Vicky Stanley with her daughter and son during a Single Mothers Retreat hosted by Momentum at Dominus Vobiscum Family Camp, Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon, Que.  Photo courtesy of Momentum

Momentum builds to welcome single moms in Holy Mother Church

By  Anna Farrow, Catholic Register Special
  • December 15, 2022

It was a humid August in Paris when Claire Brown learned she was pregnant. Working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute Curie, Brown was thousands of miles away from her family and friends in Canada. The father had already revealed himself as untrustworthy; he would later berate her for being “selfish” because she would not abort the child. 

Alone and frightened, she went to St. Joseph’s, an English Catholic church a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe, where she sought out a priest she knew. Fr. Anthony was the first person that Brown would tell, face-to-face, she was pregnant.

“He was so gentle and kind,” she said. 

She remembers Fr. Anthony giving her a “mother’s blessing”  and at that point she “lost it” and started to cry. 

“Up to then, I had just focused on the pregnancy. I hadn’t thought of myself as a mother.”

Looking back, Brown realizes how fortunate she was to have a safe place to go when she was in crisis. But it would be a journey of 16 “very difficult years,” spanning five cities and five parishes, before Brown would find a system of support for single mothers in the Catholic Church. 

After many moves, Brown and her son settled in Montreal where she took up a position at McGill University. In 2016, at a Catholic family camp about an hour’s drive northeast of Montreal, she attended a retreat for single mothers. Described as, “life-changing” and “the beginning of the healing,” that week beside Lac Maskinongé proved to be the foundation stone for Momentum, a new organization that seeks to “build a vibrant faith community for single mothers.” 

For Talitha Cere, organizer of the 2016 retreat and co-founder of Momentum, the camp that hosted the first retreat was a familiar place. Cere’s parents had started Dominus Vobiscum Retreat Center in 1998 as a mission to families and children. Every summer for the past 24 years, “Camp DV” has been filled with Catholic families, large and small, who benefit from programs of marriage enrichment, youth ministry, as well as daily Mass, games of beach volleyball and campfires by the lake. 

When Cere became a single mother in 2004, that warm Catholic community she had grown up in suddenly didn’t feel quite as welcoming. She is keen to stress that there was nothing deliberately exclusionary in anyone’s behaviour, either in her own family or in her parish. It was just that she didn’t fit in anymore. Everyone at church seemed to belong to, what she calls, “an intact family.” She felt isolated and had a “deep longing for community.” 

Lone-parent families comprise 16 per cent of Canadian census family structures, and it is logical to acknowledge that there are Catholic families tucked into that statistic. The experience of the women involved in Momentum is that those families are unacknowledged, “unseen,” in the Church. Jane Devlin, widowed when her husband died of cancer, says: “Widows are invisible.” 

That invisibility cloaks all single mothers, whether they are single because of divorce, the death of a husband or were never married.

As the years passed, Cere found that resentment and anger had become ingrained in her. The dam finally broke when her son was preparing to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Parents in her parish were encouraged to go to Confession to model the reception of the sacrament for their children. In Confession, Cere found herself pouring out those feelings of bitterness. The priest responded with compassion and, at that moment of grace, she heard a challenge from God, “What are you going to do about it?”  

Cere approached her parents to ask if the leadership of Camp DV would consider opening a week of the summer schedule for a retreat for single mothers.  It was not an easy decision for them as they didn’t want the primary mission of Dominus Vobiscum to be compromised, or for the team to find themselves overstretched. After prayerful consideration, they agreed and her mother now serves on the leadership team of Momentum.

The retreat became an annual event. Two years later, Brown suggested to Cere that they consider doing more throughout the year. Brown took the lead in organizing monthly gatherings in the Montreal area.  They met Sunday evenings at two parishes, attending the 4 p.m. Mass together and then sharing a pot-luck meal in the church hall. There was programming for the children and the women would have an opportunity to talk and pray together. Sometimes the priest would drop in, sometimes he wouldn’t, but the evening’s activities were integrated into the regular life of the parish.

For Vicky Stanley those Sunday evenings were a lifeline. Stanley, like many of the women involved in Momentum, is an immigrant. She arrived in Montreal from Argentina with a background in fine arts — and no fixed plans. She met the father of her two children when they were both working at the Museé des Beaux-arts. Stanley says that it was a difficult relationship and though they “bought the rings, they never married.” 

Shortly after they decided to separate, the father made the decision to live as a woman. It was a tough time for Stanley and the children. She says that she “knew I needed God in my life, but I didn’t feel part of the Church.” In what she describes as the “hand of God,” Stanley arrived at her neighbourhood parish church looking for a space to rent for her daughter’s birthday party. There she met Norah, a Peruvian woman with whom Stanley could speak Spanish. It was Norah who put her in touch with Momentum.

From her attendance at the first retreat, where Stanley and her children were cabin mates with Brown and her son, she found that her circle of Catholic friends expanded. 

 She enrolled in an Alpha course at the parish, asked to have her children baptized and joined a prayer group. Things are still tough for Stanley and her family, but she has learned she is“not alone” and that she can “find hope in God.”

The pandemic brought its challenges, but when Momentum shifted to a virtual platform for the monthly meetings, it allowed for women living outside of Montreal to participate. That expansion led to a shift in thinking about the nature, scope and, consequently, the potential and promise of the community. Last year, steps were taken to formalize the structure: Momentum applied to become a registered charity and a successful fundraising drive allowed for a staff position to be created. Cere now serves as executive director of Momentum. This year, Momentum was granted charitable status and the team is building a cross-country network of chapters.

With the support of Sr. John Mary Sullivan, associate director of the Ministries and Outreach office at the Archdiocese of Vancouver, the groundwork is being laid for a chapter in that diocese. In Ottawa, Angela Crawley, a single mother, is working together with other mothers to set up a chapter at Divine Infant Parish in Orleans. Making this truly a sea-to-sea venture, Fr. Rob Elford is working together with Khrista Jeffrey to establish a group in Halifax. 

A feature of Momentum is the way it relies upon the already existing structures and organizations of Church life. For several years, the Sisters of Life in Toronto have referred single mothers to Momentum for support. For Crawley and her parish in Orleans, seeking help and guidance from the Catholic Women’s League seems to be a natural fit. Behind, or underneath, the religious and lay communities that act as cooperators, members of Momentum stress the essential role of the priests and the sacraments. 

In addition to its other undertakings, Momentum has produced a series of webinars. A recent session asked the question, “How can parishes support single mothers in times of crisis?” Suggestions included the provision of child-care to allow single mothers the freedom to attend parish activities and church events that were not always couple-centred. 

But, with visible anguish, Jane called for the kind of help that moves beyond programs and activities. She expressed the unbearable burden of “parenting grieving children.” While acknowledging the current caution around teenage boys and the Church, she is “begging men in the Church to please, mentor my sons.” Jane recounts that she has reached out to secular organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada, but that wait-lists are so long her boys will be adults before they reach the top of the list. She laments that groups such as the Knights of Columbus could seem more focused on community, rather than direct, support.

Cere describes the image of the ideal Catholic family like the icon of the Holy Family. St. Joseph standing as a strong shelter for Mary, who in turn holds and cloaks the child Jesus. But what of the women and children in the Church who, for so many reasons, are bereft of that bulwark of protection? Through the work of Cere, Brown, Jane, Jeffrey, Crawley and so many others, Momentum is building to offer them a safe home in Our Holy Mother the Church.

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