Executive Director Christine Folk told the Zoning Hearing Board that, as ironic as it sounds, convents are actually an "ideal location" for pregnant women in need of housing because they are "designed for group living." In the eight bedrooms available, a "house mother" will occupy what was the Mother Superior's bedroom. The remaining seven bedrooms will be available for pregnant women with an average age between 17 and 25.
During their stay, pregnant guests will get an education, job training and learn to be self-sufficient. Folk testified that a professional social worker will be at the convent during the day, and there will be supervision by between two and four employees, 24 hours per day. Once the child is born, the new mother will be able remain at the convent for up to six months.
Mary's Shelter already operates at two different locations in Reading and, according to Folk, is licensed by the Department of Public Welfare. She added that seven different states are now using their program as a model.
Asked whether neighbors should be concerned about visits from the fathers, Folk told zoners that "[u]nfortunately, the fathers of the babies are not usually involved."
John McGeehan, a Public Safety Administrator with Northampton County and a parishioner at Saint Simon's, said that a "home for unwed mothers is highly laudable, but not right next to the Church." Although he acknowledged that he's pro-life, he was also troubled by a home for unwed mothers being located right next to Seton Hall Academy, a Catholic school. "Young children in the Church, in the school and in the neighborhood will ask: 'What is an unwed mother?'"
McGeehan noted that 48 churches have closed in the Allentown Diocese, and is dismayed by the "cavalier attitude" he sees from the Church.
But his strongest point is a provision in the Bethlehem Zoning Ordinance that prohibits any residential treatment facility within 800 feet of another. McGeehan produced an aerial map that clearly demonstrates that Valley Youth House, a residential treatment facility at 539 8th Avenue, is only 458 feet from the convent. "No means No," argued McGeehan.
Attorney John Miravich, representing Mary's Shelter, denied that this proposed home for pregnant women provides is a "treatment" facility.
West Bethlehem resident David Muething also took issue with McGeehan's claim that this home is inappropriate so close to a Catholic Church. "This is very much in keeping with the values of the Catholic Church," he argued.
In addition to this home, Catholic Charities has a program for the "adoption" of unwed mothers by "special friends" to give these women a safe place to stay.
Immediately after the hearing, McGeehan was excommunicated and struck by a lightning bolt as he tried to cross the street.