God called on many souls to create the St. Gianna Pregnancy Center in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2012. The center officially opened on the Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe: the 12th day of the 12th month in the 12th year of the century.
Many of those who created the Gianna Center would swear they had inadequate preparation for the job and there is so much more work to be done. But the persistence of a priest, a former Planned Parenthood customer turned pro-life advocate, a pair of determined Regnum Christi members, and numerous other (obscure and famous) brought the center to life. The center saves hundreds of lives each year.
The center depends on donors and volunteers. For three key members of the team, it is a labor of love, faith and passion.
Phil Liquori is acting board chairman of the Gianna Center. He is a member of Regnum Christi, who also works full-time with the Legionaries of Christ seminary in Cheshire, CT.
Carolyn Falcigno is the center’s executive director. She is a Regnum Christi member who played a vital role in launching the center.
Heidi Kehlenbach is the center’s treasurer. As a young woman, she had an abortion at Planned Parenthood, later converting to the Roman Catholic faith, determined to help others avoid the pains of abortion.
And then there is Fr. Robert Rousseau of the Archdiocese of Hartford, who (with Jesus) is the person who runs through the entire story.
On the evening of November 4, 1991, Fr. Rousseau, then pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Watertown, CT, was leaving a meeting in the church. He heard a baby’s cry coming from a box: a baby.
Fr. Rousseau had one of the women at the meeting, whom he knew was a nurse, help while someone called 911. The baby was no more than three hours old. She was taken to Waterbury Hospital by the emergency team.
Fr. Rousseau suggested they give the foundling child a name. Because November 4 is the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, he called her Carolyn and he gave her the middle name Marie for our Blessed Mother.
Carolyn Marie was adopted confidentially but her story did not end there. With the prayers and hard work of a core group of parishioners, one year later, Carolyn’s Place, Inc. opened its doors, in order that “No woman should face pregnancy alone.”
Fr. Rousseau stayed active in the pro-life movement and years later as pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in New Haven, he joined many of his parishioners in praying at the local Planned Parenthood facility. Frustrated by the lack of a pro-life option in New Haven, he pulled together a group of people at the church, including those who would become the Gianna Center’s leaders: Phil, Carolyn, and Heidi.
“There were about 25 people in that meeting with Father,” Carolyn recalled. “All of us were strongly pro-life and had been praying at Planned Parenthood. Now everyone was able to be part of creating a center, but some of us were and we wanted to provide women with a REAL choice.”
“I have been one of those young girls going to Planned Parenthood for an abortion when I was 19,” Heidi said. “I suffered the hurt and pain, but later converted to the faith, went on a retreat – where I met Carolyn – and started my pro-life work, which hasn’t stopped.”
“That gathering with Father was in 2009,” Phil recalled. “Father made it clear that he couldn’t create the center, we would have to do it. I had no idea how to make it happen, but working with the Legion and Regnum Christi, I had the confidence to make the leap of faith and get involved.”
Plans for the center started in 2010 and in late 2012, it was open – with the blessing of Archbishop Henry Mansell. The Knights of Columbus have provided valuable support. When they later moved to a new facility, Hartford’s current Archbishop Leonard Blair gave them a second blessing.
“The response since then has been amazing,” Phil said. “People have come forward to volunteer, donate supplies for babies, and write checks.”
Carolyn explained that the Gianna Center (named for St. Gianna Molla) is much more than a place to refer expectant mothers for medical services.
“The women we serve are mostly between 16 and 30 years of age,” Carolyn said. “In most cases and biological father is uninvolved and the woman may be frightened, confused and in need of housing, food and the basics of life. We become like a family to her, making connections to get her what is needed to bring her baby to term and make that decision to give life.”
“Many of these woman have had a difficult life,” Heidi explained. “That’s why when they arrive we applaud them – we give them encouragement and hope.”
There certainly are challenges and disappointments, but Carolyn and Heidi recalled one woman who came to them after being raped – and she already had a 12-year-old son and needed support to keep the new child. Her son came with her to the center and after being with the volunteers and experience their unconditional love, told his mom not to have an abortion but to “have my little sister.”
That 12-year-old boy now is an 18-year-old you man who volunteers at the Gianna Center on Saturdays and participates in pro-life activities.
The center has received support from the Regnum Christi community in Cheshire, as well as the seminary. The local Conquest and Challenge clubs have volunteered at the center and Legionary seminarians joined the center volunteers for the New Haven March for Life this year.
As a volunteer activity, the center is open only on Saturdays – but still serves upwards of 250 clients per year.
“We want to expand our use of the mobile ultrasound unit and we just launched a new program to help young moms with parenting and family skills,” Carolyn said. Heidi adds that growing is costly, so they depend on the generosity of donors and the success of their annual “Babies in Bloom” benefit dinner.
Guest speaker will be Chris Slattery, who has worked in the pro-life movement fulltime since 1990 – and perhaps most famously was the confirmation sponsor for former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson.
The benefit also will honor Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), the student pro-life group at Yale, which has provided volunteer help for the center and partnered in pro-life activities.
And it is a good bet Fr. Rousseau will be there. Today he is director of pro-life activities for the Archdiocese of Hartford.
“Thinking back on our journey with the center, I have depended so much on the support of my Regnum Christi family,” Carolyn stressed. “Knowing they are there makes it possible for me to take on something I could never do alone.”
“What we do at Gianna Center is really simple,” Phil said. “We take the love we have received from Christ and pass it on to others.”