Sammi Sallee has learned to embrace the unexpected.
His name is Jaxon, and he’s 9 months old.
Sallee credits the support she found through a Gabriel’s Retreat Ministries retreat — and beyond — with helping her find God in the challenges of pregnancy and new motherhood.
“I had a wonderful support system at home, but I still felt alone because I thought I couldn’t express how I felt. Who’s going to understand this worry, this guilt, this fear?” she said. “…But there, I talked to a group of mothers who told me, ‘We get it.’”
Shawna DuBois founded Gabriel’s Retreat Ministries in late 2021 with the goal of bringing hope and peace to women facing unexpected pregnancies. The ministry offers free weekend retreats to pregnant women or mothers who are less than one year postpartum, as well as motherhood support groups and classes on topics like breastfeeding and infant care.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a 20-year-old, unmarried woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant for whatever reason, or a 45-year-old, faithful Catholic woman who found out she’s pregnant but it wasn’t her timing or she wasn’t expecting to be,” DuBois, a parishioner at Sacred Heart in Valley Park, said. “Her life is going to change, and what does that mean, in saying ‘yes’ to God’s plan?”
When Sallee found out she was pregnant, “I was just in a real spiritual darkness,” she said. It had been an eventful couple of years. She completed RCIA and was received fully into the Catholic Church. Her brother died. She ended an engagement. She was diagnosed with cancer. Then, she got the news of her baby.
She had always dreamed of being a mother, but in those circumstances, “I was just numb and shocked,” she said. Because she was going through chemotherapy, doctors told her the baby’s chance of survival was low. It felt like a miracle when, just a few months later, she was declared cancer-free — and heard the strong, steady heartbeat of her 15-week-old unborn child.
Amid the spiritual darkness, she had fallen away from the Church. She felt God tugging her heart back, “But I had a voice in my head that was like, ‘You’re unwed, and you’re pregnant. How can you go back?’” she said.
During RCIA, she had become friends with Father Scott Scheiderer at St. Paul Parish in Fenton, and he invited her to come to evening Mass and talk after. He answered her shame with encouragement, congratulating her and telling her he could see God working powerfully in her life. As she walked out of the church, a flyer for Gabriel’s Retreat Ministries caught her eye: “Expecting the unexpected?”
She signed up for the ministry’s first retreat in June 2022.
“That first night was a talk about being a beloved daughter of God, how we’re loved and we’re worthy. I am His daughter,” she said. “I had stopped praying, I had stopped talking to God. But it just overtook me that, I am worthy. And God is here with me.”
That understanding was transformative, Sallee said. And the support of the retreat team has been there ever since. When her son, Jaxon, was born in August, DuBois visited them in the hospital. Sallee reached out to the team’s lactation consultant when she had trouble breastfeeding. Even with her renewed faith and expanded support system, the transition to motherhood had plenty of challenges. “When I have questions or need help or guidance, they’re here,” she said.
DuBois said that continued, personal accompaniment is an integral part of the ministry and has taken many different forms for different women: dropping off diapers; holding a baby for 20 minutes so a mother can shower; going to Mass with a mom the first time she takes her new baby.
“Sometimes it’s just sending that encouraging text message, saying, ‘How are you doing, mama? Do you need anything?’” DuBois said.
As Sallee continues on her own journey of motherhood, she’s returned to Gabriel’s retreats — Jaxon in tow — to share her experiences with others. It’s important to discuss both the difficulties and joys of motherhood honestly, she said.
“Gabriel’s Retreat Ministries is about embracing those hard parts and knowing that you’re not alone in it,” she said. “I know what Gabriel’s retreat did for me, and if I can help give an ounce of that grace and love to somebody else who desperately needs it, I want to.”
The ministry this month marks one year since its first retreat. It can be hard not to measure success in number of participants, DuBois said. But she and the rest of the team will continue to accompany each woman that God sends their way. Sallee was the only retreatant on that first weekend, but God clearly had plans for her, DuBois said.
“I am just open to whoever God sends me,” she said.
>> Gabriel’s Retreat Ministries
Gabriel’s Retreats are specifically designed for any mother facing unexpectedness in her pregnancy or new motherhood. Retreats are free and open to any pregnant or new mother (up to one year postpartum), 18 years or older, regardless of her faith, marital status or pregnancy situation.
The next retreats are June 23-25 at the Marianist Retreat Center and Sept. 22-24 at the La Salle Retreat Center. The weekend includes a private room, all meals, opportunities for counseling and spiritual direction and more, and transportation to the retreat center is available if needed.
Elizabeth’s Support provides emotional, spiritual, psychological and/or educational support for pregnant and new mothers. Gatherings include pregnant and new mom support groups, breastfeeding/lactation classes and infant care classes.
For more information about retreats, support groups, volunteering or donating, visit gabrielsretreat.org or email [email protected].