By Dave Jolivet, Editor
WASHINGTON, D.C. — At the recent Boston Catholic Women’s Conference, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said, “When the history of the Pro-Life movement is written, many Pro-Life leaders think Nellie Gray will be considered the Martin Luther King Jr. of the Pro-Life Civil Rights movement.” He added “But to me, she’s going to be the Joan of Arc of the Gospel of Life.” Strong praises indeed, yet every bit justifiable.
There are many other words to describe this 84-year-old champion of the unborn, but none more accurate than “Mother of the March For Life.” For more than 35 years, Texas native Nellie J. Gray has been the adoptive mother of millions of unborn children in the United States, unceasingly working to end the senseless slaughter of the most defenseless of all of God’s creations, the child within in the womb. And like any good mother, she sacrifices everything to protect her children.
As a young woman, Gray served as a corporal in the Women’s Army Corp during World War II. She later earned a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in economics. She was an employee of the federal government for 28 years, working for the State Department and the Department of Labor, all the while attending Georgetown University Law School to become a lawyer. Gray found herself practicing law before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an interview with The Anchor, Gray indicated she wasn’t a Catholic as a child, but “I had elements of the Catholic faith in my life.” As a young woman, she encountered a priest who brought to light what the Catholic Church truly was and he tutored her until she joined the Church.
Gray indicated she had a very fulfilling life in the Army and working for the State Department. When the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision came down in 1973 she said, “I knew abortion was wrong, but I really didn’t pay much attention to the ruling. I felt it was something out of the experience of American life. There was no validity to taking another human life. I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously.”
Eventually Gray realized the ruling was being taken very seriously. There was a tugging at her heartstrings to do something about it, but wasn’t quite sure what. “I was preparing to retire soon, and was thinking about establishing my own practice,” she said.
In ’73 Gray was approached by a Pro-Life group in New York who had been fighting against abortion in Albany. “They got my name as someone who could probably help,” said Gray. “They knew I knew how to work with the government, and it was their phone call that increased my interest in the Pro-Life movement.”
Later that year she retired from her professional life and dedicated all of her efforts to the burgeoning Pro-Life movement — all on a volunteer basis.
Gray helped found and later became president of the March for Life in the nation’s capital that began Jan. 22, 1974.
“I received a call from the Knights of Columbus,” she recalled. “I didn’t even know who they were, but they explained their stance against abortion and needed a place to meet to discuss plans for a march. That place was my living room. About 30 people gathered there and they asked if I could help get speakers for the event since I knew Capitol Hill well.
“What I couldn’t get was a master of ceremonies for the event. Politicians didn’t want to get involved in a march, and people at that time weren’t interested in marches after the Civil Rights movement and other things. That left the emcee job to me.
With an estimated 20,000 Pro-Life allies, Gray opened many eyes in this country to the plight of millions of unborn children, none of whom were protected by their own government. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Pro-Life advocates descend on Washington, D.C. each year to be the voice for the voiceless victims, violently killed by trained medical professionals.
“Following the march, we had about $400 left over and we were trying to decide where we should donate it. One Knight said we need another march next year, so it went in the coffers.”
The March for Life Corporation was formed in 1974 with Gray as president. “It was then that we established the Life Principles that would guide the movement,” said Gray. “A group of us put them together while in a New York airport. We concentrated on ‘thou shalt not kill,’ but we agreed the principles should concentrate on the positive, not the negative.” Set in the context of the Declaration of Independence, the Life Principles demand equal care for the unborn child and the mother, “no exceptions, no compromise.”
The whole basis of March for Life lies in the Life Principles, the 1930 encyclical of Pope Pius XI, “Casti Cannubii, (On Christian Marriage), and the principles of the Nurembuerg Trials following World War II, all of which in one way or another state that no person or entity can justify the intentional killing of an innocent life. “Those three documents, and the words of St. Paul, ‘Evil is not to be done that good may come from it,’ are what drives March for Life,” said Gray.
Gray, who has attended each of the 36 marches, has seen the amount of Pro-Life supporters grow, particularly with young people. “Many young people don’t know that one-third of their generation, that’s 50,000,000 people, have been killed through the evil of abortion,” she said. “They are realizing there is no justification in killing an innocent human being. We must eliminate this evil intention in this country.”
Gray said what keeps her motivated to maintain the fight is that 50,000,000 babies are killed each year. “That should make front-page news in the New York Times and Washington Post,” she said. “But it doesn’t. The people are kept in the dark. The feminist movement has manipulated popular opinion with language like ‘pro choice,’ and a ‘woman’s right to privacy.’ After fighting against evil in World War II, I get very upset that we have Americans trying to justify abortion. Americans cannot think they can authorize the killing of an unborn child. Somehow a juggernaut of evil has grown in this country, including Catholics who vote for pro-choice candidates. We will never win this fight until this juggernaut is exposed and eliminated. I just don’t know how we’re going to do it.”
Larry Cirignano is the former executive director of Catholic Citizenship, the Catholic grassroots education organization in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He has been working closely with Gray for nearly a year at her office in Washington, D.C. “Nellie has been the anchor of the Pro-Life movement as the central gathering point for the movement every year,” he told The Anchor. “She has forced the issue of the Life Principles and kept everybody’s feet to the fire with no exceptions with equal care for the mother and child.”
Cirignano first met Gray in the early 1990s when the Knights of Columbus got together to do some work in and around her home. “Last year I painted the back of her house and after going through numerous color samples I had to put a gray primer coat on the front of the house to make it stick,” Said Cirignano. “Nellie likes the color gray,” he mused.
While Cirignano has been friends with Gray for approximately 10 years, he knows of her hard work and dedication to the Pro-Life movement since its inception in 1974. “Many priests cite the March for Life as the reason for their choice of vocation,” said Cirignano. “Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life says the march was what inspired him to join the priesthood and make the life issue his calling.”
“As a colleague in national Pro-Life leadership, Nellie is always an inspiration to the rest of us,” Father Pavone told The Anchor. “Her determination is seen, for instance, in how, last year, despite the fact that she fell on the day of the March for Life and was in the hospital that night, she nevertheless was present at all all-day meeting of national leaders the very next morning, with a patch on her head.
“But most of all, it was attending the third annual March for Life in 1976 that launched me into the Pro-Life movement as a high school senior — and Nellie’s leadership made that possible.”
Gray has not only spurred vocations to the priesthood in her nearly four decades of Pro-Life efforts. She has inspired countless individuals to take up the fight for life. “David Berite and the 40 Days for Life movement has inspired a whole new generation of people to get involved,” said Cirignano. “He has had much success in closing down ‘abortion mills’ and saving individual babies one at a time.
“There used to be more than 2,000 abortion mills in the U.S. Now Mark Crutcher at Life Dynamics says there are fewer than 792 death camps. Fewer doctors are willing to commit abortion and fewer neighborhoods are willing to allow new centers to open.” Cirignano credits Gray’s efforts for inspiring Berite’s involvement. He also said Gray inspired Chris Slattery who runs Expectant Mother Care and Frontline in New York City, and also runs a training academy in the Bronx to teach people how to sidewalk council mothers to keep their babies. Judie Brown, president and founder of American Life League also jumped into the fray thanks to Gray. “And so has every person who has ever prayed outside an abortion mill or worked in a center and saved a baby,” he added. “She has inspired all of these people and the annual gathering has been a boost in the arm to continue to fight and challenge to grow.”
“There is a hard core right-to-life movement in this country,” said Gray. “We need to support the people who believe in equal rights for all life — they must be guided by the Life Principles. That’s why not one word of the March for Life Life Principles has changed since 1973.”
Gray is already at work in the nation’s capital planning the 2010 March for Life. She and other hard-working Pro-Life advocates are diligently trying to figure out how to break the juggernaut of evil in the U.S.
Prior to presenting Gray the inaugural Culture of Life Award at the recent Boston Catholic Women’s Conference, Cardinal O’Malley said that when the tragic event of Roe v. Wade occurred in 1973, “it caught many of us off guard, and many of us didn’t know how to react. But one of the persons who did know how to react was Nellie Gray. She is my hero.”
Nellie Gray is a hero to many priests, Pro-Life leaders and thousands fighting in the trenches. And most important of all, she is a hero to countless unborn children who were able to see the light of day thanks to the love, efforts and dedication of their unofficial adopted mother. She would be the first to say she can’t do it alone, and so many others have joined the cause. During this month of the Blessed Mother and Mother’s Day, it would be good for all of us to pray for Nellie Gray and her millions of unborn children, and to thank the good Lord for this unique child of God.