Jayme-Dawn McKinnon has a special appreciation for Chiara Corbella Petrillo, a young Italian woman being considered for canonization after refusing life-saving treatment to protect her unborn child.

The Abbotsford mother of five hopes to see Chiara canonized, saying the woman’s story helped her face a “Gethsemane pregnancy” of her own.

McKinnon happened to be reading a biography of the servant of God, Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy, when she found out she was pregnant with their youngest child. Her husband suggested they name the baby Chiara if she was a girl. When McKinnon learned she was indeed having a girl, she embraced the name. 

Then, suddenly, the couple received a phone call that changed their lives. They were needed for more ultrasounds after the first images indicated something was wrong with baby Chiara.

“A faith walk started,” said McKinnon. “We had already journeyed with Enrico (Chiara’s husband) and Chiara through the book, we’d named our child Chiara, feeling so strong, and all of a sudden we’re getting these callbacks: ‘We need another ultrasound, we can’t get the right pictures, the measurements of the head aren’t looking right.’”

Fearing the worst, McKinnon underwent three more ultrasounds. She drew strength and courage from the testimony of Chiara, the young woman who had embraced her children with such love.

“She really helped us to journey through those difficult weeks of being at peace with being our child’s parents until God wants them back.”

Baby Chiara was born happy and healthy, and McKinnon is grateful to God for the grace and to Chiara for the comfort and courage.

Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo has been called the next St. Gianna Beretta Molla, the Italian pediatrician who refused to abort her unborn child despite dealing with a life-threatening tumor. 

Chiara gave birth to two children who died less than an hour after their births and, like St. Gianna, refused cancer treatment to protect her child in utero. She died in 2012 at age 28 and has been declared a Servant of God, the first stage in the canonization process.

“I think of Chiara and I just say, we are called to do what she did,” said McKinnon. “All she did was what Mary did: say yes. Let God be God.”

The story of Chiara and Enrico began when they met while on pilgrimage in Medjugorje in 2002. They married six years later. The couple became pregnant with their first child, Maria, but learned during an ultrasound she would be born with anencephaly, a condition in which the brain and skull do not form properly and which usually leads to death shortly after birth.

They faced intense pressure to abort her but resisted. After birth, Maria lived for 30 minutes. 

Their second child, Davide, was also diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and lived for 38 minutes after birth.

Enrico has said of the couple’s experience: “Many times we asked ourselves the question, ‘where is God leading us with these trials?’”

During her third pregnancy Chiara learned she had cancer. She refused all treatments that might harm the baby, showing resilience and faith in the midst of her suffering. Their son, Francesco, was born healthy.

“Despite the cross we were experiencing, we felt the Lord’s presence close to us,” Enrico has said. “Because of that, we laughed and joked up to the last moment.”

His bride lived to see Francesco’s first birthday but died not long afterward at the age of 28.

“She and Enrico just said yes,” said McKinnon. “As parents, kids are not ours. That’s what they [Chiara and Enrico] teach us. We are entrusted to care for children, but they are meant to go back to God. We are privileged to have them as long as God wants, but we don’t own them. They are a privilege to hold them for as long as we need to hold them, but they are his first.”

Today Enrico is 41 and works in palliative care, and McKinnon believes after his death he and Chiara will become another canonized married couple like the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, Sts. Zelie and Louis Martin, an example of “holy romance” and deep faith in God.

Working at Gardens of Gethsemani cemetery in Surrey, Anna Loch has had many conversations with people about belief in heaven. But Chiara took belief in heaven to the next level.

“This faith is something I’m not used to,” said the cemetery outreach manager. “She taught love is stronger than death, and when there is love, you can overcome anything; her joy was very real up until the very end.”

During Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in October, Chiara is a powerful witness, especially for families suffering pregnancy and infant loss, said Loch.

“We often hear priests and monks and religious people talking about this, but it’s not often we hear married or lay people speaking with so much certainty and joy,” said Loch.

“It’s a call to be more spiritual for me as a lay person. I need to be a witness to eternal life and to God’s love here and in heaven.”

Chiara was named a Servant of God in 2018 and is under investigation for beatification and canonization. The Diocese of Rome in a document described her as a “beacon of light of hope” and “an example of a love greater than fear and death.”

International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day is Oct. 15. Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, will honour little ones who have died too soon during Mass Oct. 17 at Gardens of Gethsemani. For more  information visit rccav.org/events/279.