Flowers bloom and babies are conceived pure, not through any work of their own – they are glorious, but sometimes their lives are brief, or they may not see the sun at all.
Lily’s Gift, a pastoral initiative named for the flowers of Scripture and an infant who never took her first breath, offers support to parents who receive poor prenatal diagnoses (PPD) including a variety of conditions such as genetic syndromes, heart problems and spina bifida.
The organization was conceived last fall and is modeled after Be Not Afraid, a private non-profit corporation that supports families who receive a PPD and trains local organizations to do the same. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Persons with Disabilities, Office for Life and Family and Catholic Social Services are partnering in this ministry.
Lily’s Gift offers a free service focusing on meeting the needs of expectant parents who have received a PPD by connecting them with trained volunteer peer ministers and professionals. They provide care with birth plans, referrals to community support systems, compassionate guidance through anticipated grief, neonatal and stillbirth care, and medical decision making.
“I have been so inspired by the loving response of our Lily’s Gift volunteer peers,” said Sister Kathleen Schipani, I.H.M., director of the archdiocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities.
“As they related to me their stories and the desires in their hearts to help others who have similar experiences, I realize what a profoundly sacred endeavor this is,” she added. “For the families we have served already, the presence of a peer for support and the knowledge that there are many people praying for them gives them a great deal of comfort.”
Kathleen Bevenour, an administrator for Catholic Social Services, is also inspired by the ministry.
“We have worked on setting up and training individuals so that they have the tools needed to assist them while walking through pregnancies of those that have asked for support from the ministry,” she said. “I will continue to facilitate the beginnings and hope to continue to remain a support throughout this ministry’s years.”
Lily’s Gift has 23 volunteers including 20 trained peers – parents taught through the Be Not Afraid program who have experienced PPD. Lily’s Gift has served three families since its inception, and Sister Schipani expects that number to increase once brochures are distributed to medical centers and parishes are made aware of the ministry. (Contact the Office for Persons with Disabilities at 215-587-3913 or visit Lily’s Gift online for more information.)
Kate and Gaetano Chetta, of Visitation B.V.M. Parish in Trooper, Montgomery County, received the news that their 22-week-old pre-born daughter had serious health complications the same week they discovered the archdiocese’s new poor prenatal diagnosis ministry in their parish bulletin.
At that time, the organization did not have a title. It was later named for their daughter as they were one of the first families helped.
Visitation’s respect life group leader encouraged the couple to call Sister Schipani who reached out to them immediately.
“Sister Kathleen spent hours talking with us, praying with us at the hospital; she helped us think about how to memorialize Lily Anna; she gave us a medal for Lily; she took her time and was very thoughtful,” Kate Chetta remembers.
The professional photography non-profit Now I Lay me Down to Sleep also took free remembrance portraits for the family, in accord with its mission.
“The best thing we got out of Sister Kathleen’s ministry was knowing that someone was praying for our daughter and us,” added Gaetano. He was astounded at the vast network of people who emailed with prayers.
Lily was stillborn at 26 weeks last April. About a month later, Sister Schipani contacted the Chettas and asked them to pray about using Lily’s name for the organization she was developing. They put it off until Kate’s due date in August when someone gave her the Bible verse: “Consider the lilies of the field ….”
“We shouldn’t have any anxiety in our lives because God is with us,” Kate said. “That gave us so much comfort. In some ways it’s hard because there’s a lot of reminders of sadness, but we find a lot of joy in memorializing our daughter. As a mom, one of my biggest fears is people forgetting her. It’s amazing that a 26-week old baby could have such an impact.”
The Chettas identify themselves as pro-life and were saddened by the advice they received from a doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, who said if he were in their situation, he would abort.
While only 4 to 5 percent of mothers (more than 100,000 nationwide) receive a PPD, according to Be Not Afraid’s statistical brochure, “80 percent of parents choose to abort when a fetal defect is detected.”
“Think of what we would have missed: that love, sanctity and honoring the beauty and purpose of her life,” Kate Chetta said. “We hope and pray that Lily’s Gift reaches parents and gives them the support it gave us.”
She would tell other parents who receive PPD, “You’re not alone. It’s hard, but there’s beauty and grace in the culture of life.”
“The fight for life hasn’t been so important as it is now,” Gaetano added. “We’ve become the support in an organization that all life should be honored.”
The Chettas 2-year-old daughter Sophia called, “Lily, Lily” at the funeral home. The Chettas are expecting again and Sophia said she wants to take this baby home.
“She is already a big sister to her little sister in heaven. We talk to her and pray to her daily,” Kate said. “Our love story is eternal. This is just the beginning.”
The Reagans’ Story
“My 9-year-old son Zachary said, ‘I’m sad that Gabe’s not with us every day but happy to have an angel in heaven looking out for me!’” said Chantell Reagan, of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Springfield, Delaware County. “I thought that was very sweet.”
The Reagans’ second son, Gabriel John, was diagnosed seven years ago with anencephaly, a fatal defect where the head covering isn’t developed and the brain is exposed. The ultrasound technician suggested abortion. Chantell was 20 weeks pregnant.
“There was a lot of pressure, so I scheduled the DNC (abortion) procedure,” she said. “I felt rushed. I’m Catholic, but you can’t even think in that situation. I didn’t want to make a bad decision, but I couldn’t process within a 24-hour timeframe.”
Conflicted, Chantell reached out to her parents and priests who advised her that she did not have to make the decision tomorrow, which gave her time to build courage and proceed with the pregnancy.
“It was the hardest decision we had to make and it was the best decision we ever made.”
Chantell felt lonely in her experience. “No one knows how to deal with you; there’s not a lot of support for carrying to term.” She found an online forum for which she was grateful, but the process was still very challenging.
She credits her mother and her friend, Msgr. John P. Murphy, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Allentown, for their supportive thinking: “Why don’t you just let things happen naturally?”
Msgr. Murphy also suggested Chantell pray to the Blessed Mother for strength.
“That was a huge help,” Chantell said, and her devotion to Mary has continued.
In the end, Gabriel was delivered via C-section to give him a better chance at life. He lived for two days, which is rare. The family was able to bathe and change him, and Zachary held his little brother.
Since then, the Reagans’ conceived another son, Patrick, who is 5.
Chantell now has become a Lily’s Gift volunteer as a peer minister serving two PPD parents, including one with an anencephaly diagnosis.
“Having gone through this horrible, lonely thing that happens, you want to help, to be of any kind of service, to listen, ask questions … that’s a really important resource – what else can I do with this but help other people?” she said.
“You just don’t know how to deal with this type of thing. It’s not easy, but the outcome – that solidified it for me.”
Ways to Help
Dos Leach of Sacred Heart Parish in Oxford, Chester County, was inspired to volunteer for Lily’s Gift after she attended a pro-life workshop where Tracy Windsor, co-founder of Be Not Afraid, presented on PPD. Leach felt “called to offer whatever time and talent I can to bring the light of Christ to those in their darkest hours.”
Volunteers pray for the families and contribute forms of helpful relief. Some create gender-specific baby items like hats, gowns and monogramed blankets – which Leach said are especially meaningful for families. A volunteer to monogram is currently needed, she said.
Others volunteers make rosaries for the entire family which “allow the family to bond,” Leach said. Shadow boxes and memory books also capture precious moments of babies’ lives that can be cherished after their deaths.
The website Takethemameal.com is a meal delivery program for families that allows for dietary needs and appropriate times to deliver food.
Volunteers have involved school children, parishes and pro-life groups in this ministry.
To receive support from Lily’s Gift or for information on how to help, contact Sister Kathleen Schipani at LilysGiftLuke12.firstname.lastname@example.org
“There’s nothing more rewarding than to be part of this organization to help others,” Gaetano Chetta said.
“Our lives have been changed for the better because of her,” Kate Chetta said of Lily. “She was a gift to us.”
Erin Maguire is a freelance writer in Flourtown.