New Jersey parish's Embrace Grace ministry walks with single mother during pregnancy

Mariah smiles as she opens a gift from members of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas during a baby shower held in early spring of 2023. The baby shower was planned by parishioners of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Williamstown, N.J., and its Embrace Grace ministry, a pro-life outreach. The 24-year-old woman traveled more than an hour each way during her pregnancy to be part of the Embrace Grace support group. (OSV News photo/Handout)

CAMDEN, N.J. (OSV News) -- On Christmas morning of 2022, Mariah received a gift for her and her unborn child.

Since learning she was pregnant last year, she had, for the most part, been alone. "The baby's father and I broke up the day he found out I was pregnant," she said. "On my own, I moved from Virginia, to do better for myself and my child -- better money, better opportunities."

In an interview with the Catholic Star Herald, Camden's diocesan newspaper, Mariah (who used only her first name) described how she rotated in and out of different desk jobs, stability nowhere in sight. Then, her mother, who lives in another state, told her about Embrace Grace, a national ministry aimed at supporting and encouraging single and pregnant young women and their families.

On Dec. 25, at 2 a.m., she emailed Francesca Dominguez, co-coordinator of the Embrace Grace chapter at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Williamstown, New Jersey.

As it turns out, the two were the answers to each other's prayers.

Dominguez had been asking God to show her a way to support single and pregnant women, praying "that we could be the hands of Christ and do God's work."

Checking her inbox that early winter morning, 30 minutes after Mariah had sent her email, Dominguez immediately responded, and the two met the next day. There was an immediate connection.

"I liked Francesca's personality," Mariah remembered about their first conversation. "She seemed very passionate about how she wanted to help women and young mothers."

Dominguez, in turn, "was happy that Mariah could reach out to us and share her story. I fell in love with her."

For the next 12 weeks, the in-person support group that combines a biblically based curriculum with fellowship and discussion helped the 24-year old "get through times that were not so great, and helped me stay strong in my faith. They've been there every step of the way."

Each of the weeks, Mariah met with Dominguez and other Embrace Grace leaders at the parish for dinner, fellowship and discussion. They talked about themes such as forgiveness, letting go of the past and focusing on the future, all of which were "a reminder that I'm not alone, and God's always there," Mariah said.

There were bumps along the journey, however. A week after the first meeting, Mariah was the victim of a car accident. She moved back in with her unborn child's father, which ultimately led to her being "alone in a domestic violence shelter, driving a totaled car and working multiple jobs, all the while trying to stay positive."

Contacting Dominguez for help, Mariah was quickly put in touch with a women's center in Galloway Township, New Jersey. As well, the co-coordinator made a few calls to her parish's Knights of Columbus council, which provided Mariah with the means to get more reliable transportation.

Moments like these, Mariah said, made the weekly 75-minute commute from the Jersey Shore to Williamstown worthwhile.

"Everyone has been there for me. These ladies (at Embrace Grace) have helped me through hard times and helped me find the right resources."

"I'm grateful to spend time with other mothers, who'll give me good advice that I can take to heart," she continued. "They're preparing me for the times when I won't have them sitting here with me."

Before her May due date, Mariah, who completed her final Embrace Grace meeting at the beginning of April, was busy not only working a job, but also on an online business degree.

For Dominguez, who helped begin the Embrace Grace program at Our Lady of Peace Parish last summer, the ministry is a mission that reflects a lifelong passion.

At an early age, Dominguez saw God's hand at work in difficult circumstances. After her birth, her mother was told it would be medically impossible to have any more children. "But she had my two siblings, both naturally conceived."

"I've always been pro-life," she said, explaining that those involved with Embrace Grace are "trying to be a part of the solution."

Since arriving at Our Lady of Peace Parish as its pastor in 2021, Father Sanjai Devis, too, has sought ways to expand the parish's pro-life ministry.

"What can we do concretely, to help someone in a crisis pregnancy," he recalled asking himself. "How do we get our hands dirty?"

Embrace Grace, he said, helps women such as Mariah "appreciate the life God gave them, and helps them know that they are daughters of God and are not alone. We, as a faith community, are there to journey with and support them."

Mariah, Father Devis said, "is a wonderful, faithful, committed young lady. I'm so happy we've been able to journey with her and make her feel a part of our family."

Not only has Mariah felt the love of the Embrace Grace leaders, she has seen it from the entire parish. In March, a baby shower was thrown in the parish hall, complete with cake, baby diapers and clothes, blankets, a stroller and a massage chair. Parish clergy and laity, along with family and friends via Zoom, took part.

"The parish has been very sweet and kind to me. Father Devis has been wonderful," she said.

On May 18, a little over a month after her final Embrace Grace session, Mariah gave birth to a baby girl. Mariah plans to fulfill a promise she made to her Embrace Grace family, after their last meeting.

"I told the women I'd be calling them all the time after I give birth; I hope they're ready," she said with a laugh.

"The people at Embrace Grace are all excellent, strong women. I'm very happy to have met all of them, and they have helped me in ways no one could comprehend," she added, saying she and her daughter will visit their Williamstown friends.

Terri Marshall, fellow co-coordinator of Embrace Grace, knows the connection between Mariah and Our Lady of Peace Parish will continue to flourish.

"We're going to continue to do everything we can to support Mariah," she said, calling the new mother "strong-willed and courageous." "We promised her we would help her, and we're not going to break that."

While she admits that her faith has had its up and downs, Mariah is thankful for the solid ground she's found at Embrace Grace. "In my own walk with the Lord, sometimes I feel close and we're connected, while other times I feel like I'm not doing a good job, and the Lord doesn't love me, and he's not going to be there for me. This program has really helped remind me that God has grace and mercy."

As the Embrace Grace leaders prepared for the next session in the fall, Mariah had a message for young women like herself.

"I know for some people, you feel like you are scared to reach out for help. I know, too, at times I've felt prideful, (thinking) ‘I don't need anyone's help and I can do it on my own,'" she said. "But it doesn't have to be that way. It doesn't have to be a battle on your own. If you're scared and on the edge, come and try Embrace Grace. You won't regret it."


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