Some months back, there were reports of shootings at an abortuary. Violence is never the way, and with that thought my mind turned to an Ash Wednesday some years earlier when another ‘battle’ began.
In a quiet London square, there stands an imposing town house, now empty, abandoned, boarded-up with a large “Do Not Enter” sign. Standing in front of it, there is nothing to suggest what it once was, no evidence of what occurred there. And yet, for three years this building had been the scene of a battle, albeit an invisible one between the forces of this world and those of another, and with an outcome altogether unexpected.
In the early hours of Ash Wednesday 2011, a handful of individuals made their way to one of London’s many Georgian Squares. Their only identifying feature was a banner carried by one of their number that bore the insignia of 40 Days for Life and a biblical verse: “…I formed you in the womb”. They took up position in the northwest portion of the square, directly facing one of the houses opposite. And, as they did so, battle had indeed commenced.
At first, the small group aroused little interest; commuters walked by oblivious. Those working in the building opposite took no notice—they were busy, very busy, as each day a trail of young women furtively made their way up its steps to an invisibly opening door behind which they disappeared. This was no ordinary building, however, and no ordinary business occupied the premises. Strangely, however, there was little to advertise what took place there. Nevertheless, a never-ending tide of young women seemed daily to “wash up” on its “shore.” This building was no safe haven, though; and whatever emotional shipwrecks these women were fleeing they were confronted there with something far worse, for the place they had come to was an abortuary.
The prayer went on outside, and would do so for all of Lent, from early in the morning to late at night. Slowly, people started to recognize this presence. Comments began to be made—few were positive; most were hostile; some were threatening. From the abortuary, those inside began to peer through its windows at those positioned outside. And, as they did so, at last they began to comprehend what was taking place. The police were called. They came and questioned those whose “crime” appeared to be praying in the open air of a London street. Police warned those so doing about their actions, of possible consequences, in the hope that they would leave. Yet, all the while, just a few feet away, women walked a legally sanctioned trail of tears to the building opposite.
The vigil remained—it was intended to last for 40 days, and for 40 days it would stay. Later, some were to liken the experience in the square to the Way of the Cross, a London Calvary, such was the jeering contempt on display. But for now, they continued to pray and to watch.
Others were watching too. Groups, diametrically opposed to what the pro-lifers represented, started to take note. In due course, they began to gather: curious at first, they soon turned angry; insults were flung almost from the start. Word went out as to what was happening in the square, soon followed by the appearance in newspapers of articles decrying vigils of any sort taking place on British streets, with one outside an abortuary perceived as being particularly provocative.
The counter-demonstrations to the vigil grew larger. The gathering mob rapidly attracting many who came merely to sneer and mock; soon, anger turned to fury. And from then on it was not just insults that were thrown, but urine and excrement, as the invective became more pointed and more blasphemous. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Satanic symbols began also to appear on nearby streets. Physical assault was not long in coming too, if in a bizarre fashion. Without fail, like some latter-day Kamikaze pilots, a band of cyclists would regularly drive headlong into the prayer vigil, ramming the banner and those praying around it.
More police arrived; seen by the media as the source of the unrest, the vigil was debated, and derided, on national radio. Nevertheless, in the face of these massed ranks of hatred, the candles still burned, and those who had come to give witness stood firm.
Wonders happened. One young woman walked past the vigil and mounted the steps opposite. Then she stopped, turned, and sat down. With head in hands, she began to cry. Eventually she spoke with those praying, and descended the steps, never to climb them again. Other young women also began to speak to those at the vigil. Some returned back the way they had come; others were sent to a nearby pro-life pregnancy advice centre run by the Good Counsel Network, where they received practical, emotional, and spiritual help in welcoming new life into the world. It is not inconceivable that one day those saved children may pass through that same square, perhaps unaware of the all-too-real drama that had been played out there, one with their very existence at stake.
Through wind and rain, official disapproval and public scorn, this protest for the value of each human life endured. Then Easter came, and with it the vigil ceased.
It returned the next Lent. Again, the vigil was met with opposition. It was relentless; but so, too, was the trickle of pregnant women who “turned.” And so, with each passing day, the vigil prayed more intensely than ever. The vigil’s entreaty directed at the building opposite—for the hearts and minds of those who worked there as much as for those who approached its “consulting rooms.”
In Lent 2013, near the end of that year’s vigil, one of the workers from inside the abortuary emerged. She approached those praying opposite. Those kneeling expected more vitriol. It did not come. Instead, the woman paused, and then, looking into the faces of those in front of her, said, “Your prayers are working. The girls are not keeping their appointments.” And with that, she turned and walked away.
Later that year, abortions ceased at the facility. Shortly after that, the whole place closed, and a large “To Let” sign was posted at the entrance.
And with that, the small group who had been present throughout furled their banner and, as anonymously as they had arrived, quietly slipped away.
But that was not to be the end, not quite.
For something even more remarkable was to take place.
The next year, on April 26, the feast of Our Lady of Good Counsel, another group accompanied by a priest was seen in the square. At their approach, the former abortuary’s doors opened and the group mounted its steps and entered. The place, although now largely derelict, still had lying about some remnants of its former trade. The priest began to robe; on one of the tables left behind, candles and a crucifix were placed, and bread and wine were brought forth.
During the height of the counter demonstration, one of the cries that rang around the square was: “My body. My choice.” Now, as the light from the candles flickered upon bare walls, and those present bowed their heads in prayer, the words that were to end definitively all that had taken place were at last spoken: “This is My Body…”
A version of this article appeared in the Catholic World Report, 6 March 2015.