“Do not be afraid”: Gabriel Project volunteers take pregnant women and families in crisis under their wing

By Christina Gray

Pregnant with her sixth child, Evelyn P. and her family were approached outside a local abortion clinic as they were about to make an agonizing decision they felt they had no choice but to make.

“Our volunteers were able to talk with them,” said Jenny Infante, parish coordinator of the Gabriel Project at St. Matthew Church in San Mateo. The couple canceled their appointment at the clinic and, with the help of the pro-life ministry, began preparing for the birth of their child.

St. Matthew’s Gabriel Project ministry is one of dozens across the Archdiocese based out of Catholic parishes “staffed” entirely by volunteers referred to internally as “angels.” They are under the auspices of the Respect Life Ministry in the Office of Human Life & Dignity.

Each ministry, whether served by a multi-person team of volunteer angels, or a single angel, accompanies women and families facing crisis pregnancies. They offer pastoral support and the baby essentials that can create financial panic for some women and families (an oft-stated reason for choosing to abort).

The ministries are fully self-supporting, said Infante. The strollers, car seats, diapers, wipes, baby clothing, formula and more offered to pregnant women and families are made possible through the gifts of private donors, special parish collections, in-kind donations and the like.

The St. Matthew ministry heard the couple’s despair at bringing another child into the already-crowded home of a friend with whom they were staying. “Evelyn told us they couldn’t provide for the five children they already had, much less a sixth,” said Infante.

Like its namesake angel who told Mary, “do not be afraid” after her pregnancy with Jesus was revealed, the Gabriel Project promised the couple it could help them and assured them of what Gabriel said to Mary: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

“We were able to help this family secure housing by paying the deposit on a one-bedroom apartment,” said Infante. They also received all the necessary supplies for their new baby as well as basic clothing for every member of the family. The Gabriel Project continues to support the family with diapers.

Infante said the Gabriel Project is about babies, but it is definitely not just about babies.

“If the parents need help, if they are homeless or not in a good place, that affects a new baby and other children in the home,” she said. “We try to support the whole family. If we can do it, we will.”

A ministry sprung from Roe v. Wade

The Gabriel Project is active today in many Catholic parishes across the country. Parishes serve as the home base for individual ministries whose volunteers respond to pregnant women who call a toll-free number.

According to thegabrielproject.com, the movement took root following the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal throughout the United States. The pastor of St. Michael Parish in Houston quietly hung a sign outside the rectory offering practical and pastoral help to women considering abortion: “If you will have your baby,” wrote the late Mgsr. John Perusina, “this parish will help you in every way.”

That commitment to pregnant women in need led to the formation of the Gabriel Project in 1990 by two friends in the Galveston-Houston and Corpus Christi dioceses.

The concept and structure of individual Gabriel Project ministries remains much the same today. Through signs, pamphlets and car decals offering the toll-free hotline, women with a crisis pregnancy know that help is available.

When a woman calls the hotline for help, the coordinator of the Gabriel Project parish ministry closest to where she lives is contacted. One angel is assigned responsibility for ongoing contact with her throughout her pregnancy, and often beyond.

Local hotline: 1-800-910-2848

Maria Martinez-Mont is Respect Life coordinator for the Office of Human Life & Dignity. Martinez-Mont coordinates assigning angels to help when a woman calls the local hotline number 1-800-910-2848.

Montez-Mont oversees the Gabriel Project ministries active in the Archdiocese, training future “angels” who may serve a parish singlehandedly or with a group of others.

Parish coordinators lead the effort at each parish, harnessing human, financial and material resources. They recruit other parishioners to serve as angels or assistant angels and communicate as needed with the pastor.

“The idea is for parish coordinators to solicit donations from their parish community to help build a culture of life there,” said Infante. Parishes without their own Gabriel Project ministry will often raise funds or buy baby goods for other ministries.

Assistant angels provide specific tactical and practical help, like transportation to doctor’s visits or shopping, babysitting and organizing parish baby showers. They also help women tap into educational, employment and community resources that can improve their circumstances.

“You can be an angel, or your parish can be a host of angels,” states Martinez-Mont on the Gabriel Project website. “The Gabriel Project shows the community that your parish cares about pregnant women in need and that there is no reason for any new mother within its boundaries to feel that she is helpless and alone.”

St. Matthew Parish: a ‘model ministry’

Martinez-Mont said there are about 14 parishes throughout the Archdiocese with Gabriel Project ministries. She called the one at St. Matthew Parish a “model ministry” in everything from its size and reach, to its fundraising strength through the Knights of Columbus and other donors, to the active support of its longtime pastor, Mgsr. John Talesfore.

“When I see the tender care these angels provide, and the tough situations they courageously enter into, I think of St. Francis de Sales’ adage that there is nothing gentler than true strength or stronger than true gentleness,” said Msgr. Talesfore.

Infante said the support of the pastor makes an incredible difference to the success of the Gabriel Project at St. Matthew. The ministry was even given a closet in the church to store baby items and more. That helps angels respond more quickly to the families they serve.

“Our closet is really well-stocked and organized,” said Infante, who admitted that the “closet” is actually a confessional, stacked high with cribs and strollers and diapers organized by size.

“We were just asked to leave room for the priest,” she said with a laugh.

The Gabriel Project at St. Matthew Parish “covers a big area,” according to Infante, who has a nine-angel ministry team. Many nearby parishes do not have a Gabriel Project ministry, she said, so her team takes on “a lot” of referrals from not only their own city of San Mateo, but also from San Carlos, Burlingame and Foster City.

She said the Gabriel Project’s ability to help women and families is directly related to the number of dedicated volunteers the ministry attracts and the donations it consistently receives.

“We spend about $300 per person, per referral,” said Infante, who manages the ministry budget. The parish averages from 10-15 referrals a year.

Infante has a full-time job and is the mother to two teenage boys, who often help her deliver baby items to families. She said she accepted the role of parish coordinator for the Gabriel Project because she saw “the great need” for Spanish-speaking volunteers in San Mateo County.

“Most of the angels are not Spanish-speaking, but most of those in need are,” she said.

The women and families are mostly immigrants, said Infante, who work in housekeeping, restaurants or day labor, often unreliable sources of income.

“We really try to encourage pregnant women to have their child,” she said. “They are just very low-income and need support.”

Longtime St. Matthew angel Lisa Cullinane said the Gabriel Project starts as a “baby project” that wants mothers to “think their baby is special whether it’s been born or not yet born.”

“In our parish, we all go over and above,” said Cullinane, who said she speaks some Spanish. “We don’t stop just because the baby has been born.”

A lot of it is housing. As a former property manager, she can help struggling families find an apartment they can afford or apply for Section 8 housing. The Gabriel Project, at times, can help a family avoid eviction by making a late rent payment.

“There is a lot that goes with this,” she said. Cullinane gives the women she serves her own cellphone number and tries to be as “hands on” as possible. That includes seeing opportunities for evangelization.

“I would love for you to come to Mass at our church,” she tells women or families when she sees an opening. “We have a loving community here. Can I give you a ride?”

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.