Diocesan ‘army’ of hundreds give witness at D.C. March for Life

By: By Tom Dermody

CAPTION: Several groups of diocesan pilgrims to the March for Life on Jan. 22 gathered for Mass the following day with Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, at St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Daniel Sone Photography)

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The hundreds of Catholics from the Diocese of Peoria who took part in pilgrimages to the national March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 22 knew they represented thousands more who would have also liked to prayerfully witness against legal abortion.

“We were the voice, the presence, the hands and feet of Catholics of the Diocese of Peoria in Washington,” said Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, a chaplain at Alleman High School in Rock Island, after returning with a group of 40 students and six chaperones.

“It was such a strong, united front,” he added, acknowledging all diocesan pilgrims — including Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, about a dozen priests, many seminarians, contingents from six Catholic high schools, and a diocese-organized bus trip — were also representing the benefactors who made the trips possible and those at home praying for them and the cause.

Bishop Jenky called the experience of seeing such a large diocesan presence at the march and related events “deeply moving.”

“One of the reasons why we go on pilgrimage is to witness to our faith,” he told The Catholic Post on Tuesday. “But it’s also an experience of being Catholic together.”

And the diocesan pilgrims had plenty of opportunities for that, including at large-scale Masses and rallies prior to the march. Following the march, many of the diocesan pilgrims joined Bishop Jenky for an impromptu youth prayer rally that evening at a hotel conference room. The bishop also celebrated Mass for the diocesan group the following day at St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill.

For the pilgrims, the experience was uplifting and renewing, despite long overnight bus trips.

“It can be hard being a Catholic pro-life teenager,” said Isaiah Harlan, president of Galesburg High School Students for Life and a participant in the diocesan youth pilgrimage.

“It’s easy to feel hopeless, but the March for Life makes you realize that you are far from alone,” Harlan continued. “It shows that there are more people out there like you than what you ever could have imagined.”

Crowd estimates at the March for Life are always a point of debate. Those taking part said it seemed like hundreds of thousands.

“There’s a spot where everyone starts walking backwards to take pictures of the crowd, because you get a really good view of everyone in the march,” said Harrison Schimmer, a member of Holy Cross Parish and a sophomore at Mendota High School. “I knew we were towards the back of the march, but we’d already been walking for more than an hour and there were still people as far as you could see behind us.”

“I was in awe,” said Schimmer. “I’ll never forget that moment.”

Father Jacob Rose, chaplain of Marquette Academy in Ottawa, said his school’s busload of pilgrims were at the front of the march, not far behind the students carrying the large opening banner. When they reached the Supreme Court building, they waited for a half hour before walking to some of the national monuments. The crowds kept coming and coming, “an immense amount of people,” said Father Rose.

Shirley Plaag, diocesan director of youth and young adult ministry who coordinated a busload of pilgrims, said Father Geoff Horton led that group in the rosary as they stepped off into the march. Before marching, her group took part in a Mass at the Patriot Center and a “Life is VERY Good” rally on the campus of George Mason University.

This will probably be the last march experience for a few years for Charlene Cessna of Danville, who is set to join the U.S. Marines.

“I’ve always been pro-life, but being on this trip and actually seeing all the other people marching, standing up for what they believe in, was amazing,” she told The Catholic Post. “God is good! I know abortion will one day be illegal, but for now all we can do is pray and petition the government.”

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