All Are Welcome

You know what they say about pro-life Catholics. We only care about babies before they are born. Tell it to Chris Bell.

Bell has done more than just about anyone to help women and babies over the last 30 years. Since founding his first crisis pregnancy center in 1985, Bell has seen 1,090 children born at his network of Good Counsel Homes. He now runs seven in four states, providing new mothers shelter and comfort during the hour of their greatest need.

“We take any woman who is pregnant and needs a place to stay,” he told me recently. That’s not idle talk. Good Counsel operates a 24-hour hotline and has “an open intake policy. If there are no beds in one house, we will find you a bed in another house.”

The average stay is one year. During that time mothers are given job training, help finding an apartment, and parenting classes. Bell estimates that over the course of three decades, he and his colleagues have provided 600,000 nights of shelter to more than 8,000 women and children.

Many of the women who come are mothers already. One in five is an immigrant. Roughly half have had an abortion. Nearly all are survivors of domestic violence.

This is not a feel-good factory. Lives are at stake.

In September, Good Counsel announced a new partnership with an old friend: Norwalk, Connecticut’s little manger, Malta House. Bell helped found the 10-bedroom maternity home 20 years ago.

It’s a happy homecoming to Fairfield County for Bell. A Long Islander, he graduated from the University of Bridgeport in 1979. He wasn’t always the best Catholic in those years, he admits, but he did strike up a fateful friendship with campus chaplain Fr. Gerry Devore.

Degree in hand, Bell joined Covenant House, the Hell’s Kitchen field hospital for homeless youth. He got a street-level look at the life of a vulnerable young woman in the New York City of the early 1980s.

“I was appalled,” he said. “These women needed help and all we could offer them was a night in a welfare hotel. That still happens in New York.”

Bell was moved by the despair he witnessed at Covenant House. He felt God calling him to open a home for pregnant women. He took the idea to his spiritual director, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who was well-known in the New York area but years away from becoming an international Catholic celebrity via EWTN. The charismatic Franciscan urged him to go for it.

“To my amazement he said, ‘I’ll help you,’” Bell recalled.  “It really sounded to me like God was saying ‘I’ll help you.’”

The Groeschel connection opened doors for Bell, who headed out on the parish speaking circuit, giving talks and “begging for money.” Bell has charisma of his own, and the donations started trickling in.

The first Good Counsel Home opened in Hoboken. Two more opened in 1987, one in Spring Valley, NY, and one on Staten Island. A fourth opened in the South Bronx in 1991.

Sometime in the mid-nineties, Bell got a call from his college spiritual director. Fr. Gerry told him that two Fairfield County Catholics—Hope Carter and Michael O’Rourke—had come to him with the idea of opening a home for mothers and babies in the Diocese of Bridgeport.

“You guys need to meet Chris Bell,” said Fr. Gerry. They got together at the former convent on East Avenue, across from St. Thomas the Apostle. Bell was impressed—and a little emotional.

“They told me what they wanted to do. They said they thought the Order of Malta would support it and my mouth dropped open,” he said. “I was humbled because I felt like I was coming back home to the Bridgeport Diocese. I don’t know if I mentioned, but I didn’t go to mass as often I should have at college.”

Malta House was born in 1998, and the Order of Malta did support it, though it was up to Bell, O’Rourke, Carter, and scores of volunteers to run the place. Eventually they decided to spin Malta House off from the rest of the Good Counsel network.

There wasn’t any drama. Sometimes small nonprofits need to step out on their own. Bell and Fr. Groeschel stayed on the Malta House board of directors.

“Now, a few years have gone by, and the Good Counsel and Malta House boards have decided that we can do better together,” said Bell. The rechristened home is Good Counsel Malta House of Connecticut. “Hopefully we can grow. We’d like to open another house in the state if we can.”

About half of the women who come to Good Counsel Homes leave with a job and an apartment. If that sounds low, remember the open-door policy. Some outfits turn people away. It boosts the “success rate” in their glossy brochures.

Chris Bell won’t hear of it. All are welcome; that’s his policy.

The cases Bell and his staff take on can be complex. Substance abuse, mental illness, and the long, slow breakdown of the family in urban communities make it more so. Sometimes women leave without saying where they’re going. Often they don’t come back.

“We obviously can’t force people to stay and take the help we offer,” Bell told me. But they try.

With God’s help they try.

From the October 2017 edition of Fairfield County Catholic

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