A March They Will Never ForgetOn Thursday, January 21st, 2016, youth and young adults from Chicago began an adventure of the rarest kind. The “Crusaders for Life” participate in the March for Life in Washington, D.C. every year, but this year would be different.
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In the days preceding the trip, Father Nathan Caswell made a few remarks to the Crusaders at a planning meeting. He encouraged the youth to “Be present in a special way,” on the trip, emphasizing that “...when we go all out, when we really die to ourselves, we allow others to come out of themselves, too.” From the beginning, he and the other leaders set this challenge before the Crusaders: “Whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:24)
However, as the 165 participants prepared for the trip in the following days, news of winter storm Jonas began to spread. Would they be able to go? The weather warnings loomed, the storm threatened to dump as much as two feet of snow on Friday night. Word came from organizers in D.C.: “The March for Life will not be cancelled.” Projected departure for home seemed promising. They would be just ahead of the storm.
The decision was made to go ahead. On Thursday morning after early Mass, 2 priests, 2 brothers, 160 youth and young adults from St. John Cantius in Chicago, St. Peter in Volo, and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Academy in Rockford loaded onto three buses.
Celebrating Mass in Barnesville, Maryland the morning of the March
Fr. Nathan Caswell, SJC prepares the Crusaders before the March for Life
Crusaders gather at the Washington Monument
Dancing and cheering for Life down Constitution Avenue
Rejoicing and Mourning
When the Crusaders arrived in D.C. the next day they gathered at the Washington Memorial with tens of thousands of young people. They attended the March for Life rally, wearing their bright yellow hoodies, holding clusters of yellow “LIFE” balloons, drums of various sizes, and Vatican flags.
As the rally ended and crowds poured onto a packed Constitution Avenue, the Crusaders shared their chants, cheers, and vibrant enthusiasm with all who passed by—young people from every state. They took up the rear of the March, heading up to the Supreme Court.
The atmosphere at the Supreme Court was solemn. The youth knelt in the first fresh inch of snow not far from where Roe v. Wade was decided 43 years ago. They prayed the Divine Mercy chaplet and sang hymns, offering prayers for our nation.
Brianna Palmore was on her first March for Life. She reflected on the paradox of simultaneous joy and mourning displayed in the group. “If the world will be stunned by our joy,” she wrote, “it will be so because they also see us mourning the life they have not acknowledged.”
The somber moment appeared to be the appropriate climax of their march. They quickly boarded the bus and prepared to head home early—or so they thought.
At the end of the March, the Crusaders knelt to pray and sing in front of the Supreme Court.
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Stranded in Breezewood
Three hours outside of D.C. on Friday evening, the Crusaders hoped they had outpaced the storm. They were making good time. Suddenly, all traffic stopped. There was an accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, causing miles of backup. 500 vehicles were stranded, including over 40 March for Life Buses from many different states.
The Crusaders were fortunate. They pulled off the road and packed into motel rooms for the night. This was certainly a better fate than spending 36 hours in stranded buses on the Turnpike, as hundreds of other experienced. Snowed in their hotel in Breezewood, PA, they made best of it—for three days.
Fathers Joshua and Nathan Caswell celebrated a sung Mass in the motel bar and heard confessions under a “Bud Light” sign. The Mass was attended by other stranded pro-life students from Pittsburgh and Ann Arbor, MI, as well as two Dominican Sisters. A local Catholic couple risked driving from a parish seven miles away to bring supplies for Mass. Every effort was made to beautify the space, clear the bar counter, and accommodate over 200 people.
Hotel staff and local residents marveled at the devotion as students knelt in every possible space singing “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” from the Missa de Angelis. Read more: "Stranded Pro-Life Group Holds Sung Ad Orientem High Mass in Motel Bar" (Church Pop)
Then there was a spectacular talent show on Saturday night with more than 25 competing acts and songs. This festive event was attended by hotel patrons, stranded pro-lifers, and visitors. There was fun in the snow, and a winter hike. The Crusaders prayed morning, evening, and night. They encountered inconveniences, discomfort, and made sacrifices. They also encountered generosity.
Where would they get food? Almost every restaurant had been closed by the storm. But the people of Breezewood came through. An order of 250 hamburgers at the local Hardees was no problem for the two employees who made it to work that day. And then there were the Econolodge employees who volunteered to do laundry for 150 people! The brothers and priests would do whatever it took to make sure no one went hungry, or uncared for.
The stranded Crusaders make an expedition back to the bus to get luggage.
The youth work to free a stranded car in Breezewood.
Br. Matthew Schuster, SJC prepares the youth to sing for Mass in the motel bar.
Fr. Joshua Caswell, SJC elevates the chalice as Fr. Nathan Caswell, SJC looks on.
Students kneeling while they sing the 'Missa de Angelis'
Youth kneel around pool tables and bar stools for Mass as they sing Gregorian Chant.
A Failed Escape
Now came the moment that tested all. Early Sunday afternoon, the buses were shoveled out, the Crusaders checked out of their hotel, and they headed back onto the PA Turnkpike. After a long ordeal, they were going home. For the homesick and weary pilgrims, this moment was received with happiness and optimism.
But as the buses approached the toll gates, authorities ordered them to turn around. The road was still packed with stranded cars, and it was icing up as evening was falling. Spirits were crushed. Would they ever make it home?
The Crusaders checked back into their crowded hotel rooms for one more night. Maybe it was the exhaustion, but there was even humor in the ordeal. As one young woman prepared to spend another night in her eight-person room, she quipped, “It’s kind of sad that this place is starting to feel comfortable.”
That evening at Mass, Fr. Nathan Caswell, SJC preached a sermon that hit home. “We all want to go home, but heaven is our real home. And this is something that we can only do together.” Suddenly homesickness became a spiritual longing. That was it. In that moment, everything was offered.
Robert White, a young student from Rockford, reflected on this lesson, “When I was stuck in Pennsylvania, all my thoughts were on home until that last sermon on Sunday. It did something to me; it awakened some other part of me I have never seen before, the realization that we are all in this fight together, the fight for life. If we try to look after ourselves, we will never find life, we will only find death. To find life you have to go out of yourself.”
Kate Brown wrote “It was nice to see how people offered it up when they remembered the whole reason for the trip. If it takes being stranded in Pennsylvania to raise awareness for the pro-life movement, then it will all have been worth it.”
Angelica Kowara wrote, “It was hard being optimistic the whole time, and to be honest, I wasn’t. I doubted God's plan. I was mad. I wanted to go home. But I realized, heaven is the real home I am trying to reach and being with the Crusaders for so long brought me one step closer.”
Crusaders take their chants and cheers to the streets of snowy Breezewood
A talent show on Saturday evening kept the stranded students entertained.
Dominican Sisters of Mary from Ann Arbor were among the audience.
Strangers came together from all over the United States.
Heaven is Our HomeMonday morning, the travelers finally boarded the buses to go home. At the last rest stop on Monday evening, the group grew quiet, a few tears were shed now that the whole experience was ending. New friendships had formed through the ordeal. People locked arms and sang, as bystanders watched in awe.
“Now that our trip is ending I truly realize what it is to be a Crusader,” said Josh Sullivan, “Being a Crusader means that we give everything. It means suffering discomforts for the sake of those who need a voice to have the right to life.”
Marley Wellworts wrote, “I think the biggest takeaway is that God works all things for good, because our capacity for joy is our capacity for suffering. I saw miracles happen on this trip, not the big spectacular kind, but the almost more important kind. I saw hearts touched."
“Every life has its Breezewood,” remarked Natalie Glitz, “we just need to make the best of it, love those around us, and remember that, eventually we will all come marching home.”
A winter hike in the snow. "Goodbye Breezewood!"
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Grateful thanks to Nathalie Corbett and Brian Winsauer for the photos.