Martha and Mary House: An Orthodox Christian Maternity Home for Pregnant Women in Crisis Who Choose

By Sarah Elisabet Oftedal, Housemother

The Martha and Mary House

By the Grace of God and with the blessing of His Grace, Bishop Tikhon, Martha and Mary House was incorporated as a religious nonprofit institution in the Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of the West, in November 2001, - to our knowledge the first Orthodox Christian Maternity Home in the United States. On our Board of Directors, headed by His Grace, Bishop Tikhon of San Francisco and the West, are members from the Greek and Antiochian Orthodox Churches, as well as the Orthodox Church in America. A Serbian Orthodox parish sponsors our website. Members of our Advisory Board and volunteers are from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and local Protestant parishes.

What the Martha and Mary Maternity House Provides

As an Orthodox Christian Maternity Home, we provide pregnant women in crisis an alternative to abortion: residential housing with privacy and confidentiality, with practical, emotional, and spiritual support. We recognize the sanctity of life and that each pregnant woman who comes to us - and her unborn child, regardless of ethnic, cultural, religious or social background - is unique and precious, created in the image of God and loved by Him. We are grateful that she has chosen to give birth and pray that she may come to know herself as a child of God and seek His will for the child He has entrusted to her. We pray that she may discover her God-given personal resources and how to develop them through education or vocational training; that she may recognize the past choices that brought her to the current crisis, and now seek the best choices for her own future and for the future of her child.

We teach about decision-making - about choices and consequences, courtship, purity and abstinence before marriage, the sacrament and holiness of marriage, and God’s design for the nurture of children in families with a father and mother who belong to God, to one another, and to their children.

We help the pregnant mom carefully consider three parenting options:

1. Marriage to the father of her child or another committed man who will protect, provide and care for the mother and child - in which case he may join her in premarital counseling at Martha and Mary House.

2. Fatherless single parenting. The expectant mom will need to develop a realistic plan for housing, work/school, transportation, and childcare in advance of the birth.

3. Choosing an adoptive family for her child through open adoption. We provide contact with prospective adoptive families through the Orthodox organization Zoe for Life and other agencies. For birth mothers who choose adoption, we seek to provide a Christian host family who can give nurture and boundaries to the mom to help her with a new start in school or on a job.

At Martha and Mary House, the expectant moms pursue a program of study or vocational training, some are employed; others actively seek employment. We have Orthodox family-style living with morning and evening prayer, and we share responsibility for housekeeping duties. House Rules include mandatory Church attendance, Bible study, prenatal, childbirth and child care classes. Working with local agencies and volunteers, we help facilitate a healthy birth for the babies and a healthy spiritual rebirth for the new mothers. An Orthodox priest who is a clinical therapist visits the House weekly. He joins us for morning prayer and provides counseling.

To protect her confidentiality and privacy, a pregnant mom may need or want to relocate to another area until after the birth of her child. Martha and Mary House is developing a network of maternity homes and parishes that can provide nurturing host homes. Expectant moms who have suffered pregnancy loss by choice are provided post abortion grief and reconciliation counseling in a 12-Step Program.

Funding for Martha and Mary House. The girls who live at the house contribute what they can. A minimum of $300 monthly is expected, which is what the girl would get as cash aid under the CAL-Works Program. Otherwise, our funding comes through donations from individuals, parishes, and organizations. No public funding is accepted.

The Vision of Martha and Mary House

The vision of Martha and Mary House was long in unfolding. Perhaps the seed was sown already in 1957, when, alone and scared, I gave birth in secret to my first living child in a Salvation Army Maternity Home - intending to place the child for adoption. In 1987, I found healing and forgiveness for an earlier abortion loss through a seminar and the sacraments of the Episcopal Church. In 1988, four of us founded a 12-Step Abortion Survivors Anonymous group. I wrote the workbook. I lived alone but yearned to be more responsible before the Lord in this area, perhaps in a house where older women would teach or “mother” younger women, as Saint Paul suggested to Titus. In the early Church virgins and widows lived with family or in community. They were vulnerable alone - then as now.

In 1992, I joined the traditionalist Anglican Franciscan Third Order of Divine Compassion, making a vow of simplicity, purity, and fidelity, committed to a rule of prayer, and to serve and love God in my neighbor. I prayed to help those who suffered the wounds of abortion. In 1994, I came “home” to Orthodoxy and was chrismated in 1995 at Saint John of Damascus Orthodox Church in Poway, California. My patron saint is the New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, whose relics are in the altar at St. John’s.

With the blessing of Bishop Tikhon, I continued to facilitate Abortion Survivors Anonymous groups. Annually in the U.S., 1.3 million unborn children, each bearing the image of God, are legally killed in their mother’s womb. Worldwide the number is 46 million (reported by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood). When a child conceived in us dies by abortion, the core of who we are as women and mothers is wounded, as is the heart of the men who father aborted children. The impact of post abortion grief and guilt causes physical, emotional, and spiritual damage to families. In our groups we see the tragedies and the healing of lives and relationships through reconciliation with God, our aborted children and finally ourselves.

The Orthodox Church believes aborted children are among the Holy Innocents, martyred saints who pray for us. We who lost our children by choice may remember them in love each time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy! With the martyred Saints their memory is eternal!

The New Martyr Elizabeth is a Fitting Patron of Martha and Mary House

But how much better to provide pregnant women at risk the support they need to give life to their child rather than to choose abortion. The New Martyr Elizabeth, founder of the Martha and Mary Convent of Love and Mercy in Moscow in 1909, was a young woman when she told her brother, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse, “Everyone has to strive for an ideal if they wish to live in fullness.” She feared hers would be the hardest of all to attain since she longed to “become perfect woman,” which meant she must “first - and with full understanding - learn how to forgive everything.” (E.M. Almedingen, An Unbroken Unity, p. 55). When Elizabeth’s beloved husband of 23 years, the Grand Duke Sergei, was murdered by a terrorist’s bomb, Elizabeth visited the young Communist assassin in prison and forgave him, assuring him also of her husband’s forgiveness and God’s mercy. Elizabeth, herself, was martyred by the Communists in 1918.

Martha and Mary House would be an appropriate name, and the New Martyr Elizabeth a fitting patron for a house of healing for women who had aborted their children - and for pregnant women in crisis who chose to give life instead. Having named it for the sisters of Lazarus of Bethany, in whose house of prayer, hospitality, and charity Jesus often was a guest, we prayed that He would also be our guest as we sought to love Him in all who came to us.

In April 2001 we called an organizational meeting at Saint John of Damascus Orthodox Church. An Interim Board of Directors was formed. In August we found our “perfect house.” I moved in as housemother three days before 9/11 - a stark reminder that God alone is our help and shield. He furnished our house beautifully with donations from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant friends. The bedrooms for four pregnant moms are each named for a saint. Our Abortion Survivor Group meets in the library/prayer room, named for Saint Mary. The kitchen/dining room is named for Saint Martha. The house was blessed on Theophany, January 6, 2002, with more than 50 guests from local Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches, ASA (Abortion Survivors Anonymous), and the Pro-Life community.

Life at Martha and Mary House

We envisioned Martha and Mary House as an Orthodox family home - the surroundings peaceful and simple - with flowers, fruit trees, a vegetable garden, a pet or two. It was to be a sanctuary for those whose lives were in crisis and turmoil, where they may be helped to face and work through difficult decisions: grief and guilt associated with abortion, and the choice of parenting or placing a child for adoption.

Our advisors emphasized structure—our “daughters” needed to know what to expect and what was expected of them. Rules provide boundaries and help develop self-discipline. With samples from Zoe for Life, we formulated an Application, Housing Admission Agreement, Family Guidelines, and House Rules. The “daughter” signs the documents and a contract waiver before moving in for a three-week trial period. To break the rules is to make a choice to leave. From our perspective of inexperience, the rules seemed extensive. But we have learned to expect the unexpected and have added or narrowed down several rules.

In the morning we pray in the words of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow: “In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by you. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, and, you yourself, pray in me. Amen.”

Our First “Daughter”

Our first “daughter” was a foreign student, eight months pregnant, hiding from the father of her child. She planned to place the baby for adoption and return home. “Anna” was gentle and quiet, but within hours of her arrival, the father of her baby was at the door, demanding to see her. We had thought it safe to let her family overseas know our street address for mailing purposes, and he had contacted them. We no longer give out our physical address lightly!

The next three weeks were busy with trips to the Pregnancy Care Clinic, lab work, registering at the hospital Birth Center, signing up for emergency Medi-Cal (which pays for birthing expenses of poor mothers), and sessions with the adoption agency worker. Adoption was a courageous choice for “Anna,” who longed to be a wife and mother. That, for her, was not possible. She chose an adoptive family who came to meet her at Martha and Mary House. They would take the baby home from the hospital.

“Anna” prepared a photo album and a box with treasures for the baby and would breastfeed in the hospital against her doctor’s advice. Nursing would create a strong bond with the baby and make parting more painful, but “Anna” insisted. “Later I will know I did all I could for my child,” she said. I was the labor coach and witnessed the miracle of “little Anna’s” birth.

Mother and daughter were doing well, but adoption plans were blocked when the birth father filed for custody. In response, “Anna” sought custody herself. A court order prevented her from leaving the country with the baby. They would stay at Martha and Mary House until the situation was resolved. “Anna” rejoiced in mothering, and “Little Anna” was thriving on breast milk. They attended Saint John of Damascus Orthodox Church. “Anna” learned morning and evening prayers, and much of the Divine Liturgy by heart. A local attorney gave pro bono representation in court, and volunteers from several parishes supervised court-ordered visitations by the birth father. He was investigated by Child Protective Services for past misconduct and found to be a “substantial risk” to his daughter.

The situation brought us in contact with police, Child Protective Services, and public health nurses. We are blessed to be in an area where the California state pilot program, Welcome Home Baby, was inaugurated. It offers home visits by primary care nurses, lactation consultants, health educators, and social workers. All welcomed our Home as a community resource.

Two more expectant mothers provided new lessons. One needed drug and alcohol rehabilitation - a fact we did not discern from the start. As an abortion survivor, she participated in our group, but complained about rules and broke them. After two months, she was accepted in a program better suited to her needs. The second girl was a victim of domestic violence who had suffered pregnancy loss. She worked through grief and anger in our Abortion Survivors Anonymous group, but refused to keep House Rules and doctor’s orders. After several midnight trips to the emergency room, she moved to a transitional program for youth who have been in foster care.

Our fourth expectant Mom arrived eight months pregnant from a domestic violence shelter. She was hiding from her husband, who was the father of the baby. Little “Tim” was born a healthy nine pounds. His mother was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression. The father, visiting on weekends, proved better able to care for his son. Child Protective Services monitored “Little Tim’s” progress and concluded that he was safe with his mother at Martha and Mary House. By the grace of God, they remained with us for three months until the mother and son were moved to their home county. The father was given custody; the mother, visitation rights.

Our Growth Over Three Years

Our original vision was for two Orthodox women to share the responsibility of living at the House, but I was still alone, on duty 24 hours, 7 days a week. Six pregnant moms had come for help. One was still with us. “Anna” and “little Anna” had moved into the master bedroom, and “Anna” proved to be God’s provision for an assistant. The two pregnant girls who left us were single moms on welfare-to-work assistance. Two more expectant moms had joined us. One was working and planned to be a single parent.

At first we had been unaware of the impact of fatherlessness on our society. Our awakening began at the local Health and Human Services. Our girls were eligible for Cal-Works, a welfare-to-work program with minimal cash aid, requiring that they place their babies in day care at 12 weeks of age, while they worked or attended school. A caseworker told us that 90 percent of their clients are single mothers. “We see the tragedies of the children daily.” A third of America’s children are born to single mothers. Nearly another third are raised by a divorced parent. They are likely to spend much of their childhood in day care. Evidence is growing that they suffer negative consequences. A child born out of wedlock—and raised by a single parent - is six times more likely to be in poverty than a child of married parents, three times more likely to repeat a grade or to become pregnant as a teenager, and twenty two times more likely to be incarcerated than a child from an intact home, wrote Mike Mc Manus in the Washington Times. Of the current U.S. prison population, 80 percent were raised by single parents!

In contrast, studies of children adopted as babies show that they do better than average children. Only 7 percent of adolescents adopted in the first year of life repeated a grade in school, compared to 12 percent of those living with both birth parents, and 30 percent of children with a single parent. Adopted adolescents have higher self-esteem than a national sample of teenagers and are less likely to see their parents divorce (11 percent vs. 28 percent), reports the Search Institute. Mothers who place their children for adoption are more likely to graduate, be employed, and marry.

In the 1950s only 5 percent of children in the U.S. were born to unmarried mothers, and only one mom in ten chose to single parent. Illegitimacy was unacceptable. “Today… fatherlessness is rampant and Americans treat the crisis with complacency and indifference,” wrote Washington Times columnist Suzanne Fields in 2001. Of the 1.3 million babies born to single mothers in the U.S., less than 2 percent are placed for adoption. Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers have focused on encouraging single moms to keep their babies as an alternative to abortion, and report an adoption rate of “below one percent” - no better than Planned Parenthood.

We could see more clearly the need to teach God’s design for the nurture of children, and made counseling about parenting options mandatory. Our “daughters” are each given an Orthodox Study Bible, and we are finding and developing suitable material based on the teachings of Scripture and the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. We have videos and workbooks on basic decision-making, abstinence, and adoption.

Two Adoptions in Our Second Year

We were grateful for two adoptions in our second year - and for the courage and sacrificial love of the two birth mothers. They wanted the best for their children. “Bonnie” wrote a poem to the adoptive parents of her son, ending with these lines:

“I always will and have loved him
The best way that I could
And that was giving him to you.”

“Mary” wanted her baby to grow up with two parents, unlike herself. She would marry the father of her baby, or, if that was not an option, choose an adoptive family as Plan “B.” She breastfed for three weeks before deciding on adoption. “I made the wrong decisions when I had sex before marriage. I suffer now, but it is my own fault. I don’t want my daughter to suffer. She needs a Mommy and a Daddy and a solid family. I want to make sure she has it.” “Mary” attended her daughter’s baptism and moved to the same town to live with an Orthodox host family. She goes to college and attends church with her daughter’s family.

Our first adoption experiences taught us the importance of pre- and post-adoption counseling and preparation for the post partum emotional “roller-coaster.” Metropolitan Philaret’s morning prayer gives daily strength, as does the Akathist “Hymn to the Theotokos, Nurturer of Children” (a gift from Saint Paisius Monastery in Arizona), the Akathist hymn “Glory to God for All Things,” and the Akathist hymn to the New Martyr Elizabeth, our patron saint. In her Rule for the Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy in Moscow, she wrote: “We realize that it is necessary to base all doing of spiritual works on gratitude to the Lord, in so far as He permits us to serve Him, through our neighbor.” We pray to be obedient to the needs God puts before us in a maternity home with its crises and joys.

Women and Adolescent Girls in the Church Are also Vulnerable to Abortion

In our third year we are more aware that women and adolescent girls in our Church are also vulnerable to abortion. A recent Alan Guttmacher Institute study shows a majority (78 percent), of women who obtained an abortion in 2001/2002 reported a religious affiliation. Twenty-two percent said they had no religious affiliation. Statistics from the Center for Disease Control and the Alan Guttmacher Institute show an overall decline in the U.S. abortion rate by 11 percent since 1994, from 1.6 million to 1.3 million. The sharpest decline was among women with no religious affiliation, among those in upper income brackets and adolescents 15 to17 year old. Abortion increased among the poorest women and adolescents whose abortions are publicly funded.

The sharper decline in abortion rates for women with no religious affiliation may be explained by single motherhood being accepted as a “the normal American way of families” in a secular culture. The situation is different for someone who knows that premarital or extramarital sex is wrong. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy is not as acceptable to them. What will friends, family, the Church say? The local pregnancy care center offers to help her keep the baby, but that’s not an option. What to do? Where to hide? There is pressure to choose abortion. Legal and quick, it makes the problem go away for everyone. Before Roe vs. Wade, a pregnant girl or woman could find refuge in a maternity home in a big city - or far away - and in confidentiality and anonymity give birth and place her child for adoption. With legalized abortion, maternity homes emptied and only a handful remain. But 1.3 million babies die in the womb in our country every year!

Zoe for Life wrote in 2002: “It is disturbing that most of the Orthodox Christian women who are in trouble do not turn to their Church for guidance; perhaps because there are so few places to turn to within the Orthodox Community.” Martha and Mary House is here - providing privacy and confidentiality for those looking for a way to continue their pregnancy - and perhaps choose the option of adoption for their child. Working with Zoe for Life, we pray others will join us, to establish a network of maternity homes and host homes for referrals across Orthodox America.

You may know someone who is pregnant, and thinking abortion is her only choice, yet something inside her wants to choose life. The child in her womb bears the image of God, Who has entrusted her with the choice to give her child a life and a future, choosing the best for herself as well. Please join us in telling her there are real alternatives to abortion.

Some of you may be praying about establishing a maternity home in your own area. We will be happy to share with you from our experience our House Rules and Family Guidelines. Application and Admission contracts are also available on request.

HOW TO CONTACT US:

Martha and Mary House

P.O. Box 1680,

Escondido, CA 92033

Phone: 760-741-7050
Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Web: http://www.marthaandmaryhouse.org
Abortion Survivors Anonymous

P.O. Box 161
Escondido, CA 92033
Phone: 760- 741-7050 (Sarah)
Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Sarah Elisabet Oftendal is Housemother of Martha and Mary House, Escondido, CA, and a member of St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church, Poway, CA.