Eighteen-year-old Mikaela had nowhere to go. Her father had turned her out of the house in a rage, insisting that she abort her baby. Her boyfriend also urged her to abort his unborn child, refusing to let her move in with him.
The teenager was nine weeks pregnant when she arrived at a maternity shelter in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in September 2020. Her mother, desperate for help, had called St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia, and the church directed the teen to Mary’s House.
“What women in a crisis pregnancy like me need the most is safety, but also the feeling of safety,” Mikaela told The Daily Signal. “It’s not enough that you are safe, that you are in a shelter. It was more important for me after I moved in that I felt accepted and emotionally cared for and protected by the community that I was in.”
“And I think that’s a big thing, especially when a lot of the women that go to these shelters are rejected by their original communities that they come from, their family, or their friends,” the young mother explained.
Kathleen Wilson—or “Miss Kathleen,” as residents affectionately refer to her—founded Mary’s Shelter in 2006, a pro-life maternity home for pregnant women in need of assistance. The shelter has grown from a two-room apartment into a 24-bedroom community of shared homes across the Fredericksburg area.
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Women can live at the shelter for up to three years while furthering their education or securing a career. And in the meantime, they attend Mary’s Shelter’s in-house parenting and life-skills classes and are held to high standards of cleanliness and order.
Through those measures, Wilson told The Daily Signal, the shelter makes sure that women are given the time and resources to be able to independently provide for their families when they eventually leave the home.
“The most important thing people should know about Mary’s Shelter is that we are there for women and children before and after the birth of their child,” Wilson said. “We offer three years of guidance and support to women, who may enter our program with as many additional children as she may have, so that their educational, employment, counseling, and parenting goals can become a real and viable reality.”
Mary’s Shelter’s supporters believe that life begins at conception. The shelter’s donors and supporters are pro-life and want to alleievate the struggles of mothers who choose not to abort their babies, however difficult their circumstances may be.
“The most helpful thing that was done was the emotional support they gave me,” Mikaela said. “And I know this for other roommates as well.”
Wilson referred to the work of a crisis-pregnancy center and the work of a maternity home as “two different ministries.”
“When [the pregnant mothers] come to us, the choice [not to abort] has kind of been made, not always, but kind of been made,” Wilson said. “And then they call us, and we offer them a different kind of hope.”
“So many of the women that come to us are in really, really, really, very horribly abusive relationships or families that are so dysfunctional, or they are homeless,” the Mary’s Shelter founder explained. “All of a sudden, this woman who just thought she was calling because she really didn’t want to abort her baby now finds that she’s going to have all this hope on top of it.”
Pro-abortion critics, such as former Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, often accuse pro-life clinics or pregnancy centers of misrepresenting themselves and tricking women into forgoing abortions.
But Wilson said that many of the women heading to abortion clinics who stumble on pro-life pregnancy centers are completely unaware that there are options for them other than abortion.
And often, she said, crisis-pregnancy centers refer women in the area to Mary’s Shelter.
“We defy that untruth that we only care about the baby in the womb. We love the baby, born and unborn, and we love the woman,” Wilson said. “We are in the lives forever of many of our past families, who—even years later—we are there for when they reach out.”
While crisis-pregnancy centers provide immediate counseling and resources to women who may be considering abortions, maternity homes provide an actual residence for those women.
Mary’s Shelter is a place for those women—and their unborn children—to find rest and safety.
“If you go to Planned Parenthood, who calls you next week? Who do you call next week if you need help?” Wilson asked. “There’s nobody. With us, and all the ministries I know like us, we are here forever.”
Shawntee was pregnant with her third child when she came to Mary’s Shelter. She had just lost her job and her car, and she couldn’t pay rent, she told The Daily Signal. Her baby’s father asked her to have an abortion.
“At the time, I’m like ‘OK,’ ’cause I didn’t know what I was going to do … . I really didn’t know how I was going to be able to afford another child,” she said.
She sold all her things and moved in with her mother, who had set up an appointment at First Care Women’s Health for Shawntee to be funded to have an abortion.
But when Shawntee and her mother went in for the appointment, a staffer pulled Shawntee into a side room.
“You don’t really want to have an abortion, do you?” asked the staffer, according to Shawntee. Shawntee told the staffer that she did not want to abort her baby, but she didn’t know what else to do.
“Well, if you’re interested in keeping the baby, I have somebody who would take you with your children,” Shawntee said the staffer told her. “And her name is Miss Kathleen, and she’s in Fredericksburg. But you would have to be ready to be back tomorrow.”
Shawntee went to Fredericksburg, took a tour of Mary’s Shelter, and moved into the maternity home in January 2014.
Any woman who wishes to take refuge at Mary’s Shelter must agree to the shelter’s covenants, a list of rules reviewed by The Daily Signal, in which residents promise to maintain their living areas, to care for their children, and to follow the Catholic tenets of the shelter on abortion, contraception, and sexual morality.
Residents also promise not to “possess, sell, give, or in any way manufacture, procure or distribute any pornography, alcohol, and/or non-prescribed drugs or medications” and to forgo any kind of violent behavior.
“Those rules are simple, and they are healthy lifestyle rules,” Wilson said. “And women always say, yes, they can live by it. Obviously, once they get here, we have periods where we have to keep reminding them of what they signed. But they’re just meant to keep everybody safe.”
Mary’s Shelter will take a woman from almost any situation or walk of life, Wilson said.
“The only situation we could not take is if a woman in any way had been arrested for harming a child,” Wilson added, noting that they have not yet had to turn a mother away for that reason. “Obviously, we have to keep everybody in our houses safe, and no other mother is going to want to share space with somebody who has physically abused another child.”
‘It Was A Home’
Shawntee had imagined Mary’s Shelter would be like D.C. General, a pest-infested, hospital-turned-homeless shelter that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser shut down in 2018.
“When I got there, and I did the tour, I was shocked and I was surprised,” Shawntee said of Mary’s Shelter. “It was a house. It was a home. It was clean. It smelled good. We had our own bedroom. We had our own bathroom, a kitchen area that we shared, and a living room.”
“It was amazing,” she said. “And it was a comfort.”
Shawntee said she was incredibly grateful she could be somewhere with her children that didn’t “have roaches” and didn’t have “anything bad going on.” She also praised Mary’s Shelter for its wide array of activities for residents, including meals, games, stories, and classes.
“We had a doctor that would come out, and if our children needed any kind of checkups or anything like that, they would do that for free, no cost,” she said.
Mary’s Shelter residents also provided community for one another, Shawntee said. Sometimes one mother would cook dinner for the entire home, and if a mother needed to go run an errand or try to get a job, the other mothers would help out by babysitting each other’s children.
After she had her baby, Shawntee wanted to pursue a career but could not drive herself to get her commercial driver’s license.
“Miss Kathleen paid for my cab ride every day for me to get to the class, which was like $60 a day just to get there, and the same back,” Shawntee told The Daily Signal. “And they did that every day.”
“Even when it was time for me to leave, Miss Kathleen helped me to get my first apartment,” she added. “You know, of course, I made bad decisions being out of there. I wish I would’ve stayed longer and took things serious. But I was so ready to get out and just be on my own and just fell into the trap of a man.”
Wilson reaches out every holiday with presents for Shawntee and her children, Shawntee said. The Mary’s Shelter founder also continuously checks to see if Shawntee, now the mother of five little girls, needs any help.
“She’s just an angel,” Shawntee said. “Anytime I need somebody to talk to, I know I can call on her.”
“She never gave up on me,” Shawntee said of Wilson, reminiscing about times when she acted rebelliously against Wilson while staying at Mary’s Shelter.
“She would feel a type of way, but she would also talk to me and give me a chance. She didn’t just kick you out of the house, just because you had an attitude where you were having a bad day or something like that.”
Instead of reprimanding the residents or kicking them out, Shawntee said, Wilson would tell them, “I’m here to support you, and I love you.”
“Her love is not fake,” Shawntee said. “She’s a real mother to me. She’s just amazing. Mary’s Shelter is just amazing.”
The Mary’s Shelter founder is also in tune with the turbulent emotions of her residents, Shawntee and Mikaeala both told The Daily Signal.
Mikaela described feeling a mix of “relief and depression” when she arrived at the shelter, grateful for a place to stay, but isolated from everything and everyone she knew.
“I think that’s why it was good that Ms. Kathleen gives newcomers time to relax and adjust to their surroundings,” she said. “I imagine it would’ve been even more stressful if I was thrown into the rules and expectations of the place right away.”
‘They’re in Our Lives Forever’
Critics often accuse pro-life lawmakers and activists of only caring about the baby before it’s born and of shirking responsibility for the baby and mother afterwards.
Mikaela said that she thinks most politicians are merely looking for supporters and don’t care about the pro-life movement itself. But people like Wilson and institutions such as Mary’s Shelter are both saving and changing lives, she said.
“Miss Kathleen is actively working to help people,” Mikaela said of Wilson. “She made the shelter. Not everyone can do that, but I think that even guiding people to a shelter that could help them, even that, I feel like that really speaks to them as being separate from a politician who’s just, like, talking on a podium to gain supporters.”
Wilson is certainly not the type of pro-life advocate who critics can point to as an example of hypocrisy: In addition to her three biological children, the Mary’s Shelter founder said that she has raised nine nonbiological children as her own.
Two of those little ones lived at Mary’s Shelter with their mother before Wilson took them in.
“Nobody else is in their lives,” she said. “They were Mary’s Shelter children, and the mom had been gone from Mary’s Shelter for a few years, and she had a bunch of kids, and she kind of lost them at different times.”
After Child Protective Services came to the hotel where the family was staying to take the two children, ages 2 and 3, from their mother, the mother called Wilson in desperation and asked whether she would take them so they would not be put in foster care.
“And so we did,” Wilson said. They are her 11th and 12th children.
“When you go to Planned Parenthood, you walk away with no child, a bill, and still, nothing in your life is changed,” she said. “If that abuser is still there, the people that won’t let you live with them are still there. So, what’s changed? We offer a woman three years. We don’t say, ‘When your baby’s born, you have to go.’”
“They’re in our lives forever.”
LifeNews Note: Mary Margaret Olohan is a reporter for The Daily Signal, where this column originally appeared.