December 1, 2023

A mother’s desperate prayer, an offer of help and a child’s birth bond two families

Mary and Joe Abella and Felix and Viviane Minza and their five daughters have bonded in a special way as members of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy of Jen Buechler of 21 DreamS Photography)

Mary and Joe Abella and Felix and Viviane Minza and their five daughters have bonded in a special way as members of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy of Jen Buechler of 21 DreamS Photography)

By John Shaughnessy

It’s a timeless challenge for all of us.

The challenge especially comes to life during the Advent and Christmas seasons in these words:

“Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room for Jesus.”

That challenge sets the stage for a heartwarming story involving two groups of strangers who connected in a church in the archdiocese.

As the mother of four girls—all under the age of 10 at the time—and pregnant with her fifth child, Viviane Minza knew the moment was rushing toward her when she would desperately need help.

So just as she has always done during times of great concern and immense joy in her life, she knelt and prayed to God to be there for her and the people she loves.

She had prayed to God when she and her husband Felix were married in 2009 in their homeland of West Africa.

She had prayed to him when they started a new life together in the United States in 2012.

She had also prayed to God when she vowed to name all their children after the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a way of honoring Jesus through his mother.

And now on this Sunday morning at Mass, just 11 months after moving to Indiana from Illinois, she offered another prayer to God. She asked him to give her help when her fifth child was ready to be born.

As Viviane prayed in a pew at St. Jude Church in Indianapolis with Felix and their four daughters nearby, Mary and Joe Abella were in the pew behind them. Mary noticed the vibrant-colored, distinctly African clothes that the young family wore. Even more, Mary easily saw that the mother of the family was well along in her pregnancy.

Seeing the young, pregnant mother made Mary think of being pregnant with her own five children, who were now all grown. She remembered how when they lived in Fort Wayne, she relied on her neighbors to help her and Joe with their children when they needed to go to the hospital for the delivery of their latest child.

She also remembered a moment nearly 20 years earlier, shortly after she, Joe and their family moved to Indianapolis and chose St. Jude Parish as their faith community. In those early days, they attended a dinner at the parish. And the one lasting memory that Mary still has of that dinner is that the other people at the table didn’t include them in their conversation and their celebration.

Ever since then, Mary and Joe have always made the time to welcome new people to the parish. And that’s what they did on that Sunday morning after Mass to Viviane, Felix and their four daughters, Marie-Immacule, Anne-Marie, Marie-Victoire and Marie-Felicite.

Their welcome soon became more profound.

‘It was like a miracle for me’

“We introduced ourselves and said hi,” Mary recalls about that moment in January of 2022. “They said they had moved from Illinois, and they were living in an apartment. That got me to thinking that they don’t know anybody because you don’t meet anyone in an apartment. She was very pregnant, and I thought she would have no one to watch the kids when they have the baby.”

Mary shared that thought with Joe and told him she was going to offer to watch the four girls when it came time for Viviane and Felix to go to the hospital for the delivery of their baby. When Mary made that offer to Viviane, the younger woman was touched and stunned.

“I had been praying to God in the pew, ‘How am I going to do this when I have to go to the hospital? Lord, help me,’ ” Viviane recalls. “When she asked me, it was like a miracle for me. As I was talking to God, God was talking to her.”

Mary gave both her cell phone number and home phone number to the couple, telling them to call at any time, whenever they had to rush to the hospital. Mary then enlisted the help of three other women from the parish in case she wasn’t available for some reason—Noreen Poorman, Lucy Bedwell and Phyllis Winkler.

Mary and Joe also invited the Minzas to breakfast one Sunday after Mass to try to relieve any doubts that Viviane and Felix may have had about their offer of help.

“The kids had a blast, playing with all our grandkids’ toys,” Mary recalls.

Then came the early morning of March 2 of that year—a morning when Viviane’s contractions became painful, a morning that soon became filled with touches of panic, hesitation and generosity.

‘In America, no one has time’

When Viviane awoke in pain from her contractions, it was near five in the morning. Felix knew he had to get her to the hospital right away, but he didn’t know if he should call Mary because it was so early. Viviane told him he shouldn’t because of the time.

So, he rushed Viviane to the hospital, placed her in the care of a nurse, and drove back home to their four daughters who were still asleep at about 6 a.m. He thought again about calling Mary. He remembered how she said to call her at any time, while wondering how she would react if he did.

“In America, no one has time,” Felix says. “Everybody is so busy.”

Still, he picked up his phone and called Mary. She made the time, arriving 15 minutes later. That morning, she took care of the two younger girls while the two older ones boarded a bus for school and Felix returned to the hospital to be with Viviane.

As the hours passed, Felix worried that he was taking too much of Mary’s time, so he sent her a text message saying he was coming home because the baby wasn’t ready to be born yet. She texted him back, “Oh, my goodness! Stay there!”

So, he did.

“I thought it would just be for an hour or two,” Felix recalls. “When she said what she did, I just thought, ‘Wow! God is behind everybody.’ ”

When Mary had to leave in the afternoon, Noreen Poorman came to relieve her, helping the children with their homework and making sure they had everything they needed for their showers.

That day, Viviane gave birth to their fifth child, Marie-Reine.

Mary continued to help the family until Viviane and the baby came home two days later.

‘She shows us the real love of God’

In the 21 months since Marie-Reine was born, the once strangers have shared meals together. In her previous business as a decorator, Mary helped Viviane and Felix get new furniture at a substantial discount. And when Mary and Joe moved to a new home recently, Viviane helped them pack and settle into their new place.

Still, the most lasting part of their connection shows in the laughter, the joy and the love they share when they look back together at that first offer of help.

Some of the laughs they share come when Felix smiles as he recalls his initial doubts about the intent of Mary’s offer.

“I asked Viviane that if those people come to help, aren’t they going to charge us? She said, ‘They are people from church, and I prayed to God before Mary asked me.’ I said, ‘Let’s see if no bill comes later.’ ”

Mary, Felix and Viviane laugh heartily at that story.

For Mary, the welcome and the offer of help are reflections of what Christ calls people to do in their lives—to make room in their hearts for others, including strangers, to see Jesus in them.

“We’re supposed to be hospitable and sensitive to other people’s needs,” she says. “Joe and I are really big into trying to reach out to people when we sit near someone we haven’t seen before. We know how it feels to not have any connection.”

This time, the bond is deep. Viviane considers Mary as a guardian angel to her family.

“It’s very good to be connected to her,” Viviane says with a smile as she looks at Mary. “She shows us the real love of God.” †

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