Pro-life movement veterans recall the early days in Boston

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BOSTON – In her legendary 1994 National Prayer Breakfast speech, Mother Teresa exclaimed: “I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child… How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion?  As always, we must persuade her with love.”

The veterans of the pro-life movement in South Boston know a great deal about this love.

On a freezing recent Monday evening, in a warm and inviting Southie home on East 7th Street, two pro-life stalwarts gathered to explain what first made their respective hearts leap to the cause of defending the unborn, the many struggles they’ve faced, their most memorable victories and their optimism for the future.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Ed Long and Mary Fagan were Southie’s leading proponents of life causes. The nascent struggle to protect the unborn and their mothers was not – as it has never been – an easy one.

“If you love people, you want only the best for them,” said Fagan. “You love them because they are God’s people and He wants them to be with Him in Heaven forever… It’s hard to tell the truth.”

A 70-year old painter and wallpaper hanger, Long (a Catholic and one of nine children) is a longtime member of the Boston-based Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Located in the Schrafft Building in Charlestown, the group describes itself as “the oldest, largest and most effective right-to-life organization in New England.” In its battles to restore respect for every human life, from conception until natural death, it oversees legislative initiatives, provides women’s health support, funds youth activism and offers a myriad of educational resources.

Twenty-five years ago, Long founded the organization’s South Boston/Dorchester/Hyde Park chapter.  For six consecutive years he chaired the group’s Walk for Life – an event that raises thousands of dollars annually for crisis pregnancy centers and for women and babies in need.

For a period of time in the early 1970s and into the 1980s, Long became disillusioned with the Boston clergy’s lack of involvement and leadership on issues involving respect for life.  Their marked absence, he insists, sparked his personal activism.  Long has been especially heartened, of late, to see more and more seminarians participating in the Walk for Life.  He sees tremendous hope in the traditional orders of clergy and the religious that sprang up during and after Pope John Paul II’s papacy, which was marked by love, hope and an unwavering outspokenness on the evils of abortion.

Clearly, it was the Catholic Church’s teachings on charity, mercy, penance and forgiveness that incited these crusaders’ activism. In particular, Long credits his affiliation with the traditional Latin, or Tridentine, Masses at St. Mary Immaculate of Lourdes in Newton and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston for feeding and sustaining his efforts.

“The Church is the most important thing in the world,” says Long. “They’re the only ones that can save souls.”

Around the nation, 81 percent of surgical abortion clinics in operation in 1991 have closed, according to Wichita, Kansas-based Operation Rescue. A report from the organization’s Cheryl Sullenger says that 54 abortion facilities either closed or halted all abortion services in 2015.

Mary Fagan, a true Southie pro-life soldier, knows a great deal about abortion clinic blockades – “rescue work” that is both peaceful and prayerful. At 82, Fagan is still active in keeping issues involving respect for life alive at the South Boston St. Monica/St. Augustine parish collaborative.  The original St. Augustine Church, completed in 1880 on Dorchester Street, is presently being converted into condominiums. The dust at the construction site is deep, but Fagan’s memories of her activism – which stretch back over 45 years – remain vivid.

“You knew when you were doing a rescue that you were breaking the law,” Long said.  “But it was an unjust law,” Fagan added. Fagan has been arrested several times for her rescue efforts.  Once, while peacefully reciting the Rosary during a blockade, Fagan was arrested in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. She spent 10 days in jail.

“All of the pro-life people considered it the work of God to be in jail,” Fagan said. It was a well-known fact that the protesters’ presence dissuaded many young mothers from receiving abortions.

On any given rescue day, one quarter of the babies headed for termination would be saved. This fact was a great motivator.

“We knew that we were saving lives. I’d go prepared to be arrested,” Fagan said. “I’d pack my little backpack and sit on it, in the cold.”

In addition to her rescue efforts, for 13 years Fagan also ran a spaghetti supper out of St. Augustine’s basement that raised funds for needy women and their children. The first year, Fagan says, 75 people attended the supper, which raised $300.

After a few years, 400 people regularly attended. The suppers brought in about $3,000 annually, money that was donated to the Friends of the Unborn in Quincy, a pregnancy crisis center that helps hundreds of young women take care of their children each year.

Fagan’s activism continues to this day. She still participates in rose drives, nationwide 40 Days for Life vigils and, every October, she coordinates a Benediction service for the unborn with parish priests from Southie’s Gate of Heaven and St. Bridget parishes.

Fagan and Long “were never afraid to speak out and defend all human life,” said Ray Flynn,  the former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. “They and many others helped make America the most caring and protective country in the world for the defenseless and unborn. In those early days, Boston was the leading pro-life city in America.”

Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, once wrote “Christianity is not ‘our’ work; it is a Revelation.”

Fagan and Long are witnesses to this living Revelation.

After all, Fagan said, “We are a resurrection people.”

Lori Brannigan Kelly is a freelance writer.