of Elizabeth Ministry International Used With Permission
For Jeannie Hannemann, M.A., the Visitation story from
the Gospel of Luke is a shining example of the pro-life
message. The beauty of the story, Hannemann says, is that
it shows the importance of the interaction between Elizabeth
and Mary and the celebration of human life.
"God rewarded [Mary] for that 'yes' by giving her what
God knew she needed. And what she needed was not an angel
visiting her. What she needed was another woman who would
understand," Hannemann points out. She adds, "The greatest
gift that God gave Mary was another woman who would understand.
Society was going to kill her for her choice and what does
Elizabeth do? She says, 'Most blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb'" (Luke 1:42).
Drawing on that story, her own life experiences and her
experiences as a parish director of Baptism preparation,
Hannemann founded Elizabeth Ministry, a national and international
organization. The purpose of the ministry is to "affirm,
support, encourage and assist women in response to their
needs during the childbearing years." Hannemann spoke with
St. Anthony Messenger about the program last October
at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
The Origins of Elizabeth Ministry
The ministry was founded at St. Bernard Parish in Appleton,
Wisconsin. The true origins of the program, however, date
back to her childhood, Hannemann says.
"When people ask me where it started, I often tell them
I really think it started when I was four years old and
my mom was on bed rest and my little baby brother died.
I think that's when God planted the seed in my heart about
this," she says.
Following a difficult pregnancy, Hannemann's mother had
a son, Jimmy, who died shortly after birth. Hannemann recalls,
however, that her brother was always a very big part of
the family. "Jimmy was as much a part of my family as my
sister and I were," Hannemann says. "I had parents from
whom I learned respect for life and the dignity of the unborn."
Hannemann later learned the importance of support firsthand
when she and her husband, Bruce, suffered through years
of infertility before becoming pregnant with their first
daughter. Their second daughter was born with serious birth
defects that required numerous surgeries.
"I've experienced a lot of these areas personally," Hannemann
points out, from infertility to miscarriage to giving birth
to a child with health problems. "So I know the need is
great," she adds.
The idea finally came to life, however, when she was serving
as director of Baptism and family ministry at St. Bernard
Parish. She repeatedly heard parents talking about their
outrageous long-distance phone bills because they didn't
have parents, friends or relatives nearby for advice or
"I just started saying to them, 'Well, I won't claim to
be any expert, but here's my phone number. Call me at home
anytime,'" Hannemann recalls. "I couldn't believe the response
I got. My phone was ringing constantlyday and nightand
not just from momsdads, too. It was a real eye-opener
to me to see the need there was. So I knew very quickly
I couldn't do it alone. And that's how I started the ministry."
The first official act of Elizabeth Ministry came before
the ministry was even established or had a name. Hannemann
got a call one night on her answering machine from a couple
whose baby had been born with severe problems, some of which
were the same as those suffered by Hannemann's daughter.
Feeling emotionally unable to handle the situation, Hannemann
called on her friend, Elizabeth ("Betty") Skrypczak, whose
son also had medical problems, to meet with the couple.
"She was actually the first Elizabeth minister," Hannemann
At the time, Hannemann was working on establishing what
she called "I've Been There Ministry," a broad initiative
that would match up people in similar situations.
"I made this match and I thought, This is really beautiful.
She really helped that family so much with so many issues,"
says Hannemann. She recalls that Betty used to go over to
the family's house in the morning and check to see if the
baby had made it through the night while the parents held
each other in bed because they didn't think they could handle
checking on the baby themselves.
"That was probably our most severe situation and it was
our first," says Hannemann.
That incident was closely followed by another. The parish
received a call one day from the local police telling them
that a woman had attempted suicide. The young mother had
moved to the area with her family and had attended Baptism
preparation classes for her newborn child.
At the age of four months, however, the baby died of Sudden
Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The police told Hannemann
that the woman had told them not to call the parish because
they hadn't done anything for her or her family outside
of holding the funeral. Hannemann took the call and met
with the woman, who told her, "You lied to me. You said
this was a wonderful, caring community, and it's not."
"It was so hard to hear her tell me that I had set her
up, thinking this would be a caring community," Hannemann
says. "And that's what really lit my passion."
She went to her pastor, Father Orville Janssen, and told
him she needed to change her job description to include
this type of ministry. She then went before parish council
and announced her plans for Elizabeth Ministry. "Miraculous
things happened at that point," Hannemann says. "They all
sat up, they were interested, they were supportive of it,
they said, 'Go for it.' They even gave me funding to get
And so in 1991, Hannemann started Elizabeth Ministry with
Capuchin Father Kurt Gessner as her spiritual adviser.
They were both pleasantly surprised that the ministry's
first challenge was too many volunteers. Over and over,
Hannemann said volunteers would tell her that they wanted
to help because they didn't want anyone to have to go through
alone what they had been through.
Getting the Word Out
In 1994, Green Bay Auxiliary Bishop Robert F. Morneau visited
St. Bernard. Once he saw what was happening with the program,
he encouraged Hannemann and Father Gessner to expand the
ministry outside the parish.
"I think it's a wonderful way for the Church to connect,
to render assistance and reach out to moms even before Baptism,"
Bishop Morneau said in an interview at myrooftop.com.
Bishop Morneau and Green Bay's Bishop Robert J. Banks both
began spreading the word to other bishops, and the program
was highlighted in one of the United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) newsletters. Suddenly, says Hannemann,
bishops' secretaries were calling and requesting information
about the program.
The Archdiocese of Chicago was the first outside Green
Bay to institute the program, says Hannemann, thanks to
the encouragement of the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin.
"He wanted it in every parish in the diocese. He was very
much a supporter," she says.
The overwhelming response led to an arrangement with a
publisher to distribute the Elizabeth Ministry materials,
such as resource kits and manuals on how to establish and
sustain the ministry. Eventually Hannemann resumed control
of managing Elizabeth Ministry, although she's quick to
point out that she has no misconceptions about who is really
The program has been "a beautiful witness to myself about
how much God is in control of thisnot me, not Father
Kurt. It's been God's hand. To be blessed to do this ministry
has been phenomenal," she says.
In September 2000 the ministry suffered a blow when Father
Kurt died. "When Father Kurt died, I was ready to just give
it up and say, 'I'm done,'" Hannemann says. "But I had plenty
of signs saying, 'No, don't do that.'"
Bishop Morneau stepped in to fill the role of spiritual
adviser for Hannemann and the ministry.
About the Ministry
The goal of Elizabeth ministers is to emulate the example
of their namesakeElizabeth. "She's the first one in
Scripture to recognize Jesus," says Hannemann. "So as Elizabeth
ministers, our call is to recognize Jesus in everyone that
we meet and especially the unborn child. And then our role
is to encourage womento encourage whatever God has
given them at that point in their lives."
The only requirements for being an Elizabeth minister,
according to Hannemann, are life experience and a desire
to help. "We don't come as experts, we come as friends,"
she says. "What we say is that we are called in Baptism
and we are trained through life experiences and are empowered
by the Holy Spirit. That is our bottom-line belief."
One thing the organization does ask, however, is that when
the ministers receive their manual they fill out an accompanying
form that says "they will respect life from the moment of
conception. That's very important to us that we would never
want anyone calling herself an Elizabeth minister and encouraging
someone to have an abortion," says Hannemann.
The focus areas of Elizabeth Ministry include pregnancy,
birth, adoption, fertility and infertility, miscarriage,
stillbirth, infant or child death and crisis and special
"In general, as a Christian community, we have fallen short
in recognizing the value of the unborn by not ritualizing
the loss of a child through miscarriage," Hannemann says.
By not doing so, she adds, "it is questionable why [the
community] would mourn an abortion." In both cases, Hannemann
feels, believers should honor the loss of a child.
Since its inception Elizabeth Ministry has expanded to
include a number of issues and resources on topics such
as prenatal testing, fertility and infertility testing and
Most of the contact between Elizabeth ministers and women
they reach out to occurs through home visits. They also,
however, maintain contact through phone calls and letters.
When the minister visits someone's home, she brings a gift
to leave with the person. Those objects, Hannemann says,
serve as a tangible reminder that "someone is thinking of
you and praying for you."
That thinking also led to the development of the Blessing
Bundles concept, which are gift baskets created to celebrate
the different issues associated with pregnancy and childbirth.
The ministry has also recently developed a Blessing Bundle
for teens at the onset of menses to celebrate their womanhood.
The ministry is funded primarily by Hannemann and through
donations. For instance, Hannemann says that, when people
benefit from the ministry and its resources, they then want
to share that with others. She usually requests a donation
to cover the cost of sending someone additional resources
and the response is usually much greater than the actual
"My desireand Father Kurt'swas not to become
like so many organizations that three quarters of our time
is spent trying to recoup funds," says Hannemann.
Currently, there are about 500 chapters of Elizabeth Ministry
in the United States of which Hannemann is aware. There
are also chapters in Canada. In addition, Capuchin missionaries
and military chaplains have established chapters internationally.
Keeping track of the exact number of chapters has proven
difficult for a number of reasons, though, says Hannemann.
The ministry has also been adapted by other denominations,
but Hannemann emphasizes, "We have made a commitment that
what we are about and what we do will stay true to the magisterium
[the Church's teaching authority]."
The Future of Elizabeth Ministry
As for what may be next for Elizabeth Ministry, Hannemann
says she would like to see elizabethministry.com
become active so people can connect with other women and
find resources. In the long run, she sees the Internet as
a way to help individual chapters become self-funded and
be able to "do and give the kind of gifts and resources
they need in order to help enhance their spiritual journey
on whatever experience they're having to walk.
"I just want to give this stuff away," she admits. "That's
been my biggest challenge."
Her other dream is to have a toll-free number through which
she can connect people, similar to that of the post-abortion
healing program Project
Rachel, "so that no one has to feel alone."
Until then, Elizabeth Ministry continues to grow and thriveespecially
in Hannemann's parish of St. Bernard, where it all began.
For Hannemann, the greatest blessing of Elizabeth Ministryas
well as the greatest obstacle in some wayshas been
that the ministry has consumed every minute of her life.
"I have to keep struggling for a balance," she says.
The flip side of that, however, is that her two daughters
have grown up with Elizabeth Ministry. "My daughters have
been so blessed with their involvement with Elizabeth Ministry,
to have so many wonderful mentors about what it means to
be a woman," says Hannemann.
Living the pro-life message of the Visitation story is
not difficult, according to Hannemann. "It's not a complicated
thing. It's very informal. You can be part of a chapter
or form a chapter in church. We have hospitals now that
have formed chapters. You can choose Elizabeth Ministry
as a way of life, that you're going to go out of your way
to encourage women dealing with the issues surrounding childbirth."
The important thing is to be present, she says. "This is
not a new ministry. It's just a new form of a very old ministry.
And that is women sharing all the joys and crises of the
For more information on Elizabeth Ministry, contact
Jeannie Hannemann at Elizabeth Ministry International Headquarters,
107 Idlewild Street, Kaukauna, WI 54130-1311; phone (920)
766-9380; fax: (920) 766-1221. The organization's e-mail
address is elizabeth
Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this magazine
and a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati,
Ohio. She is expecting her second child in March.