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‘St. Gianna Is Very Close to Our Hearts’: Lives Changed Through Saint’s Intercession

By Roxane Salonen/National Catholic Register

Trevor and Brittany Slominski were offered abortion by doctors as an option after discovering abnormalities in early pregnancy tests of their firstborn.

But that’s not what they wanted for their child — and they turned to prayer.

The Slominskis told the Register that, when meeting with Mary Pat Jahner, director of the Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home in Warsaw, North Dakota, and Franciscan of Mary Immaculate Father Joseph Christensen, the home’s chaplain, shortly after they learned the concerning medical diagnosis, they were given a prayer card with a relic of St. Gianna Molla. “We prayed that the remainder of the pregnancy, through all the ups and downs,” Trevor said. “We had it memorized.”

Brittany wore the relic on her belly throughout her pregnancy — and put it next to Penelope in her crib after she was born. “It was just a reminder, to just have faith,” she said.

At 10 going on 11, she’s “the biggest blessing we’ve ever received,” Trevor said of their oldest daughter, who was born with spinal bifida but has fewer health issues than expected.

Brittany’s sister Rachel Bushaw and her husband, Travis, were told early in pregnancy that their youngest daughter, their fourth child, had numerous cysts on her brain and might have Trisomy 18. Abortion was presented to them as an option, too.

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“We were devastated,” Rachel told the Register. Her sister Robbyne Sands urged her to visit the maternity home named for the Italian wife, mother and pediatrician whose life reflected a love of the dignity of life. “I started praying to St. Gianna and asked everyone else to.” Their daughter, Gianna Marie, was born healthy. “She was so perfect,” Rachel said.

Now 14, “[Gianna] cries every time she reads the story [of St. Gianna’s life]; she just tears up,” Rachel said.

Such stories are not a surprise to Gianna Emmanuela Molla, 62, the child for whom St. Gianna gave her life after doctors suggested abortion when pregnancy complications arose, who shared at an April 16 gala in Grand Forks, North Dakota, how her life has become enmeshed with the maternity home, where her parents have been loved and honored and she has been welcomed.

As she leaned in to get a closer look during the unveiling of a new painting depicting her parents, also portraying Our Lady of Guadalupe and eight angelic cherubs hovering, a wide smile spread across Gianna Emmanuela’s face, and, for a moment, the veil between heaven and earth vanished.

The art, by Raúl Berzosa of Spain, formed the visual centerpiece of the gala celebrating the maternity home’s 20-year anniversary.

During her first visit to the maternity home in May 2015, Gianna Emmanuela recalled at the April event, she observed, “with my own eyes, the beautiful work” of the home, offered with “great love and dedication.”

Especially meaningful, she said, is the everyday presence of Jesus in the tabernacle. “Such a privilege reminds me that the greatest help we can give to our neighbor … is to help him save his soul,” noting that her parents are undoubtedly happy with this mission and pray for it from paradise.

“May the example of my holy parents be a source of inspiration, encouragement and hope, a bright light in the daily journey” for all those at the maternity home and those gathered for the gala, she added.

But how did this saint’s daughter become so endeared to this humble corner of the world, calling Jahner “like another sister”?

And how did Jahner, a teacher from North Dakota, become so familiar with a woman from across the ocean, the daughter of an Italian saint, that she can name her favorite food — pizza — and her favorite recreation — foosball, which she plays during her visits when needing a break from her tireless work promoting her parents’ legacy?

Jahner was inspired by working at a Missionaries of Charity maternity home in California, and, later, instructing second-graders on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, where she witnessed a dire need and began thinking about starting a maternity home nearby.

A dilapidated, 9,000-square-foot building, once a convent and boarding school built in 1920 and run by the Chicago-based Resurrection Sisters until closing in 1971, the home was purchased for $1 in 2001, becoming the focal point of this unlikely endeavor. It officially opened in 2004 — the same year St. Gianna was canonized.

Early in the home’s history, in 2002, Jahner; Colleen Samson, president of the home’s board; and their then-bishop, now-Archbishop Samuel Aquila; traveled to Mesero, Italy, to meet Pietro and his youngest daughter. “I had been reading books about St. Gianna,” Jahner recalled April 16, and “it was clear to me that ‘holy Pietro’ was also going to be a saint.”

The visit was short but memorable, she said, recalling an animated conversation in Italian between Archbishop Aquila and Pietro, and Pietro showing them “treasures of his beloved wife,” including paintings, love letters and her piano. “The thing I remembered most … was how much he still loved his wife.”

Gianna Emmanuela was there, too, but “mostly just smiled and served us cookies and tea,” Jahner recalled. Waving goodbye, she figured that was it: “I never expected how our relationship would develop; that we would be able to travel together, and how she would become such a part of our home and family.”

Perhaps it is not so unlikely, given that Gianna Emmanuela is an orphan, and at the home, the legacies of both her mother and father are found.

Jahner, whose maternal gifts pervade the home, has done everything to make the home holy, creating a beautiful place for weary, worn residents to feel safe and loved. “I have been privileged to see so many little miracles and God working in the hearts of the people who have been in the home,” she said, noting that more than 400 women and children have been helped with their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

“Many of our mothers have graduated from high school during their time with us” and have gone on to pursue successful careers, she said. Sacraments, conversions and choosing life have all been part of the ministry. About a quarter of the moms have chosen adoption, and of those who chose to parent, “We were able to assist them to begin that journey.”

But it’s the everyday moments — the fireworks and fishing, baking and bantering — that complete the picture. “Many would say … it’s like living in a big family” where they feel accepted.

Sharing her gratitude at the event, Anne Dunn, a student at the University of Notre Dame who worked as a housemother at the home this past summer, said the home makes her “think of abundant joy,” describing the blessing of receiving the Eucharist daily and also the delight “when we shared a meal and community, danced around the living room, baked cookies while listening to our favorite music, or brought a massive fish Father Joseph caught into the house — just to give Mary Pat a little scare.”

She found joy, too, in jumping on a trampoline with the young ones and in the quiet moments, holding a child. “And I saw grace and strength in the women who embraced motherhood and made great sacrifices out of love for their children.”

From the busiest moments to the quiet ones, Dunn said, “Christ was always present.”

Ashley Morgan, another former housemother, said the home was a place of order, duty and real life. “The home upholds not only the lives of many little ones, but the dignity of everyone who walks in the doors,” she said, noting this home offers a “reminder of our worth and true identity as a daughter of the King on High.”

Though visitors marvel at the home’s beauty, the residents often see something else, upon arriving in a desperate state, Jahner said. But over time, they “grow and flourish” through God’s grace.

It can be messy at times, Jahner admitted, but she has been blessed to see many new lives enter the world, witnessing “what God has knit together in secret,” adding, “To be one of the first to see that little masterpiece is profound and humbling.”

And in 20 years, not one mom has regretted her decision to choose life. “This is a huge testament in a world that promotes abortion,” Jahner said. “These little ones always bring joy, but equally profound are the miracles and growth with our moms, which is most of our work.”

One such mother, Kate Paskvan, brought her son Dominic, 15, to the gala to share her gratitude. She arrived at the home in 2008, pregnant, and “a total know-it-all” who needed to be humbled, she said. In time, she began to settle in and feel grateful.

“The home created such a safe and loving environment for us women to have our babies and deepen our faith,” Paskvan said, noting that she is now married and has another child, age 2. “I’m so grateful I chose life all those years ago.”

Emily Hildreth came to the home at 17, pregnant and unsure. In time, she said, Jahner helped assure her. “I quickly learned that her role was just to love us,” she said. “She had the right balance between tough love and gentle love.”

Jahner shared with those gathered how Father Christensen fulfills his duties of religious life while also serving the home in myriad ways, from pulling stuck cars out of the ditch to fixing broken water pipes.

Father Christensen, who grew up with 11 siblings, stays calm in the chaos. His presence as a dedicated father figure seems to affirm the addition of Pietro’s name. “Each day, he offers Mass, has Holy Hours and hears confessions” and is “a true father to all of us,” Jahner said, “especially those without a father,” with nary a complaint.

The home’s shrine offers couples the opportunity to pray with St. Gianna’s relics and a memento — a handkerchief — of Pietro’s.

“I don’t know of one couple who’s come to pray for pregnancy that hasn’t received pregnancy,” Father Christensen said at the gala, noting that it’s “the most popular miracle of St. Gianna.”

One such couple, Jordan and Stephanie Carlson, shared about the gift of their daughter, Scarlett. “We know St. Gianna interceded for us,” Jordan said. “We have seen the power of prayer in our lives, and we thank God for this gift of Scarlett every day.”

Board member Sarah Effhauser, who is the mother of an adopted son with Down syndrome, said, “When we immerse ourselves in the beautiful lives of the saints and those they inspire, taking leaps of faith to stand for life at all stages and abilities, it never seems too bold, too costly or too hard.”

Bishop John Folda of Fargo recounted during the gala how he recognized early in his North Dakota assignment 10 years ago that the home is “truly a jewel.”

“What a spectacular witness to the sanctity of life,” he said. “I have no doubt [the home] will continue to be a bright light in our diocese and in our entire region, if not the world, because of the beautiful work they do in service to the little ones especially.”

The 20th anniversary celebration will continue with a Mass April 28, St. Gianna’s feast day, at St. Stanislaus Church in Warsaw, with Bishop Folda as celebrant, and include the veneration of St. Gianna’s relics, followed by a 20-hour adoration event on May 15, to conclude with Benediction on May 16, the 20th canonization anniversary of St. Gianna.

All who honor the saint’s legacy can say, with Rachel Bushaw, “St. Gianna is very close to our hearts.”

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