Elizabeth Ministry -

Reaching Out, Woman to Woman


Every family experiences challenges, joys and sorrows. Often what determines how a family emerges depends upon the support they receive along the way.

One woman works to help parents give and receive the loving support once passed on from the neighbors next door or Grandma who lived two blocks away.

The Background

Jeannie Hannemann says that as the pastoral associate at St. Bernard Parish in Appleton, Wisconsin, she saw that many young parents yearned for the advice and support of parents who had “been there.”

“In my position as director of the baptism preparation program, I heard many new moms commiserate over their long distance phone bills that were so high from calling their moms, sisters and friends,” who frequently lived out of state, Hannemann says.

She says because people in today’s society move so often, what used to happen through neighbor and family mentoring is missing.

Hannemann began to give her home number to the parents coming for baptism preparation sessions. “The calls were unbelievable, from moms and dads, especially at 10:30 at night after they’d seen all the terrible news on T.V.,” she says.

Hannemann says that she and her husband, Bruce, knew the importance of support. They suffered through more than eight years of infertility before conceiving their elder daughter. When their second daughter was born, she was born with serious birth defects requiring many surgeries.

From the time their second child was two months to five months old,Hannemann says members of their parish brought them a meal every other day.

“Not only were the meals great, it meant so much to have someone stop by to cry with. Frequently people left a little poem, a reflection or statue. Some nights our daughter had a seizure every half an hour and at the moment I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, I’d see one of those signs of support and I could go on,” Hannemann says.

Drawing from those experiences and the death of her own baby brother when she was four years old, and recognizing the needs of her fellow parishioners, Hannemann began thinking of a program to match experienced mothers with newer moms to offer support.

The Visits

She says the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth was a clear model for this visiting ministry as it is the most powerful visit in Scripture. “Elizabeth praised, encouraged and built up Mary for her faith... God knew Mary needed a mentor, someone to share the miracles and maternal mysteries with,” Hannemann says. “Mary proclaimed the Magnificat only after she was understood by another ordinary woman.”

Hannemann says the exciting part of Elizabeth Ministry for her is seeing the stories of connection between total strangers who frequently become wonderful friends.

As an example, the first visit Hannemann arranged was between two mothers of children born with disabilities. One mother, Karen Borscheim, had just given birth to her son Andrew who has Aperts syndrome, a disease which caused him to be very malformed.

Hannemann says Borscheim called her from the hospital looking for support. Although Hannemann could have responded since her own daughter was born with birth defects, she did not feel capable and thought immediately of her good friend, Elizabeth (Betty) Skrypczak, who has a son with disabilities as well. Skrypczak agreed to the visit, as she had already seen how sharing her experiences with Hannemann in the past helped them both.

“Basically, Karen was happy to have someone who understood all those fears that a mother experiences,” Skrypczak says. “Once you know someone has walked in your shoes, then you can open up and vent your feelings.”

Borscheim says she agrees she could say things to Skrypczak that any other parent would have cringed to hear. “But I don’t think the talking and relating were even as important as just having someone there,” Borscheim says.

She says the first year after Andrew was born it was all she could do to survive and help him to live. “Getting up and getting out of bed was significant,” Borscheim says. “Betty would drive over and go into Andrew’s room to see if he was still alive on mornings I couldn’t bear it.”

The Growth

Hannemann says she began to arrange more and more visits for members of her parish as she would hear of new births, adoptions, mothers with difficult pregnancies and miscarriages. During a scheduled parish visit by Bishop Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, Hannemann’s pastor asked her to explain Elizabeth Ministry to the bishop.

Bishop Morneau says he was so impressed by the program he knew it had to be shared. “Jeannie was addressing a real need of moms,” he says.

“I think it’s a wonderful way for the church to connect, to render assistance and reach out to with moms even before baptism.”

At that time Bishop Morneau put Hannemann and Fr. Kurt Gessner, Capuchin, who was Hannemann’s mentor and spiritual director for Elizabeth Ministry, in touch with a publisher. Hannemann was working on her master’s degree at Regis University in Denver and felt torn between her work with Elizabeth Ministry and her dissertation developing a baptism preparation program.

Hannemann says her advisor made it simple for her: Elizabeth Ministry will be your project, she says she was told.

With that final impetus and support from her husband and daughters she and Fr. Gessner wrote a manual and sample prayers and suggestions for the gifts bags delivered to the moms who were visited.

Through their publisher, the Elizabeth materials began to be distributed to nearly every diocese in the United States and in other countries including Canada, Germany, England and Wales, and many Central American countries through the Capuchin missionaries and military chaplains.

Hannemann and Fr. Gessner began writing more supplementary materials and speaking at conferences, retreats and training seminars.

Unfortunately, the publisher did not keep track of all the Elizabeth Ministry chapters formed over the years. Since Hannemann and Fr. Gessner decided to get control over their copyrights again last year, they’ve been doing what they can to identify the groups.

“Our dream is to have an 800 number and have people around the country call and be able to hook them up with an Elizabeth Ministry chapter in their area,” Hannemann says.

In the mean time, people can call the headquarters for “direct resourcing” if they do not have an Elizabeth Ministry in their parish. They can order a “blessing bundle” with devotional prayers, books, gifts and other items. Blessing bundles are available for almost any family-related situation including pregnancy, miscarriage, birth, adoption, infertility, onset of menses, menopause, grieving child loss and other times of crisis.

Hannemann says they receive calls from all over the country. One person who called wanted a gift to help a mother whose husband was killed and two-year old was in critical condition after being hit by car while they stood by an ATM machine.

Another grandmother from New York called for support as she grieved for her son and daughter-in-law whose baby miscarried. She ordered a blessing bundle for them and had her own pain acknowledged.

Life is a Precious Gift

Hannemann says in every interaction over the phone, in a visit, or during a retreat or seminar, the message of Elizabeth Ministry is that life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.

She says the work is very pro-life as it recognizes the beauty and importance of every life from the moment of fertilization.

“I know of at least one baby that is alive today because of our ministry,” she says. “Someone gave a couple our book about prenatal testing and although they were under so much pressure (to abort), they had the baby.”

Supporting families who have miscarried is another essential pro-life facet of the program, Hannemann says. Every November 1 they sponsor a memorial for all babies lost through abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss.

“If we want to say we’re pro-life, then we have to mourn a miscarriage,” she says. “Then we’re saying this unborn life is important... One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage and it’s a grief we’ve kept silent and private. We’ve lost a chance to proclaim what we believe.”

The Future

Hannemann says she sees a call-within-the call developing as more couples face infertility and the number of treatments, some of which neglect to protect innocent preborn babies.

Hannemann says she is receiving many calls from parents asking, “We have frozen embryos and we don’t know what to do with them; what do we do?”

“We’re not standing in judgment of them, we share the Church’s teaching,” Hannemann says. “The need is so great to be there for families, to be a spiritual support.”

For more information or to donate funds, contact Hannemann at the International Elizabeth Ministry Headquarters, 107 Idlewild St., Kaukauna, WI 54130, (920) 766-9380, elizabethministry@yahoo.com.


(This article is dedicated to the loving memory of Fr. Kurt Gessner who died in peace on September 24, 2000. Grant unto him eternal rest, O Lord.)

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