A young woman and her baby are pictured at The Well of Mercy, a Father McGivney Center for Hope and Healing.
On the north side of Chicago, an unassuming building made of tan brick is tucked within an old residential neighborhood, one block from a busy commercial street. The surrounding brownstones and the nearby Catholic church give the neighborhood a quiet dignity, and what is not apparent about this tired building from the outside is immediately clear upon stepping inside. The Well of Mercy, a Father Michael McGivney Center for Hope and Healing, may sorely need renovation, but spiritually, the center is filled with a palpable joy. The peeling paint, worn-out linoleum floors, poorly lit hallways and hodgepodge furniture are no match for the staff’s dedication to providing a loving home for residents.
A former convent, the building is now a home for women who have chosen life for their unborn children, despite feeling that they had no real choices. Many of these women have experienced homelessness, abuse or abandonment, and until finding a home here, they had no idea how they were going to provide for themselves, let alone a child.
“For the first time, I’m not rushed or worried. I can think beyond today and see a bright future for me and my baby,” said “K,” a resident who is nine months pregnant and has lived at the center since September 2012. “I need the emotional support and love I’m getting here just as much as I need a roof over my head. This isn’t a shelter; it’s really a home. I could have gone through a state program to get an apartment right away, but then I would still be struggling with the same emotional problems as before. Here, I am learning how to trust for the first time.”
With the center’s help, K has enrolled in online college classes, something she never thought she would do. What has made her transformation and the transformation of many other women possible started in February 2010, when Mary Zeien used her life savings to found The Well of Mercy. A former victim of domestic abuse herself, Zeien spent nearly 40 years preparing to open the center, all the time feeling a deep calling to help other women and their children. When she leased the building, she invested every cent she had and spent several months cleaning and furnishing it with the help of volunteers before she moved into one of the dilapidated upstairs apartments in May 2010. One week later, she had her first resident.
Meanwhile, a new nonprofit organization called the Father Michael McGivney Center for Hope and Healing was looking to open a center that would provide material and spiritual support to women with difficult pregnancies. The organization was founded by Chicago-area members of the Father Michael J. McGivney Guild, which is dedicated to promoting the life, mission and canonization cause of the founder of the Knights of Columbus.
“We looked for a site for nearly three years before we found The Well of Mercy,” said Theresa Pietruszynski, president of the board of directors. “There were so many promising buildings that needed expensive renovations, or where we were told a center like this would ‘attract the wrong element to the neighborhood.’”
The McGivney Center joined forces with Zeien and The Well of Mercy in July 2012. Until that time, Zeien needed to work full-time as a hospice caseworker to pay the center’s bills.
“The help of the McGivney Center board was a godsend,” Zeien said. “Their assistance has made a world of difference to the amount of good that can be done here.”
The Well of Mercy was renamed in acknowledgement of the new collaboration and will serve as a model for others that the McGivney Center hopes to build throughout Illinois, one in each of the other five dioceses.
Larry Theirault, former president of the McGivney Center and current board member said, “This is what being a Knight is all about. Father McGivney had great love and compassion for widows and children, and we feel we are returning to our roots as Knights.”
Thanks to the cooperation of Mary Zeien and the McGivney Center’s board, 11 women are living at the house today, along with their 13 children. Although the women may stay at the center for several years, during that time they are required to save 70 percent of their income, and the center promises to help them furnish their apartments when it comes time to move on. The staff strives to not only give the women and their children a place to live in their time of need, but to equip them to live a better life when they leave.
“People don’t understand that abortion doesn’t solve anything for these women; afterwards they are still poor, still emotionally distraught, still vulnerable to the abuse that landed them in a crisis pregnancy in the first place,” said Pietruszynski. “Not only do we help them keep their beautiful babies, but we help them see the beauty with which God has naturally endowed them. It’s an honor to help these women see themselves the way Christ sees them.”
NURTURING BODY AND SOUL
One thing that makes the Father McGivney Center for Hope and Healing unique is its emphasis on spiritual growth. Many shelters are short-term solutions for residents who rapidly cycle in and out. Some have longer-term programs, but they normally focus on economic and emotional growth.
At the McGivney Center, women are given extensive support spiritually, emotionally, physically, educationally and economically. They receive weekly individual and group therapy, spiritual direction, and support in completing their educational and career goals. They also take classes on childbirth, parenting, child development, healthy living and theological topics related to chastity. Although residents are not allowed to date while living at the center, through these classes they are taught what to look for in a future spouse.
“Working here has been an amazing experience,” said Jamila Lang, one of the center’s social worker interns. “My previous internship was at a long-established shelter, but this is much more educational for me. We learn a lot as we go, but everything is done with so much love for the residents.”
Residents also participate in Bible studies, perform chores and work in the center’s boutique. The women are taught how to make gourmet bread by hand, and their love for each other is evident in the laughter and conversation they share as they work. This bread is then sold to raise funds for the women’s savings accounts.
The McGivney Center is run on Catholic principles, but the residents come from a variety of faith backgrounds. They are expected to attend the religious service of their choice on Sundays.
“If we fix everything else in their lives, but don’t help them connect with their Heavenly Father, we haven’t really fixed anything,” said Zeien. “Our dream for them is to know God’s will for their lives, which will obviously include basics like taking proper care of themselves and their children, but also so much more than we can envision.”
The women are also given the opportunity to finish their education or work toward an improved career, but are encouraged to balance these activities with plenty of nurturing time with their children.
“An important part of breaking the cycle of violence and neglect that these women have suffered through is giving them a relaxed and safe environment in which they can form strong bonds with their children,” explained Theirault. “They have to work toward becoming independent through school and work, but we don’t like to see them so busy that they can’t focus on their children. For many of these women, this may be the first time that they have had a stable home.”
Thanks to the vision of Mary Zeien, the generous support of the McGivney Center board and the work of countless volunteers, the Well of Mercy of Father Michael McGivney Center for Hope and Healing has become a sanctuary for these women and children and a witness to everyone else of the power of Christian charity.
Terese Bower McIlvain writes from Lake Bluff, Illinois.