Pro-life pilgrims stuck on highway in snow find fellowship, blessings

By Jessica Trygstad

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — Catholic
youths from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis were among those stuck
on the Pennsylvania Turnpike overnight on the way home from the annual March for
Life in Washington.

And they had stories to tell
that include attending an impromptu roadside Mass complete with a snow altar.

“Each trip has something in it,
but this one will be hard to forget,” said Jack Dorcey, a chaperone from St.
Pius X Parish in White Bear Lake.

The Minnesota buses carrying
about 130 people left Washington after the march Jan. 22, but didn’t beat the
storm that slammed much of the East Coast. At 8 p.m., they came to a stop on
the Pennsylvania Turnpike — about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh, and hunkered
down for the night. Traffic was at a standstill after a tractor- trailer
jackknifed near a mountain tunnel and snow continued to accumulate on roads
before the accident was cleared.

Bill Dill, from the archdiocesan
Office of Marriage, Family and Life, said the group had plenty of snacks and
fuel, but several people ventured out the next morning to get water. That’s
when they noticed many buses from the march and struck up conversations with
fellow pro-life advocates, many of whom were Catholic.

“You can imagine the fraternity
among these people,” he told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper.

While meeting up with others
also stuck on the road, Dorcey met a priest from the Archdiocese of Omaha,
Nebraska, who suggested they have a Mass.

Students already were playing in
the snow, so Dill and Dorcey asked them to make an altar, which was no small
feat in the powdery snow.

The students from Epiphany
Church in Coon Rapids used pro-life signs from the march as shovels and then
packed the snow for the altar so it wouldn’t collapse. Once complete, they also
laid the signs across the altar so that nothing would tip over. Using sticks,
they made a cross to place against what they dubbed “John Paul the Great
Hillside Chapel.”

“No one diocese had everything they
needed to have a Mass. We didn’t have a priest or hosts, but we had the
inspiration,” Dorcey said. “Omaha had vestments, but not a Mass kit. It all
came together within an hour. You could see and feel that the spirit was

Dill and his wife, Tiffany,
walked along the roadside inviting people to Mass, which was celebrated by
Father Pat Behm from the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, and concelebrated by at
least six other priests. Dorcey estimates about 600 people from a handful of
states attended.

“People just started filing in.
It was really cool to look on both sides and see people just streaming in to
come to Mass,” said Dorcey, who offered his umbrella during Mass to protect the
Eucharist from the snow. Pat Millea, high school faith formation director at
St. Michael in Prior Lake, played music.

Before the Mass, Dill said one
of the priests notified the local diocese, Altoona-Johnstown, of their plans considering
the unusual circumstances and canon law requirements.

Dorcey said Mass was quick, but
everybody was able to receive Communion. By the end of Mass, the buses were
starting to move. When they left, someone stuck a pro-life sign in the middle
of the altar to commemorate the occasion.

The group got back to St. Paul
around 3:45 p.m. Jan. 24 and their trip officially ended with a Mass at the
Cathedral of St. Paul, celebrated by Father John Ubel, the rector.

Reflecting on the experience,
Dorcey said: “Everything that happened … you could just feel God’s presence
right there.”

He said that group leaders had
discouraged the students from bringing their cellphones, but technology ultimately
spread their pro-life message.

One girl used Twitter to share details
about their roadside Mass. Soon after, a news station from the Twin Cities contacted
her, and word spread from there.

Other March for Life groups
stuck on the Pennsylvania highway included students from the Franciscan
University of Steubenville, Ohio, and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and
three buses from the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Maria Schuette, director of
religious education and youth ministry for the Diocese of Green Bay, who was interviewed
by phone Jan. 23 from one of the buses, described the delay as another
opportunity for the group “to practice what it means to be pro-life.

The diocesan pilgrims: parish
youth groups members, Catholic high school students and chaperones, turned the
negative experience into a positive, she told The Compass, Green Bay’s diocesan

“We have been taking in
strangers, people whose cars ran out of fuel,” she said. “It’s definitely been
like a God moment for us.”

Schuette said students provided people
with bottled water and invited them to use the bathrooms on the bus or simply
get warm.

“They have kind of made the most
of the situation,” she added. “They’ve gotten out, cleaned off visitors’ cars,
shared food and had snowball fights.”

Danny Stewart, 17, a junior at
Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay who had participated in his first March for
Life, viewed the snow delay in philosophical terms. “A pilgrimage is like an adventure
and you’re going to experience times that are difficult,” he said. “This is
part of the difficult time so far. It’s just crazy.”

Through a March for Life
Facebook page, the group had been able to keep in contact with family and
friends during their ordeal.

Schuette said prayers from
families and other people who are following their trip were helpful. “We have
really felt the prayers through the whole pilgrimage. We couldn’t have done it
without them.”

She also said it was an
opportunity for the group to pray for others.

“All the kids stepped up,” she
said, noting that they prayed the rosary not only for their own rescue, but for
the safety of national guardsmen, the highway patrol and fellow travelers.

Another group, four busloads of
pilgrims from the Diocese of Kansas City- St. Joseph, Missouri, were especially
grateful that their chartered bus service figured out how to find a spot off
the road with hot food and shelter.

The group of 160, including students,
deacons, chaperones and eight priests, avoided the standstill traffic by taking
a detour and arriving at American Legion Post 113 in Bedford, some 23 miles to
the east, where they had a warm meal and slept on the hall’s floors before
resuming their trip the next day.

“It’s very, very scenic
right now,” one of the pilgrims, Michael Aberer, told Catholic News
Service Jan. 23.

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Trygstad is assistant editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Contributing to this report was
Sam Lucero in Green Bay and Kurt Jensen in Washington.

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