Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori, Helen Alvaré, Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., Mother Mary Agnes Donovan, S.V., and then-Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of Baltimore participate in a conference panel in 2011.
Thirty-nine years ago this week, an estimated 20,000 pro-life supporters gathered together for what became the first annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. Organized in response to the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, the march was begun to ensure that the anniversary of the infamous decision did not pass without notice and to allow Americans the opportunity to petition Congress for redress.
Decades later, the march has become the premier annual gathering of the pro-life movement. And as tens of thousands of marchers have turned into throngs of hundreds of thousands, the march has fostered hundreds of other events – walks, rallies, Masses, and other marches all designed to show support for the cause and to pray for change.
One march-inspired event has a particular tie to the College Knights at Georgetown University.
Celebrating its fourteenth year, the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life has provided an opportunity for pro-life college students to learn and network with each other, encouraging their activism and strengthening the future of the pro-life movement.
A Tradition Begins
In the fall of 1999, the March for Life was already a huge draw for pro-life supporters across the country, but students at Georgetown saw an opportunity to do something more.
While the march was an outstanding demonstration of pro-life sentiment and unity, the students wanted to educate and form the next generation of leaders intellectually, too.
In their minds, a trip to Washington D.C. could be more than just participating in the march. It could be an opportunity for young people to become more effective advocates for life.
And, as one of the country’s most prominent Catholic colleges in the heart of the nation’s capital, the students thought that Georgetown could be the perfect backdrop for a student-led educational conference on life issues. So the planning began.
The Georgetown Knights of Columbus were an integral part of the conference from the very start. In addition to coming up with the idea for the conference, Georgetown Knights partnered with University Faculty for Life and G.U. Right to Life to plan, organize, and conduct the first conference.
The organizers decided on a format that would allow for keynote speakers and breakout sessions, and they put together an impressive slate of guests which included Helen Alvaré, then representing the U.S. Bishop’s Pro-Life Secretariat, and Congressman Henry Hyde, namesake of the famous Hyde Amendment which prevented certain federal funds from paying for abortions.
For Hyde, a Georgetown alumnus, it was the first visit back to his alma mater.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson addresses the conference in 2007.
The Work Continues
A few months after the conclusion of the first conference, beloved Archbishop and pro-life titan John Cardinal O’Connor passed away.
As the leading pro-life voice in America and an alumnus of Georgetown, the organizers recognized that Cardinal O’Connor was the perfect namesake for the upstart conference. So from 2001 forward, the conference was renamed the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, to honor him both by memorializing his name, but perhaps more importantly to ensure that his work is carried forward by young people inspired by his courageous example.
In the 13 years since that first conference drew more than 400 students from across the country, the Cardinal O’Connor Conference has become a staple of March for Life week. And throughout those years, Knights of Columbus have continued to play a major role.
“It's hard to quantify how big of a deal the [conference] is for the GU Knights,” said Grand Knight Pat Boyden. “It is, in many ways, our flagship event of the school year.”
“Council members assist in various capacities in the conference,” said brother Knight and co-director of the 2013 conference Kevin Sullivan, “from leadership to the many operations that need to be handled on the day of the conference itself. Volunteering to help usher, manage check-in, organize the massive lunch, and flyering across the entire campus has become part of the culture of our council and the focus of our January service efforts.” The conference is student-led, and the students are Knights-led.
“The council is very much so the lifeblood of the conference,” he said.
The council has also been an integral part of the conference’s development over the years, inviting speakers, organizing breakouts, and shaping its overall course.
Along with Hyde and Alvaré, the conference has welcomed many distinguished guests, including: Archbishop Charles Chaput, Dr. Alveda King, then-Archbishop Raymond Burke, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, and then-Senator Rick Santorum.
Marking 40 Years
This year, the conference will observe the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and will welcome back Helen Alvaré for the keynote address. Also speaking to the conference will be: Live Action founder Lila Rose; abortion survivor and pro-life speaker Melissa Ohden; President of the Susan B. Anthony List Marjorie Dannenfelser, and several others. Attendees will also participate in breakout sessions on issues ranging from the bioethics to the death penalty
For the council, it has been inspiring to watch the conference evolve from an idea to a staple of the pro-life community. “This is my third year at Georgetown,” Boyden said, “and every year the conference just keeps getting bigger and better. It has been a joy and blessing to watch the conference continue to grow and thrive, showing evermore the passion and commitment that young people have to the pro-life cause.”
The conference has also received increased support from the university itself. Thanks in large part to the national attention the conference has gained, the university and its faculty have joined the Knights and the other sponsors of the event, giving their support and helping out where they can.
The Knights are confident that the conference serves an important purpose. “We are consistently told by attendees that they wish they had known about the conference earlier,” Sullivan said, “and our hope is that [the conference] will one day be a ‘staple’ for pro-life pilgrims to the march that would like to learn more about the movement they are representing and the intellectual and academic underpinnings that drive that movement.”
But it’s also about witness, Boyden said. “As a staunchly pro-life group, it is a moral imperative that we as Knights passionately work to further the pro-life cause — it is our duty… From a moral and evangelical standpoint, our involvement and commitment to the conference serves as a tangible and wide-reaching outlet for us to do our small part in aiding the pro-life movement.”
And they will continue to press on.
“You can rest assured that come January 27 (the day after this year’s conference), we will be hard at work helping plan next year’s conference,” Boyden said.
“Okay,” he admitted, “maybe we’ll take a few days off.”
For more information or to register to attend this year’s conference, visit www.cardinaloconnorconference.com