Oregon midwife feels called to support mothers, welcome babies

IMAGE: CNS photo/Katie Scott, Catholic Sentinel

By Katie Scott

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — It’s 2 a.m. and a new life is about
to enter the world.

Carissa St. Onge Carneiro swoops her long hair into
a ponytail and pours herself a mug of coffee for the road. During the dark
drive across Portland, she says a Hail Mary, asking for grace and wisdom, and
prays to the guardian angels for the baby still in the womb.

Soon she’ll be at the side of a
laboring mother, drawing on modern medical training blended with the collective
knowledge of those who have gone before her.

A few — or many — hours later,
she’ll be back in the car, leaving behind a baby enveloped in love.

St. Onge Carneiro, 40, has attended
hundreds of births, but it never ceases to be “crazy and spiritual,”
she said in her Portland office. “A new human is emerging from another
human body. It’s a miracle.”

Midwifery, the art or act of
assisting with childbirth, has captivated St. Onge Carneiro since she was a
teenager after the lifelong Catholic met her first midwife, her
then-boyfriend’s mom, at 16.

“I was intrigued by her
lifestyle,” St. Onge Carneiro recalled.

She read numerous books on women’s
health and studied to be a doula, someone who offers nonmedical support to a
mother before, during and after childbirth.

The changes in a woman’s body during
pregnancy “fascinated me, and I was in awe of how conception can even
happen,” said St. Onge Carneiro, who by 17 had decided to one day become a
certified nurse midwife.

The two most common types of
midwives in the U.S. are certified nurse midwives and certified professional
midwives. The former are advanced-practice registered nurses who have completed
a minimum of a master’s degree in nursing rooted in a rigorous academic program
and hands-on training.

Certified professional midwives
receive extensive training through apprenticeships. The National Center for Health Statistics reports
that 8.3 percent of U.S. births are attended by midwives.

“Midwifery has been a calling
for women since the beginning of time,” said St. Onge Carneiro, a member
of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton,
west of Portland. “I wanted to see what existed outside my little

Following graduation from the
University of Portland’s School of Nursing, St. Onge Carneiro considered the
Peace Corps and imagined helping women in Africa. But after registering with Catholic Volunteer Network,
which links volunteers to service opportunities, she received a phone call from
closer to home.

“Girl, we need you here; come
to Texas,” St. Onge Carneiro recalled Sister Angela Murdaugh telling her in a thick
Southern accent.

St. Onge Carneiro did as the sister
asked and joined the Franciscan Sisters of Mary as a lay worker at Holy Family Birth Center on
the Texas-Mexico border. She worked as a maternity nurse for women crossing
into the U.S. seeking a better life.

“We lived communally, and only
the four or five birth suites had air conditioning,” St. Onge Carneiro said.
“It was hard, hot and sweaty, with home visits to trailers in the middle
of fields.”

Her time at Holy Family shaped her
spirituality around midwifery. There always was someone praying during a birth,
she said, recalling one nun in particular, Sister Damien Francois, known as the
“prayer warrior.”

“She’d always have a rosary in
hand, praying for everyone there,” St. Onge Carneiro said.

St. Onge Carneiro’s time on the
border solidified her belief that midwifery “should be available to all
women, especially those who are disenfranchised,” she said.

Back in Oregon, St. Onge Carneiro
married her college beau, Augusto Carneiro, and they quickly started a family.
She gave birth to her three children at home, with a midwife in attendance, and
worked as a nurse in a variety of birth settings, including hospitals and

Once her children were in school,
St. Onge Carneiro fulfilled her longtime dream. Completing homework side by
side with her kids, she earned her master’s degree in nursing through the
Kentucky-based Frontier
Nursing University. Frontier is one of the first midwifery programs in
the country. Its mission includes educating people who will care for the
underserved and those in rural communities.

For the past 11 years, St. Onge
Carneiro has worked at Portland’s A Gentle Beginning, which includes midwifery care for home births.
Although most clients are middle or upper-middle class, St. Onge Carneiro planned
to soon begin serving a more diverse population when she begins filling in for
midwives at Providence Women’s
Clinic at Providence Portland Medical Center.

She dreams of one day being part of
an out-of-hospital birth center that builds community and serves the poor and
those in need from all backgrounds.

St. Onge Carneiro described birth as
the great equalizer.

“Whether in a house, in a hut
or in a hospital, babies are born all over the planet,” she said. “These
little loved beings are born into such diverse spaces and circumstances.”

St. Onge Carneiro acknowledges that
the late nights and unpredictable hours of a midwife can be hard on families,
as well as take a toll physically. “It’s a profession of deep connection
with other women and their families, and you can easily get pulled from your
own,” she said.

But St. Onge Carneiro said she’s
lucky to be healthy and have a strong support system, and she sets boundaries
in order to be fully present to her husband and children: Camila, 15, Adriano,
13, and Giovani, 11.

It often seems that nothing fazes
midwives, and that’s likely because they are with people at their most
vulnerable, at raw and painful times and at the most poignant moments of their
lives, St. Onge Carneiro said.

“My children will say to me, ‘Why
are you not getting mad about this? Why are you so calm all the time?’ I think
it’s because I’ve seen so many types of births and so many ways of being

And that has helped her relinquish
judgement and practice patience and acceptance.

St. Onge Carneiro follows the
example of the highly skilled and fiercely faithful sisters she worked
alongside in Texas.

“I feel that the Holy Spirit
helps us to say the things we need to say and do what we need to do,” she
said. “If I trust that God is going to take care of me, I’m going to be
gifted with what I need.”

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Scott is special projects reporter at the
Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

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