January 25, 2013 // Uncategorized

New York couple recalls their nearly 40 years of marching for life

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Bill and Peggy Devlin have taken a long view of the March for Life.

Since attending the first march around the U.S. Capitol on a 70-degree day in 1974, the couple, from St. Frances de Chantal Parish in Wantagh, N.Y., have missed just one.

In nearly 40 years of marching, they’ve seen snow, rain, plenty of cold and not many days like that first sunny and warm one.

This year they braved the bitter cold to walk along Constitution Avenue to the U.S. Supreme Court, continuing a long tradition of protesting the court’s decision to legalize abortion.

They knew when they attended that first march that they would most likely have to do it again, but neither of them thought they would still be making this pilgrimage of sorts about 40 years later.

This year, as in so many previous years, they awoke in pre-dawn hours for a 4:45 a.m. Mass at their church before boarding the bus with fellow parishioners to make the trek from Long Island to Washington.

The group knows the routine. Even the advent of technological advances such as cell phones has not changed their day much as far as keeping track of each other. They always get dropped off at a certain location, walk a few blocks to attend the rally, which in recent years has been on the National Mall, walk to the U.S. Supreme Court and then meet with fellow parishioners to wait for their bus at St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill, which opens its parish hall and serves refreshments to out-of-town marchers.

The march has a rhythm to it that Bill Devlin knows. He has seen the crowd grow in number and also get younger. He remembers when more participants lobbied their representatives in Congress. In recent years, he said, fewer marchers have done so, often stymied by the long security checkpoints.

He also remembers when the U.S. Park Police used to provide crowd size estimates, which it has not done since 1995. He has his own method for judging crowd size: observing how late in the day the group thins out in front of the Supreme Court where the march ends.

No matter the crowd size, he said the media over the decades has failed to take notice and often downplays the number of participants. He said this has happened since the first march when organizers reported an estimated 20,000 participants and news reports the next day said the crowd numbered 5,000.

No one really knew how many would turn up for the first march, Devlin said. But then, as now, busloads arrived from around the country.

Devlin was one of about a dozen people who sat around Nellie Gray’s dining room table in Washington in the summer of 1973 when the group of concerned pro-life activists came up with its original plan to mark the Jan. 22 anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision with a yearly march.

“We didn’t’ know what we wanted to do, just that we wanted to do something,” he told Catholic News Service Jan. 23. He said this “ad hoc committee” divvied up assignments to prepare for the event months ahead and they chose Gray as the chairwoman based on her experience as a retired attorney who had worked in the government and “knew her way around bureaucracy.”

“It almost seems that Nellie was called to do this; it became her vocation,” he said of the March for Life founder, who died last summer at the age of 86.

“The truth is no one knew for sure” how long it would take to change abortion laws in the country, said Devlin, now 76, who with his wife, Peggy, raised six children in their Long Island home. The couple now has 17 grandchildren.

Two of their daughters are religious; one, Sister Mary Gabriel, is a member of the Sisters of Life, a religious community devoted to pro-life issues that was founded in 1991 by New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor. Devlin has a photo of Sister Mary Gabriel as a 14-month-old attending a March for Life dinner in 1976.

Peggy Devlin, 72, remembers thinking during the first march: “We’re going to win this, look at this weather,” and never imagined they would be back again 40 years later.

In those early days, she also remembers a priest telling a group of activists that it might take 20 years for any changes in abortion laws to take place.

Back then that amount of time seemed incomprehensible. Now she’s been at her husband’s side in this movement twice that original estimate.

“God knows what he’s doing,” she thought at the original march and that assurance remains with her still.

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