"God Loves Them and We Love Them"

Years ago, Mike and Anne Ronco discovered the opportunity they were seeking to help pregnant women in need. They discovered the Gabriel Project, which lets mothers who face difficulties know they are not alone in bringing their child into the world by offering confidential services to women in crisis pregnancies. The ministry has consumed much of their lives for the past 25 years.

Begun in 1990 at a parish in Houston, churches involved with the Gabriel Project function as “angels” to provide a variety of assistance, including baby clothing, car seats and strollers; transportation to and from doctors’ offices; emotional and spiritual support; financial and employment assistance; housing; and prayers. They work closely with pro-life pregnancy centers through a geographical area that offer lists of available resources and to provide referrals.

As Gabriel Project volunteers and coordinators are taught in their training, “our mission and more important, God’s mission, is to express to each woman that we would provide her with assistance in every way possible if she decides to keep her child,” Mike says.

In addition to calls from mothers directly to its toll-free number, 800-910-0191, the Gabriel Project also receives referrals from other community organizations, such as health clinics and crisis centers. The Gabriel Project promotes its services by brochures and signs in English and Spanish at churches. The national ecumenical movement is named for the angelic messenger who announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus.

Mike and Anne, who have four adult children, began coordinating the Gabriel Project in 1997 at their parish, St. Bonaventure in Concord. They were already seasoned pro-life volunteers since 1979, participating in praying the rosary at abortion clinics and giving out information and talking to people passing by. “Our belief is that we should never underestimate the power of public witness,” Mike says. “We pray and God works the miracles. Whether or not we ever know about them does not make any difference.”

After reading about the Gabriel Project’s work, they felt drawn to bring the ministry to Northern California. They visited several offices in Texas and Baltimore before establishing a local steering committee and then an 800 number and offices in the East Bay. Over the years, some 70 churches within Northern California, most of them Catholic, established Gabriel Project ministries.

When Mike and Anne moved to Roseville in 2013, they became members of St. Clare Parish. There they saw a copy of Bishop Jaime Soto’s four-part plan for pro-life activities and noted that pastoral care included the Gabriel Project. Although there were a handful of parishes with the ministry in the diocese, they took the plan as a clear message to grow the Gabriel Project.

Currently 30 parishes have the ministry. Mike is two years into a four-year effort to visit each parish. He travels to one deanery at a time, meeting with individual pastors in person to get their blessing to start the ministry. He’s logged 10,000 miles on his car and expects to drive 25,000 miles by the time he is finished, although he has lost some months because of the coronavirus pandemic. Once a parish decides to start the Gabriel Project, he and Anne work with volunteers from that parish in orientation and training.

“My motivation hasn’t changed since we became involved years ago,” Mike says. “It’s pretty simple. As Catholics, we need to live the Gospel. Our U.S. bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities calls us to pastoral care for women in need. We need to be in solidarity with these women. They need to know that God loves them and we love them, so they don’t feel alone and know all the resources available to them.”

Claudia Beigel, coordinator of the Gabriel Project at St. John Vianney Parish in Rancho Cordova, has also been involved in the ministry since 1997. She and her husband, Tom, and their eight children were living in Concord at the time and knew Mike and Anne from their time at St. Bonaventure. She continued with the ministry when they joined St. John Vianney in 2006, with the blessing of then pastor Father Chuck Kelly.

Claudia Beigel with the sign about the Gabriel Project outside St. John Vianney Parish in Rancho Cordova.

She leads a group of several volunteers who work with the moms in need. “Our parish has been so generous over the years,” she says. “As angels, we provide a listening ear to moms, sympathetic to their choice to bring their child to term -- a voice which often they are not getting from others in their lives. I have moms who I have kept in touch with for several years. It’s almost like I’m a grandma several times over through their children.”

She keeps a storehouse of items in her garage that can be given to moms – including clothing for newborns, maternity clothes and diapers. She works closely with the Sacramento Life Center and the resources they have to offer pregnant women.

“The moms we get have pretty much already decided they want their baby and are reaching out for support for that decision,” Claudia says. “I can only remember one or two who were vacillating on the decision. That’s why we are here. We are not just saying don’t have an abortion, we are saying we are here to help you.”

Claudia speaks from her own experience. She’s stayed involved with the Gabriel Project for so many years “because I believe God called me to this,” she says, breaking into tears. When she was pregnant with her first child in 1973, the father (not her husband Tom) and other friends advised her not to carry the baby to term.

“I was not religious at the time, but I knew God gave me the baby as a gift,” she says, recalling that traumatic time. “I knew I was a mother. As Roe vs. Wade was just decided, all my friends said ‘you are so lucky, now you can get rid of the baby’. The idea was so abhorrent to me, because God told me I was a mother. I’ve always held that life is so precious.”

After they married and moved from Oregon to California, Tom returned to the Catholic faith and she was received into the church. “I praise God that over the years I have helped to make a better life possible for my moms and their babies,” says Claudia, whose adult children now range in age from 47 to 32. Tom also assists with the Gabriel Project, and in his role as president of the parish conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul they are at times able to cooperate in helping their respective clients.

“Just the opportunity we have to help a mom who needs our help in a practical hands-on way is unparalleled,” she concludes. “I end up being blessed so much by my interaction with moms and children.”

Yolanda Garcia-Martinez and Aleyda Salvatore, co-coordinators of the Gabriel Project at St. Mary Parish in Vacaville, the only one in Solano County, have been leading it since March 2019. With support from their priests, parishioners and other ministry volunteers, they have helped multiple families.

Yolanda Garcia-Martinez, left, and Aleyda Salvatore are co-coordinators of the Gabriel Project at St. Mary Parish in Vacaville.

Yolanda, who has been involved in the ministry for two years, and her husband, Joseph, have six children and 10 grandchildren. She was a member of the parish for 18 years, moved away, and then returned six years ago. She met Aleyda, a retired public health nurse from Solano County, at a respect life meeting, and together they decided to coordinate the Gabriel Project, which now has 14 volunteers.

“We’ve never said no to any request from a mom – we’ve never thought of saying no,” Yolanda says. “No isn’t an option. Would Jesus say no to his children? People see our sign at the parish, call the office, or members of our ministry meet a family in need. We do whatever it takes to respond.”

“I believe in our mission and since I am a nurse, for many years I’ve been drawn to help people, especially moms, babies and their families, who are facing so many issues affecting their health and their lives,” notes Aleyda, who has been a parishioner since 2016. She and her husband, Louis, have one son. “Yolanda and I have a sisterhood relationship in Christ. We support each other and work with a great group of volunteers. We also couldn’t do it without the support of many other ministries in the parish.”

Yolanda describes their work as “we walk the journey with the moms. Maybe it’s getting groceries, or finding items for their apartment or a comforter for a child’s bedroom. One mom said to me, ‘I’ve never had anyone in my life do this for me and my daughter.’ We show them we are here to help and they don’t have to be alone. Our church is here for you.”

Yolanda and Aleyda share the story of one young mom referred to St. Mary for financial help. She was seven weeks pregnant and having a difficult time going to work due to morning sickness. Her boyfriend had also been hospitalized in the ICU and they were uncertain when he would be released. They also have a nine-year-old daughter and faced the possibility of eviction. When the mom went to her father for help, he told her it would be best for her to have an abortion and give up their apartment. She was determined not to give up either.

Thanks to coordination by Yolanda and Aleyda, money was raised among members of the Gabriel Project, respect life, and St. Vincent de Paul ministries to help supplement the money needed to keep the apartment. Yolanda and Aleyda became her “angels” and assisted her throughout the pregnancy. In March, she was given a baby shower in the parish hall with Gabriel Project members and the client’s family, including needed baby items and some gifts for her daughter.

“The baby is beautiful and healthy,” Yolanda reports. “The father got a job locally, the daughter is ecstatic with her new baby brother, and the entire family is healthy, happy and blessed, according to our mom.”

The Gabriel Project “was an opportunity for me to continue to help families in need, expand my knowledge, and also share in the spirituality and faith of the whole community,” Aleyda notes. “Unlike my former work as a nurse, we have the freedom with these moms, who are often vulnerable, to say God loves you no matter what -- we want to pray with you, or pray for them in silence in our ministry group. We provide families not only with material goods, but friendship, support and spiritual comfort.”

Being a part of the Gabriel Project “has increased my faith,” Aleyda says. “We live out the commandment of love your neighbor as yourself. This ministry brings God’s love to the family, and in the end that should be our goal as Christians, bringing love to these beautiful moms and babies.”

“This ministry has made my faith stronger,” Yolanda concludes. “I don’t worry about the results as I see God’s hand in them always. He is always there and leading us along. It makes me proud I am Catholic and I can help my sisters in need.”

Catholic Herald Issue