Heaven meets North Dakota through Gianna
International center for family and life will have a local imprint.
WARSAW, N.D. — When Mary Pat Jahner named the maternity home she founded here several decades ago after a mother whose story had deeply touched her, she couldn’t have known how her life and that of this holy woman would intersect.
“She was still just a ‘blessed’ at the time,” says Jahner of Gianna Beretta Molla’s ascent to sainthood. Several years later, Molla was canonized in the Catholic Church. “Ever since then, the blessings have just gushed from heaven.”
Jahner not only attended the canonization ceremony in Rome on May 16, 2004, but met and befriended the family of this saint — a medical doctor who gave up her life so that her youngest daughter, born just days before her death, could live.
That daughter, Gianna Emanuela, also a medical doctor who bears a striking resemblance to her mother, has become endeared to Jahner and others here who think of her as family.
“All this started out very unexpectedly, but there’s just a very comfortable level of feeling between us, almost like she’s a sister,” Jahner says.
During the pandemic, Gianna Emanuela was visiting and got “stuck” here, spending six months at the local home for pregnant mothers needing care and community.
“I know what she likes to eat, and when she sleeps,” says Jahner, who ultimately attributes the cherished bond to St. Gianna, who “brought everyone together as a family,” doing in heaven what she did on earth in fostering relationships.
“They are a very dear family who has suffered a lot for the Church,” Jahner says, referencing not only St. Gianna’s complicated last pregnancy, but the death of their daughter Mariolina at age 6 several years later, and her husband Pietro’s tireless dedication as a single dad.
A heavenly connection
It all began with a trip Jahner took to Italy in September 2002, shortly before the maternity home’s grand opening.
“I chose this name (of St. Gianna’s) based on my past teaching experiences in Fargo (at Shanley High School), and learning about the universal call to holiness as a modern laywoman,” she says. She identified with Molla, she says, who had a career and family, but also “liked to ski and mountain climb.”
The Rev. Damian Hills had arranged the trip for the board members to meet the Molla family. Bishop Samuel Aquila, fluent in Italian, joined them, helping with translations.
As the North Dakota group visited with Pietro, a retired engineer, at their family home near Milan, Aquila told his fellow travelers, “He’s telling me about their honeymoon,” Jahner recalls. Pietro later took her on a tour of the home, speaking lovingly about his wife.
Waving goodbye to Gianna Emanuela that day, Jahner figured it was final, but they reacquainted at the canonization, indelibly.
A Fargo bank employee tie-in
Bernice Kram met Gianna Emanuela’s brother Pierluigi first during his visit here in 2010. Not long before, Kram, a Bell Bank employee, helped raise $40,000 for the maternity home as part of the company’s “Pay it Forward” program.
“I knew about (St. Gianna’s) story and got to thinking about all the young moms out there who don’t have the support of their family,” she explains.
A near-dilapidated structure that was completely refurbished, Kram says St. Gianna’s exudes peace. “There’s this love and a family atmosphere created for these young mothers. It’s amazing to watch how they work with one another, and how these women grow and change.”
Wanting to honor Pierluigi in some way, Kram helped organize a breakfast for him and a first-grade class from Nativity Elementary School.
“It was a really special morning, meeting the son of a saint,” she says, complete with fun “face” pancakes. “I’ll never forget it. That’s what it’s all about: family, children and life!”
Then, after meeting Gianna Emanuela in Fargo in 2018, Kram ended up traveling with her for the ongoing work to promote her parents’ legacy. On one trip to Denver, the two crammed into the back seats of a full vehicle.
“We got the giggles,” Kram says. “Here I am with this daughter of a saint, and we’re in this vehicle having the time of our lives. It was pretty cool.”
Forthcoming center for family and life
After Pietro’s death in 2010 at 97, Gianna Emanuela became determined to perpetuate the memory of her parents, and from there, visions for a center for family and life began taking shape. Originally set to be constructed in Italy, the location’s center changed over time.
At a gala at the Delta Hotels in Fargo in April 2018, Monsignor James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, with Gianna Emanuela present, announced publicly that the United States would house the center.
Colleen Samson, president of the maternity home’s board, also has come to know and love Gianna, calling her “a precious, prayerful woman with a mission and a vision,” to “help the world through the teachings, love and joy of her parents’ marriage, and promote the sanctity of human life.”
It’s the same mission as Jahner’s here, she says, “of being of service to those around her in need,” just like St. Gianna.
With a site now secured in Springfield, Ill., the effort to erect the Saint Gianna and Pietro Molla International Center for Family and Life is moving ahead, with the foundation, established in April 2020, based in Fargo.
“One would not expect that to happen here,” Samson says, “But God uses whom he wishes. And those that are faithful to him and available, and who love him, God will use for his glory.”
In a world despairing, she says, “I’m extremely hopeful that this center will be a place of conversion, and one where hearts will hear a message of hope.”
Quoting Genesis 2:24, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body,” Samson says. “The Lord is giving us a blueprint for life. Who is willing to be an example of that? This couple is, even to the point of death.”
Monsignor Shea first encountered Gianna Emanuela while serving as chaplain at St. Mary’s High School in Bismarck. Searching for an image of St. Gianna to hang in the school’s chapel, he dialed a contact number in Italy he found online, and was “shocked to find myself speaking with the daughter for whom St. Gianna gave her life,” he says. “It was an encounter of grace…”
A year later, he led a group of high-school students on the first English-speaking pilgrimage to Italy, to visit the places of St. Gianna's life, after her mother’s canonization. “Since then, Dr. Molla has become a treasured friend,” he says, even giving permission, with her family, to name the University of Mary’s School of Health Sciences for St. Gianna.
This saint’s story and impact, he says, are “taking root both on the campus and across the state” as North Dakota prepares its health care leaders “with all the boldness and compassion of (St. Gianna’s) heart.”
It’s been an honor for North Dakotans “swept up into the ongoing legacy of the Molla family,” he says, adding that St. Gianna’s “decision not to spare herself in saving the life of her unborn baby is a shining example of moral courage and tender, selfless love” the world needs today.
A saint’s daughter’s prayer plea
Writing from Italy, Gianna Emanuela says deep reflection and prayer, “and completely trusting in God’s plan,” have brought the international center closer to fruition, calling the United States her “second country,” where many children have been named after her mother, and devotion to her is stronger than anywhere.
The North Dakota connection flows naturally from the relationships she’s built here, she says, with warm support from Bishop John Folda for the foundation’s mission to promote and spread the knowledge of the life and heroic virtues “of both my Saint Mom and my holy Dad… for the greater glory of Our Lord.”
A website with updates on the center’s progress and goals is underway, Gianna Emanuela adds, requesting the faithful “to keep praying fervently for this, God’s work.”
To support the project either prayerfully and/or financially, visit https://4agc.com/donation_pages/f6315daa-b45e-4b86-a1a8-c0c0742f96ca.