A Witness in Winter
2/1/2016Alton J. Pelowski
Despite the forecast of a historic blizzard, tens of thousands gathered in Washington for the annual March for Life
When snowflakes began to fall in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Jan. 22, signaling the arrival of one of the East Coast’s all-time largest snowstorms, tens of thousands of people were gathered on and around the National Mall for the 43rd March for Life. The forecast for Winter Storm Jonas had forced many to cancel their travel plans to the nation’s capital, and Washington’s mayor declared a state of emergency as the city prepared for the impending blizzard. But this did not prevent large groups of young people, Knights of Columbus and their families, and others from marching in peaceful protest of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade.
“A little snow couldn’t keep you away, could it?” asked March for Life president Jeanne Mancini, welcoming those gathered for the hour-long rally that preceded the march. “The world may think we’re a little bit crazy being here today,” she added, “but those of standing here know that there is no sacrifice too great to fight the human rights abuse of abortion.”
The growing crowd cheered loudly as they held up placards with pro-life messages, including thousands of “Defend Life” signs provided by the Knights of Columbus. Pro-life legislators, post-abortive women, former abortion clinic workers and other leaders were among those who took the stage, sharing personal testimonies and reflecting on the theme of the 2016 march: “Pro-Life and Pro-Woman Go Hand-in-Hand.”
At the conclusion of the rally, participants marched along the 1.5-mile stretch of Constitution Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol. Many joined in chants or prayed the rosary as they hurried along the route, reaching the Supreme Court building while heavy snow covered the streets. Before long, thousands of young people traveling with their respective dioceses, Catholic high schools and universities boarded their buses to head home.
“We got out of D.C. by about 3 o’clock, and just started west,” recalled Neil Pfeifer, a K of C general agent from Norfolk, Neb., who attended the march for the first time. Pfeifer’s son, Noah, a senior at Norfolk Catholic High School and a fellow member of Sacred Heart Council 1793, had gone twice before with the Archdiocese of Omaha and convinced his dad to be a chaperone for this year’s trip.
“To see these kids so alive in their faith and on fire for this cause blew me away,” Neil said, noting that the group would normally stay longer and sightsee. “This year, it was about business. With the snowstorm coming, we knew we’d have to cut things short. And the kids, they didn’t care. Their main goal was to be there and to represent, and to show their strong belief in the right to life.”
The buses continued along the Pennsylvania Turnpike amid traffic delays, until a semitrailer accident brought them to a complete halt by 9 p.m. Altogether, more than 500 vehicles, including dozens of buses returning from the March for Life to such states as Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, were stranded along a 20-plus mile stretch of Interstate 76, approximately two hours east of Pittsburgh.
By about 5:30 the next morning, the National Guard had cleared the road enough for some of the vehicles toward the front to be on their way. The bus carrying the Pfeifers made it out, but most, including six other buses from the Archdiocese of Omaha, were not so lucky.
“By the time they got the truck moved, the snow was too deep for anyone parked on the interstate to go anywhere,” said Steve Merrill, a member of Council 1793 who has served as a chaperone and bus captain for many years.
“There was never a sense of being in danger; it was just an inconvenience,” Merrill added. “This one really turned into a pilgrimage. We tried to use all of our experiences as a teaching moment.”
With sufficient water, snacks and gas, as well as bathrooms on board, the pilgrims made the best of their situation and spirits remained high. Each of the Omaha buses included a priest and a religious sister who led prayer and shared reflections, turning the experience into an impromptu retreat.
Late Saturday morning, Merrill learned that an outdoor Mass was being organized just a few buses down. At the suggestion of Bill Dill, youth ministry events coordinator for the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis, some of the Minnesota pilgrims had constructed an altar made of snow. Father Patrick Behm, a priest of the Diocese of Sioux City and member of Trinity Council 1466 in Le Mars, Iowa, was asked to celebrate.
It did not take long for word to spread. A half-dozen priests from various dioceses soon joined in to concelebrate as more than 500 people from various states gathered together at what some called “St. John Paul the Great Hillside Chapel.”
“It was really beautiful,” Merrill recalled. “We had gone to Mass at the cathedral in Pittsburgh and to the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, and this Mass was just as moving.”
It was not only a memorable experience for everyone present, but reports of the Mass went viral on social media and were published by news outlets around the country.
“Our kids were disappointed we weren’t back there with them to attend,” Neil Pfeifer said with a laugh.
Most of the buses began moving again later that evening, after nearly 24 hours on the turnpike. The pilgrims eventually made it safely home, but they won’t soon forget the time that “a little snow” couldn’t keep them from traveling to Washington and standing up for life.
Alton J. Pelowski is editor of Columbia.