and her team often assist young women from Native American reservations in the state as well. They have helped girls as young as 12 and women in their late 30s. Two current residents are high school age; they are completing their schooling while residing at the home.
“We’ve been able to work with a lot of different people and have seen a lot of God’s grace being poured out,” Jahner said. “I think every mom who has been here has felt loved by God and others.”
Jahner and her staff desire to meet the physical, emotional, educational, and spiritual needs of the women they serve, whether a person stays a short time or for a few years. A chapel is on-site, and a Franciscan priest provides a “spiritual fatherly presence” for those staying at the home.
“Our women who come here are missing that, both with the birth fathers of the babies and oftentimes their own fathers, too, have failed them,” Jahner said. “The women we serve are really alone, at least as far as stability goes. Many have been living couch-to-couch. We’re able to provide that family setting.”
She added, “We seek to make the stronger, healthier, and whole people when they go out, whether they place for adoption or parent.”
History of the home
Located near Warsaw, North Dakota, Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home originally served as a convent and boarding school established by the Sisters of Resurrection out of Chicago, said Jahner. The building, about 9,000 square feet, was built in 1920 and stayed open for more than 50 years. It remained abandoned for the next 30-plus years.
“The parish priests had been praying about what to do here,” Jahner said.
In 2000 and 2001, she and a few others began to consider the idea of a maternity home. She had worked with high school girls and had a connection with a pregnancy resource center where she lived at the time (western North Dakota). During the Jubilee year of 2000 she and two others began earnestly praying about opening a maternity home at the former convent.
“We asked God to close the doors if it wasn’t meant to be, and he never closed the doors. He has continued to provide for us,” Jahner said.
A grand opening took place in August 2003. However, the state required another fire escape, which delayed taking women in until the following spring. That provided Jahner the opportunity to attend a Heartbeat International conference, which she credits for helping her better prepare to operate the maternity home.
“I was young and idealistic and waiting for moms here,” Jahner said. “Back then, they didn’t have a separate track for maternity homes as they do now. I think there were three or four of us who got to spend a whole afternoon with Anne Pearson. It was one of the greatest gifts ever!”
She said she “came home with piles of manuals” from which she found “extra strength and courage” as she prepared to open the maternity home for women in need. She also said she refers other people interested in starting maternity homes to Heartbeat International.
“There’s such a wealth of information (available from Heartbeat),” Jahner said.
She added, “Every maternity home is unique … but what we all have in common is a love for these mothers and babies. Heartbeat has really blessed us over the years.”
Celebrating 20 years
Celebration of two decades serving girls and women in need at Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home spreads out over a year, from August 2023 to July 2024, Jahner said. A kickoff event, featuring a Mass and a group of dancers, took place in August. Saint Gianna and Pietro Molla’s wedding anniversary was honored in September, and in early October Father Joseph Christensen, FMI, conducted a presentation on the spirituality of Saint Francis and Saint Gianna and light refreshments were served. In November, Jahner and others plan to celebrate National Adoption Month and have invited some of the birth moms and adoptive families. In December Father Damian Hils, the founder of Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home, returns for a Pro-Life Day of Recollection.
“We’re planning events every month, some a lot smaller than others,” Jahner said.
Jahner and other supporters often attend the annual National March for Life in Washington, DC. However, in January 2024, the board and staff of Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home plan to travel to Minnesota for a rally and march. North Dakoka has no abortion clinics; women from the state, especially in the eastern section, travel to Minnesota to obtain abortions. Therefore, attending a pro-life rally and march in that state is part of Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home anniversary agenda.
A banquet and Mass are planned in April as well as a Mother’s Day event in May with invitations to be sent to women served at the home and the house mothers who worked at Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home.
A listing of events and details can be found here.
Moving forward, Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home will receive a bit of a facelift, with an entrance and exit offering great handicap accessibility, Jahner said.
“Some of the family members who visit are in wheelchairs,” she said. “We encourage family visits, and one of our access points needs updating due to age, so we’re planning to make that more wheelchair friendly.”
As she reflects on two decades of helping women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, Jahner said she experiences great joy despite the challenges.
“You live with (the women) every day, and you see the beauty and the gifts, little miracles every day,” she said. “They are all beautiful children of God. Seeing them grow and flourish and having joy… One woman taught herself Russian and learned to play the violin. Another played piano. They come in here feeling alone and afraid, and you see them develop and grow. Seeing those everyday miracles is humbling and very joyful in my own life, seeing what God has done.”
Editor’s note: Heartbeat International manages Pregnancy Help News [https://pregnancyhelpnews.com/n-d-maternity-home-celebrates-20-years-of-serving-women-babies-and-families] where this first appeared. Reposted with permission.