Psychotherapist Mary Marrocco, second from left, speaks with clergy and counsellors at a Nov. 15 seminar on post-abortive pastoral care hosted by the Sisters of Life in Toronto. Photo by Jean Ko Din

Sisters seek to build a healing path post abortion

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  • December 1, 2017
Angelina Steenstra had an abortion at 15 years old. 

No one knew about it for a very long time. It was a secret burden she carried for seven years until, in a moment of despair, 22-year-old Steenstra called in to a late-night broadcast of the Christian TV talk show 100 Huntley Street. 

“It really was an incredible God moment,” said Steenstra. “It was like somebody just gave me fresh air because I called it by its proper name: sin.” 

It was 1977 and Canadian televangelist David Mainse was doing an “altar call,” inviting people to call in to the program and turn their life over to Jesus Christ. 

“(The prayer counsellor) told me if you have a Bible, read it everyday. If you have a church, go back to it,” Steenstra recalled. 

Looking back at that phone call with the prayer counsellor, Steenstra said it was that moment that led her back to the Catholic Church. 

Stories like this are why the Congregation of the Sisters of Life are hoping to launch a new Hope and Healing ministry in the Archdiocese of Toronto. The ministry found great success with the Sisters of Life who serve in New York City. 

As the Sisters mark 10 years of service in the Toronto archdiocese, they are looking to expand their outreach and launch this new ministry.

“We started thinking about it in the spring because we’ve experienced the need of women seeking healing after abortion and yet we don’t have a firm structure,” said Sr. John Mary de Souza, provincial superior of the Sisters of Life Toronto. “We thought as the first step would be to educate clergy and counsellors on this and then to build a network of people that can collaborate with us.”

On Nov. 15, the sisters organized a preliminary seminar for clergy and counsellors to educate them on post-abortive pastoral care. About 50 priests, therapists, counsellors and pastoral workers from the Greater Toronto Area attended the event. 

Steenstra was a special guest, along with Jennifer Borrelli. Both women shared personal testimonies of how their abortions caused physical, mental, emotional and spiritual scars. 

Borrelli has had two abortions. She was 18 years old when she had her first abortion in 1981. She felt pressured by her boyfriend of six months, so she decided to go to her local Planned Parenthood centre in New York. Her second abortion took place about four years later, under the pressure of the same boyfriend.

“The second one, I had the hardest time getting over,” said Borrelli. “We didn’t really talk about the first one and I was dealing with a lot of issues from the first one, not really understanding; a lot of anger, a lot of low self-esteem, a lot of depression.”

Borelli said she didn’t understand that her suffering came from the guilt and trauma of her two abortions. She grew angry and jealous as other women had children around her. Like Steenstra, she had avoided the issue for many years. 

In 2010, after Borrelli met and married her current husband, she began exploring the idea of returning to the Church. They weren’t married in the Church but as they slowly found their faith, he wanted their marriage to be validated in the Church. 

 “When he told me we needed to go to Confession, I almost completely passed out. I’ve been avoiding Confession my whole life,” said Borelli

Borrelli said she mustered up all the courage she could to walk into that confessional. She had been avoiding the Church for most of her life and at 46 years old, she didn’t think she could be forgiven. 

Borrelli’s leap of faith was rewarded during her Confession with her parish priest. She started to cry and she said it was as if the priest already knew. 

“Once he granted me absolution, that priest gave me the biggest smile. He was so ecstatic and he hugged me,” said Borrelli. “That broke down every barrier and that was the very first time I encountered Christ.... This was true conversion, a priest acting in the persona of Christ, telling me ‘I love you and welcome home.’ ”

The priest recommended Borelli has turn to the Sisters of Life in New York for healing and support. Since then, she has been working with the sisters, sharing her testimony. 

Steenstra co-founded Second Chance Ministry in 1990 with her husband Walter and Scarboro Foreign Missions Fr. Vincent Heffernan. 

Steenstra and Borrelli hope their stories will encourage more the clergy and counsellors to become a welcoming support for women in Toronto. 

Fr. Peter Pilsner was a keynote speaker at the seminar, sharing his experience in the Archdiocese of New York. Dr. Mary Marrocco, a registered psychotherapist and regular columnist with The Catholic Register, shared her professional experience with the counsellors. 

“For me, it’s a very hopeful sign that we have this ministry of the Sisters ... and also the connectivity of different counsellors and different people interested in the pro-life movement to come together to learn and discern as a diocese how we can respond to this in a more effective way,” said Fr. Francis Ching of the Companions of the Cross in Toronto and spiritual director for Eastern Canada Chinese Catholic Living Camp.

“The Church is representative of a source of healing so anything that we address, we as Catholic therapists, we have to go back to the source,” said Dr. Thalia Zamora-John, a practising therapist in Toronto for seven years. 

“When one aspect of our being is dysfunctional, the other aspects (of our mind, body and spirit) also get thrown off. When you come into healing, we still have to go back to the whole.”

There are six Sisters of Life in the Toronto archdiocese offering pregnancy help and support for vulnerable women, as well as evangelization on the sanctity of life. For more information, visit sistersoflife.org or email hopeandhealing@sistersoflife.org.

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