Local News Archive
Print Issue: October 3, 2002
Weaving Faith, Social Justice, Couple Forms Seamless Garment Ministries
By Rebecca Rakoczy, Staff Writer
MARIETTA - Every beautiful tapestry starts with separate threads. So it is with the lives of Debby and Brian Freel, whose lives have become interwoven with common purpose and love for God. Together they have formed Seamless Garment ministries to serve unwed mothers with shelter and support.
Their recent purchase of a modest frame home for this ministry in a quiet Marietta neighborhood is the result of a lot of prayer, support from across the nation, and a happy miracle of timing. The house radiates a coziness and peacefulness that belies the desperate circumstances of the pregnant woman that is living there. Once a month, Father Linus DeSantis, OFM Conv., holds a Mass in the home. The Freels provide musical accompaniment, joined by friends, and volunteers who are supporters of their efforts. People bring by diapers, food and other supplies to help stock the small house. Letters come from across the country. Debby brings out one from an elderly woman on a fixed income who lauds the couple's efforts and sends a check for five dollars.
In April, the home was dedicated and blessed by Archbishop John F. Donoghue on the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear God's son. "We could not have planned the coincidence," said Debby.
Sister Loretta McCarthy, SBS, who has followed the couple's progress as Debby's spiritual director, said the couple's philosophy "gives me great joy."
"I am meeting more and more women like her," she said. "She and Brian have a heart for the poor in many ways."
Said Debby, "She kept telling us, "'just tell people about it. If God wants this to happen, God will move their hearts to help you.'"
For the Freels, the ministry to help unwed mothers find a place of comfort amidst chaos is a continuation of their own belief in the "seamless garment" of respecting life from birth to natural death. It's a belief whose underpinnings are the Catholic social justice teachings, and the inspiration of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Catholic Worker movement co-founder Dorothy Day.
Active in their parish, Transfiguration, the couple is part of a small group who regularly stand in vigil at the courthouse on the Marietta Square prior to a state execution. With five executions in the state of Georgia in 2001, their constant presence there, holding signs, and sometimes candles, has become a familiar sight. "We do get a lot of friendly waves, and honks," said Debby. "But people also sometimes yell, 'An eye for an eye,'" she said. Not without good humor, she says she wants to reply, "will make you blind!"
The couple's good-natured humor belies the sacrifices they made along the way. Like a beautiful tapestry that takes time to weave, getting to the present involved a lot of soul-searching, prayer, hard work - and more prayer.
"I have always wanted to give hospitality to pregnant women to give them a place to live, to give them hope and to give them safety," said Debby. But that dream had been deferred for many years.
Quietly, she tells of her own experience. As a teenager, she had become pregnant. At the time, and because of family circumstances, it was thought best to send her to Texas to a home for unwed teens to have the baby, she said. She remembers the period as one of sadness and loneliness as she awaited the birth of her child. When she gave birth to an infant girl, she held her in her arms for a moment, then gave her up for adoption.
Her own story isn't something she has openly broadcast in the past. Even members of her family were not aware of her "visit" to Texas many years ago, she said.
After giving up the baby, she came home, and started to rebuild her life. That included receiving a degree in art history from Oglethorpe University, and a year of graduate school at the University of Georgia. But she felt incomplete. "I felt like I wasn't helping anyone very much, debating why some artists used a particular color," she said. "The Gulf War situation was occurring. I started reading the Bible every day for Lent. And that really changed my focus."
When she saw a posting for the Samaritan Lay Ministries at UGA's Catholic Center, she knew she had a different calling than art. She joined the program, and went to Texas as a caseworker in inner city Dallas schools.
Meanwhile, Brian was into his second year of seminary at St. Mary's in Baltimore. As part of the discernment program, he was assigned to work with Msgr. Pat Bishop at Transfiguration to develop a singles ministry.
"I had finished the Samaritan program in Dallas and had been tentatively offered a position as a youth minister there at St. Rita's," Debby recalled. "So I came home for a month before going back." With her background in singles ministry from Dallas, Debby was asked to help out.
The two young people talked a lot, becoming good friends. They found out they had a lot in common with their values and spirituality. Both knew they shared a passion for social justice, and also to live "simply."
Brian soon realized he had to reevaluate his call to the priesthood. "I decided if I had given two years to the priesthood (study) and I had to determine whether I was being called to marriage," he said. For Debby, the job in Dallas was offered to a co-worker. But that proved to be a blessing, rather than a disappointment.
Brian did leave seminary, and in 1996, his pastor, Msgr. Bishop, officiated at their wedding.
Their shared philosophy of simple living led them around the country, trying to find a community that would fit their lives. They visited several communities including the Brothers and Sisters of Charity in Arkansas, and the Pecos Monastery in New Mexico, where monks, nuns and couples live. Throughout their visits, they didn't feel called, said Debby.
Then they found out about Jubilee Partners in Comer, Ga. "It was interesting because I had come full circle back to Athens (area) where I had found out about the Samaritan program," said Debby.
The Jubilee community in Comer is an interdenominational Christian community that provides hospitality to refugees. The couple lived there for a year where Brian served as a car mechanic for the community's fleet of used cars, and Debby taught English to refugees. They both did garden work along with other community members, and spent time weeding the community's gigantic organic garden. While they enjoyed the spirituality of the ecumenical community, they also missed being involved in their former parish, Debby said.
They moved back to Marietta and immersed themselves in their work to end capital punishment, Pax Christi, and respect life programs. They had two children, Christopher and Katherine. (She is expecting another child.) Brian is now youth minister at Transfiguration.
Even without her own story, Debby sees this ministry for unwed moms as a continuation of the couple's belief in the consistent ethic of life, which stems both from the teachings of Day, and the late Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Joseph Bernardin, and St. Francis of Assisi. Cardinal Bernardin also frequently used the phrase "the seamless garment," she said, to promote a consistent ethic of life in Catholic teaching. He emphasized that the issues of abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment are "all united by a profound respect for life as a gift from our Creator."
Opening the home was not without struggle, and still has hurdles to overcome, the Freels said. Their small income doesn't support two mortgages. But the proximity of the house to their own home, allowing them to actively minister to unwed mothers, has been a blessing.
"It was so clear to me that God wants this in my life that I can't not do it," said Debby.