‘Unmatched unity’ energizes witness of diocesan pilgrims to D.C. March for Life
High school students from the Diocese of Peoria who joined tens of thousands in Washington, D.C., for the national March for Life and related events on Jan. 20 returned with a deeper commitment to uphold the dignity of all human life, especially the unborn threatened by abortion.
But the pilgrimage had an added spiritual bonus.
“Going to D.C. was not just a pro-life trip, but a powerful faith experience for me and many others in our group, especially for many opportunities for the sacraments,” said Maria Stedwill, president of Peoria Notre Dame Teens for Life and one of 50 pilgrims to the march from her school. “I could see God working.”
Father Austin Bosse, chaplain at Marquette Academy in Ottawa — which sent 11 students — also noted the “spiritual impact” the pilgrimage had as the students celebrated daily Mass and prayed the rosary at sites as diverse as their hotel, a sports arena, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
“It truly is a pilgrimage,” said Father Bosse, “a spiritual journey that changes the way that you see the world. My students persevered as we walked seven-plus miles per day without complaining, and instead brought all their aches and pains to the cross of Jesus Christ for the sake of the children for whom they marched.”
“SURPASSED MY EXPECTATIONS”
This was the 50th national March for Life. The first took place in Washington in 1974 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide issued on Jan. 22 the previous year.
The 2023 event was the first national March for Life since the high court’s June 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe and returned the matter of regulating or restricting abortion to state legislatures. As a result, some Catholic high schools in the diocese that have traditionally sent contingents to the national march are planning to have a presence this year at the Illinois March for Life in Springfield on March 21.
Life is sacred and good, and “the idea that other people don’t understand this means that those of us who do have a moral obligation to fight for this belief. We have to stand up for those that cannot. . . .” — Ella Biggins
“The March for Life energized my own witness for life in my school and community because I felt an incredible, unmatched sense of unity,” said Mariel Kottoor, secretary of Peoria Notre Dame Teens for Life. “It reminded me that I am not alone in this fight, that thousands of people are fighting with me to change America and reinstate a culture of life for our generation.”
Ella Biggins, a senior at Marquette making her first trip to the March for Life, called the pilgrimage “extremely impactful” and told The Catholic Post it “completely surpassed my expectations.”
“Being immersed in an environment of like-minded people, driven by God, is an experience that changes minds and hearts,” said Biggins. Life is sacred and good, she added, and “the idea that other people don’t understand this means that those of us who do have a moral obligation to fight for this belief. We have to stand up for those that cannot — those that are never given the opportunity to live.”
In addition to attending the pre-march rally on the National Mall and then walking to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, the diocesan pilgrims — which included several priests, seminarians, and adult chaperones — took part in the Life Fest at the D.C. Entertainment and Sports Arena sponsored by the Sisters of Life and the Knights of Columbus; had private Masses in the basilica; and toured the St. John Paul II Shrine, as well as area sites including the Holocaust Museum, U.S. Capitol Building, Arlington National Cemetery, the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of the Bible.
The Peoria Notre Dame group was among more than 6,000 people at the National Prayer Vigil for Life’s opening Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception the evening before the march.
“Being in that space and experiencing that Mass brought me to tears,” said senior Jack Grow. “I felt God’s love surrounding me. I felt like I was at home. This is a trip and experience that I never want to forget.”
For classmate Stedwill, the intimacy of the group’s private Mass celebrated by Father Daniel McShane in a side chapel of the basilica dedicated to “Our Lady of the Missions” the day after the march will be her lasting memory.
“Being in that particular chapel was a reminder that each of us has a unique mission and purpose on this earth, and we were all inspired by Father McShane’s story of how God worked in his life even before he was born.”
The strengthened bonds of friendship resulting from the five-day pilgrimages — with travel by bus for Peoria Notre Dame contingent and by air for those from Marquette — were also frequently noted by the students.
“I will always remember my meetings with the juniors and seniors at the end of the night,” said Marquette senior Jacob Witthuhn. “We would pray a decade of the rosary and discuss what happened that day. I grew closer to a lot of these people through these meetings.”
“On the bus is where you make new friends and you don’t even think about what grade everyone is in,” said Peoria Notre Dame senior Deidre Dwyer, who was making her second trip to the national march. She described singing karaoke, playing card games, and visiting with teachers including Dominican Sisters Catherine Thomas and Agnes Paulina as the miles passed.
ALL ABOUT THE CAUSE OF LIFE
In the end, however, the students all spoke of the importance of the cause.
“Going on the March for Life was an opportunity to stand up and show that women don’t need abortion to be empowered; they need love and support so that they can see the beauty and dignity of their life and the life of their child.” — Maria Stedwill
“A lot of my family members were adopted, and I can’t imagine life without them,” said Witthuhn. “I wanted to go on this pilgrimage not only to have a chance for prayer, but to make sure my voice is heard.”
“This was going to be the last trip that we did as a school (to the national march) in order to focus on the local marches,” said Father Bosse, “but after seeing the fire that was ignited in the students, I will undoubtedly take a group again and strongly encourage students to attend.”