The hardwood floors shine and are glass smooth. That’s intentional.
“There’s healing that takes place here,” said Sister Mary Bader, as our rubber-soled shoes squeak along a pristine corridor of the home tucked off a main road in Hyattsville, right past the D.C. border.
Long before the fact of abortion became a question of law, the women of St. Ann’s did what it took to help mothers. Through convulsions of activism and partisan rancor, they scrubbed floors, changed diapers and provided the support families needed to live full and successful lives.
These are things more people so invested in removing bodily autonomy might consider, a point made in the Wall Street Journal last week by Peggy Noonan, with whom I frequently and vehemently disagree. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, she said, those who wished for that day must be ready and willing to step up, with robust safety net programs and legislation designed to “help single mothers survive.” Why wait?
I wanted to see a place where this help already happens. So as outrage mounted about the implications of a leaked Supreme Court ruling imperiling abortion rights, I finally visited Sister Mary at the remarkable home for families that was founded just before the Civil War.
Keeping the floors shiny and the walls covered with paintings of happy, diverse children is part of the formula that has made St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families, where Sister Mary is chief executive, a success for years. (Just ask her, she’ll proudly show you the yellowed draft resolution from 1863 that has the signature of Abraham Lincoln, or perhaps his secretary. It’s up for debate, Sister Mary said.)
It was an “asylum” for infants, a place for widowed mothers after the war. It was there through the Great Depression, during World Wars, and then it was where pregnant girls went when they said they were “visiting Aunt Sally in Idaho” for six months.
Today, it’s home to a beauty pageant queen who found herself pregnant and homeless. “I booked the appointment to have the abortion,” said Maeva Ikias, 29, one of the mothers living in St. Ann’s and a former Miss Congo in the Miss Africa USA pageant.
Her room is huge, half of it dedicated to a tiny bed, pink princess tent and toys and clothes that make it look like one of those magazine children’s rooms, perfect and coordinated, the way she saw her life unfolding.
Ikias came to America as a student. She was doing well in school, studying international relations, and having a baby wasn’t in her plan. She called her mom in France and told her about the pregnancy.
“She convinced me to have the baby, that she would go and pick up the baby. She said, ‘I would raise the baby in France while you finish your studies,’” Ikias said.
But the day she gave birth to a girl, her mom had a stroke. Ikias named the baby Angie-Rose, an homage to her mother. Ikias struggled, living on her friend’s couches and spare rooms. Still, she got the baby’s passport in order and saved money for the trip. Days before she was to leave, her mother died.
“Where was I going to go? What was I going to do?” she said. “We lost everything. My family lost everything when she died.” Someone told her about St. Ann’s.
Now Angie-Rose, 4, spends her days in the delightful day care downstairs, where Ikias works. She’s getting ready to resume her studies, switching to banking and criminal justice. When she graduates, the whole house will celebrate. When she moves out, her daughter can keep going to the care programs, keeping those strong connections stable.
Yanka Abreu, 26, is saving money after a year in St. Ann’s and is looking forward to being on her own. She’s working at a Brazilian restaurant while her 17-month-old son, Tyler, is at the day care. She became pregnant after immigrating from Brazil three years ago, and the American father said he didn’t want a baby, then left her.
“My baby is safe,” Abreu said. “And I can work. Make our life better.”
There is no deadline for leaving St. Ann’s. The center helps those who stay get jobs, degrees and build savings before they go. Very few return, unlike the revolving door of D.C. housing programs, which too often set people up for failure by moving them into lives they are not prepared to sustain.
“We have the sisters on-site here, I think that gives the moms a sense of security, safety, consistency,” said Shaneen Alvarez, director of clinical and social work services at St. Ann’s. “We’re not the typical group home,” she said, “Our moms stay with us, sometimes two years. With that, they have the same staff who understand them, who know them, who have forged these relationships with them.”
It is the perfect solution in an imperfect world. It is also serving 17 families full time right now. According to the federal count last year, there were over 131,370 people who were homeless and part of a family. Last year, six babies were born into the program at St. Ann’s. And in 2021, it cost $4.2 million to run.
The sisters at St. Ann’s won’t love that I’m talking about the center in the middle of the abortion debate. But that’s part of the point. They don’t have to say anything. Their actions speak. In the tiny place of good and honest help, Sister Mary has found what works.
It’s not false-front abortion clinics, which provide no real assistance to women after their initial diversion. It’s not parochial school kids, most of whom have barely ever played spin the bottle, bussed into D.C. with little understanding of the issue to “March for Life.” It’s not politicians who run on sanctimony but live in duplicity. It’s not the people who vote with their thoughts and prayers, and act with little more.
This place, this work, this attitude, the love and care and lack of judgment and real solutions that happen at St. Ann’s, this is pro-life. Everything else is politics and posturing.
Originally published by The Washington Post