Maternity center dedicated to moms in need and Mary

Moms who need help clothing their children can shop free of charge at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Center. Photo: Stephen Brashear Moms who need help clothing their children can shop free of charge at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Center. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Center has been helping mothers and children in need for 28 years

Denesia, a mother of three, pushes her 1-year-old daughter in a shopping cart as she makes her way around the clothing racks. She chooses several items, including a blanket, a warm coat and some long-sleeved shirts for her 7-year-old son.

When Denesia reaches the checkout counter, there’s no charge. She’s been shopping at Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Center, a ministry whose mission is supporting women in need during and after pregnancy, and clothing their children.

“It makes a big difference,” said Denesia, explaining this is her second visit to the walk-in center, located in the basement of a Catholic Community Services building in Lakewood. “My husband is the only one who works, so with a family of five, it’s tough, but we make it work.”

The center was started 28 years ago this January by three local women — Grace Fitzpatrick, Rita Pauly and Joan Sullivan — inspired to action after a Marian pilgrimage to Medjugorje, a town in what was then Yugoslavia. Since 2000, the ministry has been a special works conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Tacoma-Pierce County.

In the past year, the center’s volunteers helped more than 1,100 mothers, many of them single women with little support from the father or family.

“This is a pro-life job,” said Angie Slee, a former president who, at age 84, is retired from the ministry’s hands-on work, but serves as its spiritual advisor. “It’s not about giving things, it’s more about evangelizing,” she said. “You are the face of Christ, and we’re going to take care of you.”

Juli Billingsley and Angie Slee
Juli Billingsley, left, and Angie Slee both felt called by Mary to help mothers in need. They became good friends while volunteering at Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Center. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Chosen for this work

Just as the founders felt called by Mary to reach out to mothers in need, other members have felt that pull.

“It seems like Our Lady just handpicks the workers we have here,” said Slee, who was inspired years ago while attending the center’s annual Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration at her parish, St. John Bosco in Lakewood. “I just thought, This is my calling,” said Slee, a mother of six.

There was just one snag: The center’s hours didn’t mesh with her work schedule, so she had to wait until retiring. Her first job at the center was translating for Hispanic clients (she grew up in Texas, and Spanish is her first language).

For Juli Billingsley, the current president, the path to Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Center began during a pilgrimage with her mother to Garabandal, Spain. While walking around “the pines,” the spot where Marian apparitions were reported in the early 1960s, “I had a real awakening to my faith,” Billingsley said.

Although she has felt close to Mary since childhood, and during her teen years thought she might have a religious vocation, as an adult her faith “was not the center of my life,” Billingsley said. Married to a Baptist, Billingsley went to Sunday Mass, but didn’t talk about “Catholic things” very often.

At Garabandal, Billingsley told her mother, “‘You know, I’ve been kind of a Protestant Catholic.’ My dear mother said, ‘Well, I was wondering when you were going to notice that.’”

A few nights later at dinner, the pilgrimage founder, Rosalie Turton, asked Billingsley about her work. She explained her plans to retire from active duty as an Army doctor in two years, and then continue working in the medical field as a civilian.

“She told me that the Blessed Mother had other plans for me,” Billingsley recalled. “I thought that was intriguing, but I didn’t think it was likely.”

Billingsley decided to do better in her faith life. When the multi-country pilgrimage reached Rome, she went to confession, where the priest advised her to attend Mass and say the rosary every day.

In 2002, Billingsley retired from the Army and thought she had the ideal job lined up. When it fell through, she began attending daily Mass at her parish, St. John Bosco. It was on a parish pilgrimage to The Grotto in Portland that Slee recruited her to volunteer at the center.

She volunteered until going back to work a year later. Then, after praying about it, Billingsley and her husband, Jerry, adopted three children — ages 8, 11 and 13 — from Russia.

When Billingsley left work for good in 2013, she returned to volunteering at the maternity center. The next year, she made a consecration to Mary and, four days later, was asked to become president of the center. “I thought, Boy, the Blessed Mother really takes you at your word,” Billingsley said.

praying as a group
Volunteers gather to pray for the mothers and children who soon will walk through the doors at Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Center. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Reliance on prayer

The Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Center opens its doors two mornings a week, but first the volunteers pray, “for our pregnant mothers, for their health, for healthy babies and easy deliveries,” Billingsley said. Prayers for the needs of the center always seem to be answered, Slee said.

As each mom arrives, volunteers do a quick interview to learn about her family’s needs, and pray with those who agree (most do), Billingsley said.

Last year, a pregnant young woman, kicked out of the house by her mother because she wouldn’t have an abortion, came through the doors, Billingsley said. “She’s the person that got us to thinking, We’ve got to do more than wait until the eighth month and then we’ll help you,” Billingsley said. “They’re just a prime target for the abortion industry.”

So moms can shop monthly during their pregnancies, which gives the center volunteers a way to stay connected with and support them. “It doesn’t stop with the birth of the baby,” Billingsley said. Moms can come back every month until their children are school-age.

In the past year, the center has given out 24,000 diapers, 100 hand-selected layettes and 81 infant car seats, in addition to clothing and other goods, all valued at nearly $53,000. Three parishes — St. John Bosco and St. Frances Cabrini in Lakewood and St. Charles Borromeo in Tacoma — provide ongoing support for the ministry, which draws its 27 volunteers from parishes around Pierce County.

After working all over the country and in Europe, “the best job I’ve ever had, really, is working at Guadalupe,” Billingsley said. “There’s just this nice bunch of women who want to help women and kids,” she said, and “dealing with kids and expectant moms, it’s usually a lot of fun.”

baby in cart
A baby chills out while his mother shops for clothing. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Center

Location: 5705 Main St. S.W., Lakewood

Hours: 10 a.m. to noon, Monday and Friday

Donations needed: cash and Costco gift cards (Costco has the best diaper prices)

Send checks/gift cards to: OLGMC, P.O. Box 99565, Lakewood, WA 98496

This story originally ran in Northwest Catholic's January/February 2017 print edition under the title "Dedicated to moms and Mary."

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.