Praying at the foot of the cross
FORT WORTH — Jeanne Vecera was only 11 years old when she prayed outside an abortion clinic for the first time. Now 46 and the mother of five children, she still has memories of that early pro-life gathering. The novelty of a peaceful, public protest against abortion brought out local television cameras.
“I remember being on the news,” said the St. Patrick parishioner who held a candle during the evening prayer service. “We were standing along Pennsylvania Avenue and they filmed us saying the Rosary.”
Vecera described the crowd that turned out for the first Rosary Vigil for Life 35 years ago as a small but committed group. Her parents, Julie and Jimmy Vecera, brought their children to the event and were ardent pro-life supporters.
“My mother is 86 and still prays outside of the abortion clinic in south Fort Worth,” added Vecera, the youngest of seven children. “My father joined her when he retired.”
Influenced by her parents, the St. Andrew Catholic School mom always knew the truth about abortion and talks about the issue with her daughters.
“I was never one of those people who thought it’s okay for someone else but not for me,” she admitted. “My mom was right. Abortion affects your family, your faith, everything.”
Vigil converts hearts
Thirty supporters came to the first Rosary Vigil for Life, but now hundreds assemble each year to pray. Originally scheduled on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in October and then the January 22 anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the gathering eventually moved to Good Friday where it has become part of the Paschal Triduum observance for many families.
Praying for unborn babies outside an abortion clinic on the day of Christ’s crucifixion “is like standing at the foot of the cross,” explained Pat Pelletier, who began organizing the annual Rosary vigil in 1984 with her late husband, Chuck, a disabled Vietnam War veteran. That same year, the dedicated pro-life advocates opened the Mother and Unborn Baby Care center in Fort Worth and later offered a healing Mass for parents whose children died before Baptism due to miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion.
“The Rosary vigil had an impact right from the beginning,” said Pat Pelletier, recalling one of the success stories her husband liked to tell. Both sidewalk counselors, the husband-and-wife team regularly prayed outside an abortion clinic hoping to dissuade women from terminating a pregnancy. They also got to know the clinic’s staff.
“One employee was pregnant and every time she came to work, Chuck would ask how her baby was doing,” Pelletier recounted.
The question infuriated the employee. But, as the days went by, her attitude softened, and the expectant mom realized the man, sitting in a wheelchair outside the building with a rosary, was sincerely concerned about her wellbeing. After giving birth assisted by a pro-life doctor, the abortion worker had a change of heart.
“The day after our second Rosary vigil, she called to tell Chuck she quit,” his wife said, remembering the surprise they felt.
Her conversion was due, in large part, to “Chuck’s very compassionate and loving concern for her,” she added. “Another part of it was seeing priests, in their collars, praying with us. That made her stop and think about what she was doing.”
Bishop leads prayer
Clergy members regularly attend the Rosary vigil and often lead the crowd in prayer, including Bishops Joseph Delaney and Kevin Vann.
Now, Bishop Michael Olson recites the Rosary with hundreds of parishioners who fill the sidewalks near Planned Parenthood. Other diocesan and religious order priests, as well as seminarians, join him.
The Pelletiers’ five children grew up going to the vigil and watched their parents help pregnant women in crisis.
“Their work in pro-life ministry shaped our family dramatically,” eldest daughter Lisa Irlbeck said. “They instilled the idea that you should go out of your way to look for people who are in difficulty and make an effort to help them.”
“The first and most important thing to do in pro-life work is to pray,” she added.
Theresa Schauf began praying with others at the vigil when she moved to Fort Worth as a young bride in 2006. Now her children come with her and it’s part of the family’s Easter weekend traditions.
“It’s a powerful witness to the sanctity of life while commemorating Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,” said the Diocesan Respect Life coordinator.
The faithful outside Planned Parenthood each year also pray for those profiting from the abortion industry.
“We ask for God’s mercy on them and for their eyes to be opened to the truth,” Schauf added.
In a 2008 interview with the North Texas Catholic, Chuck Pelletier explained, “Sidewalk counseling is all about presence, perseverance, and prayer. The Holy Spirit can’t work through you if you’re sitting at home.”