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Elizabeth Ministry: Helping Moms

By Susan Hines-Brigger

Inspired by the Gospel story of the visitation of Mary and her older cousin, Elizabeth, Jeannie Hannemann founded an organization to support women in their childbearing years.

 

Q U I C K S C A N

The Origins of Elizabeth Ministry
Getting the Word Out
About the Ministry
The Future of Elizabeth Ministry

Logo for Elizabeth Ministry
Logo 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 support.

"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 constantly—day and night—and not just from moms—dads, 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 recalls.

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 started."

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 in charge.

The program has been "a beautiful witness to myself about how much God is in control of this—not 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 namesake—Elizabeth. "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 women—to 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 needs.

"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 other issues.

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 cost.

"My desire—and Father Kurt's—was 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 thrive—especially in Hannemann's parish of St. Bernard, where it all began.

For Hannemann, the greatest blessing of Elizabeth Ministry—as well as the greatest obstacle in some ways—has 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 childbearing years."

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 ministry@yahoo.com.

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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.


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