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Completing the Trip


By Joseph Pappalardo

Pro-life pioneer continues mother’s pro-life efforts through Knights

Joanne Wagner is pictured with 11 of her children

Joanne Wagner is pictured with 11 of her children, a few years before she would die from a heart attack on the way to March for Life in 1976. Michael, her oldest, is located third from left, rear. (Courtesy Michael Wagner)

Ever since he was 10, Michael Wagner has lived in the shadow of abortion. Growing up in Erie, Penn., in the early 1970s, the oldest of 12 children would see ads for nearby New York clinics offering “help” to pregnant women. At the time, the neighboring state had the most liberal abortion laws in the country.

For Wagner, Roe v. Wade wasn’t a milestone to celebrate — it was the 7-2 decision that stunned his ninth grade class. It was the catalyst for a massive pro-life movement for which he’d later fight. Eventually, it would push him to join the Knights of Columbus.

“I think the general feeling was that we can get this overturned quickly,” he said. “Of course it hasn't happened, but the pro-life movement at that point came out of nowhere.”

In 1974 more than 20,000 people, including Knights of Columbus, gathered in Washington, D.C., for the first March for Life. Two years later, in 1976, Wagner’s mother was 7 months pregnant and traveling to the capital to stand for her beliefs. She wouldn’t survive the trip. On the bus ride to the march, she suffered a heart attack and two hearts stopped. Back home, Wagner received the devastating news that his mother and his unborn brother had died.

The next year Wagner did not miss the march.

“I needed to complete that trip for her,” Wagner said. “And I've been going whenever I can ever since.”

Wagner’s ties to the pro-life movement have always been personal and principled. Despite this, he wasn’t always a passionate Knight of Columbus. His experiences with a few different councils in the 70s and 80s had convinced him they were more interested in social activities than the pro-life movement. The now retired Air Force lieutenant colonel said he continued to cross paths with the Knights from his college years to his first degree ceremony in 2007, but it took a powerful witness to convince him to join.

It was the eve of Election Day in 2004. Wagner was attending a holy hour at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn. And as he prayed, he noticed a man kneeling in the church. The event was not one, but three hours of prayer, yet Wagner never saw him move from that position of reverence.

Michael with the second youngest of his 19 grandchildren, Mary Faustina. (Courtesy Michael Wagner)


“It was Carl Anderson,” Wagner said. “And I knew who Carl Anderson was. I had read books that he had edited well before he ever became the supreme knight. I admired him in kind of a different way, an intellectual way, but I took a look at him and said, ‘What kind of an organization draws a man like this?’”

Intrigued by the reverence and commitment of the supreme knight, Wagner proceeded to dive into research on the Knights of Columbus. It was the pro-life work that attracted him most. Three years after that witness, 30 years after he finished the trip his mother set out to make, Wagner took his first degree at the parish where the organization began.

Because the pro-life movement lies at the heart of Wagner’s connection with the Knights, the annual marches around the country are important to him. He noted that the support of younger Knights and other marchers has been “a breath of fresh air” for the pro-life movement.

“You can't change society if you don't change yourself,” he said. “It has to come from inside your heart, first of all. I'm seeing the Knights in particular really change the hearts of people.”

According to Wagner, joining the Knights of Columbus has “enhanced” his pro-life efforts because of their involvement in baby bottle drives, ultrasound initiatives and other Culture of Life campaigns. Along with his brother Knights, Wagner puts his faith into action knowing his example could inspire someone else.

“That example that Mr. Anderson gave to me without even realizing it — I mean you never know what impression you're making on someone just by your mere presence, let alone your example and everything else,” Wagner said. “The fact that this man was kneeling there during that time, and I wondered what kind of an organization would draw someone like that — Yeah, it changed my life.”

To promote the Culture of Life alongside Knights like Michael Wagner, reach out to your local council or join online at kofc.org/joinus. To share your pro-life story, email Joseph.Pappalardo@kofc.org.