By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — Three years ago, Helen Verriotto was a 27-year-old mother of one, pregnant with her second child, and homeless.
Both of her parents had died years earlier: her mother while Verriotto was still a little girl, and her father just before the birth of her then-10-year-old child.
“It wasn’t easy,” Verriotto told OSV News. “I had a hard life. I was mad at God for a while.”
Through a homelessness services agency, Verriotto was connected with Good Counsel Homes, a Secaucus, New Jersey-based ministry that has been providing residential care for homeless pregnant women for almost four decades.
Today, Verriotto and her two children are in the process of getting their own apartment, and the young mother said she “feels much closer to God now.”
Verriotto even has a dream career she hopes to pursue.
“I’ve always wanted to be a voice actress,” she said.
For Good Counsel founder Christopher Bell, Verriotto’s story is Scripture in action.
“Psalm 68 tells us that God is the father of the fatherless, and gives a home to the forsaken,” Bell told OSV News.
He said the psalm “jumped out at him” while he was a college student in New York, working to help runaways and others experiencing homelessness. Bell’s encounters with vulnerable mothers inspired him to co-found Good Counsel in 1985 with his spiritual director, Father Benedict Groeschel, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, who along with Bell led the organization until his death in 2014.
Today, Good Counsel operates four homes — three in New York State, one in New Jersey — and to-date has helped more than 8,200 mothers and children, with over 1,300 babies born to mothers at its residences. In addition, the nonprofit has helped to establish nine maternity homes in eight states.
Historically, maternity homes in the U.S. gained momentum in the late 18th and 19th centuries, spurred by both faith-based and social reform initiatives. By the 1920s, a national network of more than 200 such homes was in place, with social workers — part of an emerging profession at the time — increasingly involved in their operation.
In some places, such homes — a number of which had been operated by the Catholic Church — became known for abuses: The Irish government in 2021 agreed to compensate 34,000 former residents of “mother and baby homes,” which during the early 20th century had seen high rates of infant mortality, physical abuse and adoptions without full maternal consent.
Yet the faith-based maternity homes founded in the U.S. after abortion was legalized in 1973 look considerably different, experts told OSV News.
Lay and social science expertise, combined with cultural shifts in the perception of pregnancy outside of marriage, have reshaped the maternity home landscape. According to the National Maternity Housing Coalition, there are now over 400 maternity homes and programs in the U.S.
Yet those numbers are just a start, said Katherine Talalas, assistant director of pro-life communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.
“Maternity homes are crucially important resources, and we need more of them,” she told OSV News.
Many women in unexpected pregnancies experience “significant challenges financially and relationally,” she said.
Unsupportive parents and partners can lock their doors, while some women “simply realize that their current living situation is not a safe place (in which) to welcome a child,” said Talalas.
Lack of stable housing can profoundly impact the health of both mother and baby, according to a 2019 study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Low birth weight, premature delivery and other pregnancy complications are among the risks. In addition, mental health and substance abuse issues, which correlate with homelessness, can worsen.
“Having a safe place to live during their pregnancy, and to stay with their baby as they get back on their feet, is a lifeline for many women,” especially since “maternity homes often offer other key supports such as child care, job training, parenting classes, and a loving community,” said Talalas.
“Most maternity homes are geared to helping moms gain independent skills so they can leave in a position where they’re able to have their own apartment, and they can care for themselves and for their children,” said Tom Stevens, president and CEO of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia.
In 1992, the Pro-Life Union founded Guiding Star Ministries, converting a former Philadelphia convent into a residence that at any given time accommodates six to seven mothers and their children. Residents can stay up to 18 months as they work to meet their educational and career goals — and providing “trauma-informed care” is crucial to that process, said Stevens.
“Every woman who comes to us has been through trauma,” he said.
St. Mary’s Home for Mothers — located in a former Benedictine monastery for women religious near Liberty, Missouri — staff rely on “evidence-based treatment” and diagnostic tools such as the PHQ-9 (Patient Health Questionnaire) and GAD-7 (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), said executive director Matthew Loehr, a licensed clinical social worker with more than 30 years’ experience.
“Many of our mothers are post-abortive and struggling with a lot of issues,” Loehr told OSV News. “Many come from families where there’s a great deal of struggle and family discord. That’s why we have a full-time therapist and a clinical director. We assess patients for postpartum depression as well, since our moms are very much at risk.”
Such interventions “provide real change in the lives of women,” said Paula Belemjian, executive director of the Margaret Home in East Rochester, New York. “We’re doing the work that’s needed for moms who are looking for help beyond just diapers, formula and car seats.”
The Margaret Home’s “mind-body-spirit programs are designed by moms, for moms to actualize a directional change in their lives,” said Belemjian. “And as a mom goes forward, she not only changes her life, but her child’s. Generations change.”
While maternity homes are typically open to women of all faiths or none, Loehr credited the effectiveness of St. Mary’s Home to having an on-site chapel with the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
“It’s kind of hard not to enjoy some success when we have his grace present all the time,” said Loehr.
Permanent Deacon Kevin Cummings, who helped to found St. Mary’s, said maternity homes are “a truly Catholic response” to the needs of women in unexpected pregnancies.
“For the first time in their lives, these women are unconditionally loved. The babies are loved, the mothers are loved,” he said. “All we’re trying to do is give them a better choice this time.”
Verriotto said the Good Counsel home was “a haven.”
“I had faith, and a gut feeling that this is where I was supposed to be at this time,” she said.