They prayed in the street out front. It was, really, all they could do. The buildings were in shambles, cheerless and institutional. The property stood neglected and overrun with weeds. The fences sagged drunkenly, where they stood at all. There were no staff, no supplies, no endowment, no funding whatsoever. Just a few people praying.
At the forefront of the group was Caroline Wolff, and she'd been here before. Not at this site, but in this place—a place of deep need met by deep determination and love.
She hadn't expected it to be this way. Caroline and her husband had retired to Florida after a lifetime of service and sacrifice. They had raised their own five children. They had opened their home to at least forty others—teenagers "in trouble" or those looking for a refuge from the streets, a stable environment, or just plain fun. They had organized community service, opened a soup kitchen, served as lay missioners, helped rescue the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Pennsylvania; they had owned a successful business, taught school, and coached basketball.
Cured with a Mission. Time to retire, the Wolffs had thought. Surely a little rest was in order. But the Lord had other plans. As he had done before, he announced them in dramatic, unmistakable terms.
Caroline Wolff is devoted to Our Lady, and the rosary has been her support in her endeavors with teens. Years ago in New Jersey, when her home was bursting with her own teenagers' friends and acquaintances living with them—sometimes fifteen at a time—Caroline took a daily pause to say the rosary.
She had begun this practice after a bout with kidney cancer. Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery all had proved unsuccessful in treating the disease, and Caroline found herself in the hospital, paralyzed, jaundiced, and struggling to breathe because of a collapsed lung. Her prognosis was hopeless; her funeral planned. Then, she says, Holy Mary appeared to her. "She pulled me up and said, 'Tell your children about me.'" Right there, Caroline was cured—"Cured with a mission," she likes to say.
And so she began telling her own children about Mary, both in words and in the daily recitation of the rosary. Since then, she has told thousands in the places where she has lived—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, the desert southwest, and in Florida, where she "retired."
Retirement came with a package she and her husband hadn't planned for—another illness: this time, breast cancer. Again, through the auspices of Mary, Caroline was healed completely. And she got the message: another "mission," more ministry. Rest? Plenty of time for that in eternity.
Big Plans, Big Hearts. Today, Caroline bustles energetically around what has become the Saint Gerard Campus in St. Augustine, Florida. The sad collection of ramshackle buildings she stood in front of nearly thirty years ago has been restored, an enormous task that required a year of structural repair and renovation from subfloor to roof. Inside, the dark faux wood wall paneling was removed and replaced with plasterwork painted bright and cheerful colors. Worn linoleum yielded to carpeting. Chintz-covered couches, comfy chairs, floor plants, and vases of vibrant flowers declare an "institution-free" zone. Wolff has created a home, in the least institutional sense of the word.
In fact, the Saint Gerard Campus is a thriving maternity home for pregnant and unwed mothers, most of whom are teenagers. Rape, abuse, ignorance, and just plain bad choices might have steered them there, but iron determination not to be defeated by their circumstances keeps them going. The young women who come to St. Gerard's are not hiding from the world; they are equipping themselves to succeed in it—as single parents, if necessary.
"These girls are my heroes," says Caroline with exuberant and justifiable pride. They have faced a daunting question—what is the cost of life?—and responded generously, with their own lives. They have chosen to cope with the discouragement, fear, and self-sacrifice that accompany an unintended pregnancy.
"Teens have big hearts," she explains. They are uncomplicated by desires for money, cars, degrees, and the like. Still, choosing to bear and possibly raise a child single-handedly comes at a cost, and the girls have chosen to accept it.
A Future Full of Hope. The cost of life—the value of a child—is also something Caroline knows intimately. Nearly fifty years ago, while recovering from the surgery on her kidneys, she and her husband unexpectedly conceived their fifth child. Doctors warned her that carrying the baby to term might be fatal; they advised terminating the pregnancy to save her own life. She refused. Though that pregnancy was difficult, both she and the son she delivered lived. Today he is the father of four children of his own.
Caroline looks forward and sees things like that. She sees not just a teenager with a child, but the adult that each will become, with all the potential of being someone who contributes something in this world. Youth are the answer to so many things in our day, according to Wolff. They have the energy, the heart, the indomitable spirit. "Young people do things," she says, adding with a grin, "Old people talk about things."
And so, the campus she founded includes a fully accredited high school where these young mothers can continue their education throughout their pregnancy, acquiring knowledge that will enable them to go on and do something. Caroline's forward-looking attitude has rubbed off: Graduating is not the main goal for these students—only a springboard to what comes next. College. Careers. Graceful parenthood. But it starts with finishing high school, which some of the girls do with a sleeping infant snuggled in their arms.
Prayer Is the Key. Saint Gerard's also provides a licensed day care program, which the students' children attend when they are no longer newborns. Cribs, swings, and bouncy seats allow the littlest ones to do what babies do—sleep and grow—while their mothers solve equations, parse sentences, and study scientific methods. Older infants can play with toys on brightly colored mats in between naps. Toddlers have their own merrily decorated play-school room with tables and chairs, puzzles and puppets, and educational toys.
Caroline, along with all who work and help at St. Gerard's, is determined to see these young mothers succeed. Caroline's husband spends about two hours each morning picking up the students who don't live at Saint Gerard's and bringing them to the campus; each afternoon, he takes them home again.
Residential facilities on the campus provide living quarters for up to eight students who have nowhere else to go. Two live-in housemothers help the girls acquire basic domestic skills such as cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. Volunteers from local universities come to teach nutrition. Saint Gerard's also provides the students—and walk-ins from the street—with free pregnancy testing and sonograms; vitamins, clothes, diapers, and other baby supplies; and access to medical, legal, and educational resources.
Underpinning it all is prayer, says Caroline. Prayer gets the young women through their hard times, too. The excruciating decision to keep or offer up their babies for adoption. The complicated questions concerning marriage and family. The difficult days at the end of each school year, when questions about the future loom large. A small, peaceful chapel offers a quiet retreat from classroom drills, squalling infants, and the doorbell that rings forty or more times a day, announcing the arrival of yet another young woman who needs help.
What God Can Do. "Tell your children about me." Caroline has done this, to be sure. She remains devoted to Our Lady, whose statues and paintings grace shelves and walls throughout the campus buildings. Also on those walls are many awards, citations, and letters of commendation and thanks. But what stands out most is another kind of visual tribute: The walls once darkened by cheap paneling are beautifully adorned with photos of the thousands of mothers and babies who have passed through the campus.
Caroline estimates that twenty-seven thousand babies have come and gone since Saint Gerard's opened. Some are infants who were given adoptive homes. Many are babies who had the privilege of attending their mothers' high school graduation. Those mothers have gone on to succeed—to graduate from college, medical school, law school; to become loving and competent parents; to raise children who will also go on to succeed, to do something.
"God is amazing," Caroline announces to visitors to the campus. And truly, what he can accomplish through one person who is willing to stand and pray in hope—even in the face of circumstances that seem to contradict it—is marvelous. God can raise a woman, almost dead, from her hospital bed. He can provide for the refurbishing of disintegrating buildings. He can restore lives and bring hope to the hopeless.
The instances of healing and restoration, of renewal and achievement that Wolff has witnessed are too numerous to share, she says. "Someday, I'll write a book. But I don't have time now."
Her days are too busy. Running St. Gerard's. Raising funds. Placing babies in good homes on short notice. Answering the doorbell. And praying.
Ann Bottenhorn lives in Jacksonville, Florida. To learn more about the St. Gerard Campus or to make a contribution, call 904-829-5516, visit stgerardcampus.org, or write: St. Gerard Campus, P.O. Box 4382, St. Augustine, Florida 32085.