Carissa St. Onge Carneiro, 40, sits in her office at A Gentle Beginning in Northwest Portland. The certified nurse midwife has been with the practice since 2007. A Gentle Beginning includes naturopathic family medicine, pediatrics and women’s health care along with specializing in home births and water births. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Carissa St. Onge Carneiro, 40, sits in her office at A Gentle Beginning in Northwest Portland. The certified nurse midwife has been with the practice since 2007. A Gentle Beginning includes naturopathic family medicine, pediatrics and women’s health care along with specializing in home births and water births. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

It’s 2 a.m. and a new life is about to enter the world. Carissa St. Onge Carneiro swoops her long hair up 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 on a recent afternoon in her Northwest Portland office. “A new human is emerging from another human body. It’s a miracle.”

Spiritualty born on the border

Midwifery, the art or act of assisting with childbirth, has captivated St. Onge Carneiro since she was a teenager.

Growing up outside Ashland, the lifelong Catholic met her first midwife, her then-boyfriend’s mom, at 16.

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

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 United States 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; they undergo a rigorous academic program and hands-on training focused on women’s health, including that of adolescents and menopausal women. Certified professional midwives receive extensive training through apprenticeships. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 8.3 percent of total U.S. births are attended by these two kinds of midwives. In Oregon, 1 in 5 births are with nurse midwives, based on figures from the state affiliate of the American College of Nurse-Midwives.

There also are naturopathic physicians with a focus in midwifery.

With midwifery as her goal, St. Onge Carneiro enrolled at the University of Portland School of Nursing and focused on maternity and women’s health. During her junior year she developed a program to study in Mexico and learn how midwives work there.

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

Following graduation with a bachelor’s in 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.

She’d later learn that Sister Angela, demanding and big-hearted, was president of the American College of Nurse-Midwives.

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 United States seeking a better life.

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

Some of those who worked with the sisters were devout Catholics, others were “hippy women, but all were there to serve these women and give them a respectful, human-centered birth,” St. Onge Carneiro said.

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 — the “prayer warrior.”

“Sister Damien Francois was about 90 pounds, and she liked her toast burnt,” said St. Onge Carneiro, noticeably attentive to the details and needs of others. “She’d always have a rosary in hand, praying for everyone there.”

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.

The great equalizer

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 homes.

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

For the past 11 years, St. Onge Carneiro has been working at Portland’s A Gentle Beginning, which includes midwifery care for home births. Although most A Gentle Beginning clients are middle or upper-middle class, St. Onge Carneiro also will serve a more diverse population starting this month 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.

Sitting next to a blooming orchid in her Portland office that’s adorned with art depicting pregnant women, St. Onge Carneiro describes birth as the great equalizer.

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

‘Gifted with what I need’

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. 

St. Onge Carneiro’s husband said in many ways his and his wife’s personalities are well-suited to midwifery.

“Both of us are pretty spontaneous, so we deal with chaos pretty well,” he said, laughing.

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, said St. Onge Carneiro.

“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 human.”

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

“She’s done a great job at coaching me as a parent not to sweat the small stuff,” said her husband.

Lynne Pearson is a mother of eight who’s had four babies with St. Onge Carneiro through A Gentle Beginning.

“Carissa is very professional, as well as kind, peaceful and calm,” said Pearson. 

“She believed in me and helped me believe in my ability to deliver my baby,” said mother-of-five Anna Toney, a former member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Northeast Portland who now lives in California. “She helped me feel strong and empowered.”

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.”

Reporter’s note: Carissa St. Onge Carneiro attended the birth of my second son, who was born last fall.