Blizzard brings blessing in disguise

| January 25, 2016 | 1 Comment

Archdiocese group spearheads roadside Mass, spreads pro-life message

Photo courtesy Sarah Herrlin

Photo courtesy Sarah Herrlin

A group of teens and chaperones from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who got stranded in a snowstorm on their way home from the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., have returned safely, and with memories of an impromptu roadside Mass.

Three buses carrying about 130 people left Washington after the Friday march Jan. 22, but didn’t beat the storm that slammed much of the East Coast into the weekend. At 8 p.m., they came to a stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike — about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh, and hunkered down for the evening.

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 that many buses from the march were concentrated in their area. They struck up conversations with fellow pro-life advocates, many of whom were Catholic.

“You can imagine the fraternity among these people,” said Dill, adding that the archdiocese’s group had a handful of leaders, including a priest, who couldn’t make the trip due to illness.

Jack Dorcey, a chaperone from St. Pius X in White Bear Lake, was on his way to find his niece on a bus from Omaha when he stopped to talk with a man who turned out to be a priest.

Photo courtesy Father Tom Walker, St. Michael Catholic Church Prior Lake

Photo courtesy Father Tom Walker, St. Michael Catholic Church Prior Lake

“I couldn’t tell since he was bundled up,” said Dorcey, who has chaperoned the trip for all six years the archdiocese has sponsored it for high school youth. He and the priest, whose name he doesn’t remember, came up with the idea to have a Mass. The coordinating began.

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.

“We couldn’t even do snowballs,” Dorcey said.

With help from a priest, 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 [the archdiocese] 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 there.”

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.

Ahead of Mass, Dill said one of the priests was tasked with notifying the local diocese, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, of their plans for the outdoor Mass, considering the unusual circumstances as well as canon law.

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. Their trip officially ended with a Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, celebrated by Father John Ubel, its rector.

“Each trip has something in it, but this one will be hard to forget,” Dorcey said.

Marching on

Dill and Dorcey said attendance at the 43rd annual March for Life was disappointing. With more detailed forecasts available closer to the day of the march, many dioceses decided to cancel the trip, while others turned around as soon as they arrived.

“When we left on Tuesday [Jan. 19], the last prediction was 35 [degrees] and rainy,” Dill said. “It’s miserable, but not a reason not to go at that point.”

Dill said he was in communication with the bus drivers, chaperones and students the entire time, weighing their options as the storm approached.

“We weren’t in danger,” Dill said. “It was a question of when we would get home.”

The morning of the march, the group unanimously decided to stick it out through the march, during which the snow started. That’s when the bus drivers called Dill to gather the group to get ready to leave.

In addition to the rally, they were scheduled to attend a youth conference and have a free day in the nation’s Capital, both of which they missed.

Dill and Dorcey noted how pro-abortion advocates would chalk up the march’s low attendance as a victory, especially given the little coverage the event gets from media.

“But then we got stuck in the snow, and God used it,” Dorcey said. “Our message got a lot further than it has in the past.”

Even before the Saturday roadside Mass, Dorcey said group leaders talked to the students about how they would spread the pro-life message. Because most abortions happen on Saturday, he said, the group decided to offer up their experience of being stranded for the women who were scheduled for abortions that day, but who wouldn’t have them because of the storm.

“Everything that happened . . . you could just feel God’s presence right there. It’s so important for kids to have that experience,” said Dorcey, who also does sidewalk counseling outside of abortion facilities.

Dorcey said that while group leaders had discouraged the students from bringing their cell phones, it’s technology that ultimately spread their pro-life message.

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

“It was God working through a lot of hands,” Dorcey said. “It’s going to make getting kids to the march a lot easier. I’m sure we’ll see all kinds of fruit from this.”

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Category: Featured, Local News

  • Mom

    Thanks for the story! I have been so touched by what happened on the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the 2016 March for Life snow storm. My daughter was there, in one of the stuck buses! She let me know what happened and then I depended on all the Twitters to keep me updated on her, and others, safety. How touching it was to see so many people experiencing a lifetime memory, and a special witness to the world, of the Mass with the snow altar. I wished I was there, knowing what a special experience of faith it was! The positive response of the people stranded was amazing!