Help & hope

| January 14, 2015 | 0 Comments

Philomena House marks one year as refuge for expectant mothers

Nabeel, a 6-month-old boy whose mother moved into Philomena House while she was pregnant, enjoys some bouncy time with house mother Sharon King, who belongs to St. Agnes in St. Paul. “I just do whatever needs doing,” said King, who lives at the house with four women and two babies. “I make sure we have food. I run the girls out shopping, I run them to their OB appointments. Whatever they need, I try to provide and take care of them.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Nabeel, a 6-month-old boy whose mother moved into Philomena House while she was pregnant, enjoys some bouncy time with house mother Sharon King, who belongs to St. Agnes in St. Paul. “I just do whatever needs doing,” said King, who lives at the house with four women and two babies. “I make sure we have food. I run the girls out shopping, I run them to their OB appointments. Whatever they need, I try to provide and take care of them.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Paris Morriseau was pregnant and needed help.

Her boyfriend had abandoned her, and her family did not support her. Alone and desolate this past summer, she looked online for a place to go.

After hours of searching, she found a place on a website that eventually would turn her life around. It was a newly opened home for pregnant, single mothers called Philomena House, named after an obscure Catholic saint and patronness of infants and expectant mothers.

A group of three Catholic women from Holy Childhood in St. Paul, led by Geralyn Clasemann, opened the house in March 2014. There was room for only four women, but there was still a vacancy when Morriseau called the house in August.

“I was struggling in a lot of areas in my life,” said Morriseau, 26, a former drug addict who grew up in St. Paul. “I was a complete mess. I was so broken. I was empty, and I would have this overwhelming sadness that nothing could fill. I couldn’t stand feeling that way anymore. I definitely felt chains of bondage over me. I could literally feel it holding me down, like I was stuck in this deep, dark place. God was the only one who could have released me from that place.”

The director of the house, Joyce Nevins, and the house mother, Sharon King, sat down to interview this scared, vulnerable woman whose boyfriend left after learning about the pregnancy.

“We went and interviewed her, and we both wanted her to come,” said Nevins. “We knew that, right then and there. We got in the car and on the way home, I said, ‘Sharon, what do you think?’ And, Sharon said, ‘I think she should come.’ And, I said, ‘So do I.’”

Responding to need

The pair saw it as a ripe opportunity to offer Morriseau what they offer to every woman they accept — lodging, food and all kinds of support, including life coaching, a doula to help them before, during and after childbirth, and, finally, a house mother who lives at the house and can respond quickly to any and all needs.

The women, who must be pregnant and without any other children at the time they enter, are allowed to stay up to one year at Philomena House. The house is unmistakably Catholic, with a first-class relic — a bone fragment — of St. Philomena on display in the kitchen and a picture of her on the wall, but women are accepted regardless of their spiritual beliefs.

Yet, there are certain things that absolutely are not welcomed into the home such as drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. That created a problem for Morriseau. Though free from the meth and alcohol that had plagued her for several years, she still smoked more than a pack of cigarettes a day.

She would have to agree to quit in order to be accepted as a resident of the house.

Nevins and King knew how hard that would be. Both had been smokers.

“We were convinced she wouldn’t come because she was totally addicted to cigarettes, and we didn’t think she would want to quit,” Nevins said.

In the end, Morriseau decided to turn her back on nicotine. She now is part of a small community of women who help each other through the difficult transition from pregnancy to motherhood. The four women who came during 2014 are still together. Two have delivered babies; Morriseau is due Feb. 23.

Simple start

Philomena House is an extension of something Clasemann started in 2002. She bought a home in St. Paul and housed five single mothers, one at a time, over a period of almost 10 years. She called her dwelling “God’s Little House.” Because she worked full time, she was not able to provide other services that the women needed, and never felt like she was able to do enough.

After Mass one day in 2007, she decided to talk to Nevins, a longtime friend, to see if more could be done. When Nevins eventually agreed, they recruited another pro-life advocate, Bernadine “Bernie” Scroggins, who had several decades of work in the movement under her belt, primarily with the local chapter of Birthright, the Toronto-based international pro-life organization.

After Scroggins quickly agreed to come on board (she now is co-director with Nevins), they set to work on establishing a house. That proved to be much harder than they thought. The grant money they secured could not be used to buy a house, only to pay rent.

After several frustrating years of searching, in November 2013 the women gathered together at Holy Childhood for a time of prayer before the Eucharist. They figured a holy hour was the best thing to do at that moment.

The very next day, Nevins and Clasemann decided to drive around St. Paul to look for a house. A friend with real estate expertise suggested a part of town known for having large but affordable homes.

“I said to Geralyn, ‘Let’s go out. You have this day off. We’re going to go out.” Nevins said. “It was a beautiful fall day.”

They turned the corner of a street in their target neighborhood and saw a house for sale. They got out and grabbed a brochure with the information. Bad news — the price was $240,000, which was way more than they could afford.

They drove some more. Later, they worked their way back to this house and talked to a neighbor about it. It turned out to be owned by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. Four nuns had lived there before moving back to central Minnesota.

They took that as a positive sign, but the price was still too high. Then, they got a call that night from a Catholic couple who knew the trio were interested in the house. They told the women they had bought the house and would charge them an affordable rent to house pregnant women.

All this just 24 hours after their holy hour.

‘I’m a different person’

In addition to buying the house, the husband and wife — who asked not to be identified — volunteer there, along with some of their children. More than 50 people from several parishes donate time and talent to help women like Morriseau, who now is able to look ahead and see a future filled with hope. She plans to become a medical esthetician.

Beyond her career goals, she is living a life that now puts a smile on her face every day.

“I used to cry a lot from being sad,” Morriseau said. “And today, I cry tears of joy almost every day when I think of little things in life, like I’m happy. It just brings me so much joy. I never used to feel that way. Just to think about where I was and think about where I am today, it’s just amazing to me now. I’m a different person, and I have this joy in my heart that I never really knew before. And, it just gives me a lot of hope and encouragement.”

The joy of a transformed life is exactly what Clasemann, Nevins and Scroggins had in mind when they started dreaming about opening this home.

That is why their plans won’t stop there.

“All that is happening with Philomena House is just awesome,” Clasemann said. “I think in the future, we will have at least another house. How soon I don’t know. The Lord is always the one who’s moving the pieces around and making things happen. It’s all on his time. I can see that maybe in a couple years we’ll have a second house open.

“This is an apostolate. It is something that is bigger than us. It is what God wants, and we know that for sure. . . . This is the hands-on pro-life movement right here.”

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Category: Respect Life