Gabriel Project gives pregnant women support

January 28, 2014

HOUSTON — In 1991 when Cathy McConn first saw a sign erected outside of St. Michael Church on Sage Road, she was immediately struck.

The very outspoken pro-life advocate discovered that the Reverend Monsignor John Perusina put the sign up because of the ongoing concern of St. Michael Catholic Church parishioners over the 1973 landmark decision Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that essentially legalized abortion on demand in the United States. He established the charism of the Gabriel Project.

The church sign, however, discouraged against such action and promised that if a pregnant woman was in crisis and needed assistance, St. Michael parish would help.

It dawned on McConn that this was a ministry that needed to be available at all Catholic churches in the Houston area.

“What happened was the priest was sort of doing (a version of) the Gabriel Project where he would meet with pregnant mothers, counsel them and get the help they needed,” McConn said. 

Yet there was no real structure to the program or large pool from which to pull volunteers. And as a person who was committed to pro-life work, the wheels started to turn.

McConn then approached the bishop for support, suggesting that churches throughout the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston be given an opportunity to utilize the Gabriel Project.

“He told me we could do it, but he couldn’t get me any money,” she said. “I ended up making up manuals to pass out, enlisted our first parishes to participate and it snowballed into what it is today.”

What the snowball has become is a strictly parish-based, “hands-on” program that assures pregnant women there is help for them through Catholic churches.

It is a program where a parish member, named a Gabriel Angel, takes specific interest in a pregnant mother and assists her in any way necessary. 

Assistance can come through friendship or by coordinating needs, such as transportation to medical care, food and baby items. 

“Anyone can come to us for help and she doesn’t have to be Catholic,” said Dr. Marcella Colbert, director of the Office of Respect Life, under which the Gabriel Project operates. Those seeking help are encouraged to return to the Church.

“This is a different outreach ministry for pregnant mothers because it is attached to each parish,” Colbert said. “It’s Catholic and it’s local. The mom goes to the parish in which she lives and it is extremely successful.”

This year alone more than 1,400 pregnant women in crisis were helped through the Archdiocese’s Gabriel Project. On average, about 2,000 are helped yearly.

Many are referred to the program through various institutions, such as public schools, court systems and the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), Colbert said.

Others stroll into church rectories and ask for help after catching a glimpse of “Life Signs” that are placed on the property of participating parishes.

Those signs read that parishioners believe in the sanctity of human life and will help any pregnant woman in need.

Both the program’s purpose and name reflect that belief. 

“The Angel Gabriel came for the Blessed Mother and said, ‘I will bring great blessings and joy,’” Colbert said. “It’s talking about the value of the baby and the value of the mom.”

Many of the pregnant mothers are below poverty level, sometimes separated from families, uninsured and usually single.

“The vast majority of pregnant women want to keep their babies and are not abortion minded,” Colbert said. “They want to keep their babies as long as they find a way to be helped and this is a way they can.”

While some are referred or ask for help in person, many use a telephone hotline number provided on Gabriel Project materials and signs.
Once she calls, a trained volunteer phone counselor answers questions, registers her and finds the nearest Gabriel Project church.

The mother is ultimately connected with a Gabriel Angel.

“In a normal marriage with a couple, everyone is happy,” McConn said. “But in a crisis pregnancy, there is some sort of crisis or issue that makes the mother worried and anxious.”

McConn, the Gabriel Project Archdiocesan coordinator, personally trains each volunteer and staffs the project from her Houston home. She has been involved since its inception, except from 1999 through 2003 because of heavy interest in politics that left no spare time.

Sometimes, pregnant mothers need spiritual guidance or a listening ear and volunteers provide that as well.

“I remember two cases where a woman called us,” McConn said.

“One time, the woman was considering an abortion because she already had three kids and had just moved to Houston,” she said. “When the counselor talked to her about God loving this baby, she said, ‘I know you are right,’ and changed her mind.”

That lady, when called for follow up counseling, admitted that emotional support was all she needed. She declined financial help.

A second woman initially called because she was distraught over the pregnancy but had gone to St. Cecilia Church to pray.

“I told her we could help her, but she said she had prayed more and thought she would be fine,” McConn said. “But that doesn’t happen nearly as often as other calls. Most of our calls are calls for things, such as diapers and food.”

There are eight phone counselors — plus two substitutes — who are not only trained by McConn but must be computer literate as well in order to do map searches and take down pertinent information.

“Phone counselors are the first people who talk to the women and are really our lifeline,” McConn said. “It’s the hardest job we have to fill because I ask them to be a volunteer counselor four hours a week, either 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.”

A total of 54 parishes are involved in the Gabriel Project, some pretty far away but all in Houston and the surrounding areas that make up the Archdiocese.

Each participating church has its own Gabriel Project coordinator, sometimes two, and there are between 60 and 80 Gabriel Angels who donate their time to the cause.

There are struggles. Sometimes a parish is overwhelmed with requests from pregnant women in crisis but has limited resources. That’s when other participating churches can step in to help out.

Or there aren’t enough volunteers to keep a program going and it must be disbanded.

The majority of volunteers are women, but several male parishioners have stepped up in order to pass out Gabriel literature or even recruit more female parishioners as volunteers.

Still, there are countless others who remain devoted.

“This is important so that mothers know their children are a gift from God and they have been blessed with this baby, even if circumstances are trying and difficult,” McConn said.

“This is also a wonderful tool of evangelization, even for people who are not pregnant,” she added. “No one will ever be able to say there is no way to help you. We can always welcome life and take care of another baby.”