By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
NORTH DARTMOUTH, Mass. — Less than a week into spring, students and faithful from across the Fall River Diocese gathered to celebrate the annual Pro-Life Mass at St. Julie Billiart Parish in North Dartmouth.
On a sunny day with temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, principal celebrant Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., seized upon the opportunity to call everyone’s attention to the weather after a long and sometimes harsh winter.
“As we reflect on this day and we think about saving lives and defending life, we think of so many innocent people whose lives have been taken away from them,” Bishop da Cunha said. “They have been deprived of the right to live, to see the sunshine, to see the beauty of the skies, and the flowers, and the colors. They have been deprived of that gift, and yet we are here and we have been blessed.”
In his homily, the bishop went on to say how happy he was to see so many young people present at the Mass, “because I am absolutely convinced that if we want to preserve the dignity of life, we must teach our young generation these important values,” he said.
And while most people identify the Pro-Life effort with defending the lives of the unborn, Bishop da Cunha said we are called to defend “not just those who are in their mother’s wombs, but those outside the womb as well.”
“We also can’t forget the lives of those who have been born,” the bishop said. “Sometimes the elderly are mistreated. We have so many lives terminated; we have so many people who are suffering oppression and indignity — the poor, the lonely, the dying, the hungry, the victims of human trafficking, victims of slavery, victims of forced labor, victims of sexual tourism, victims of sexual abuse, and the list goes on and on. And these are all people whose lives are robbed of dignity and we must defend them.”
Calling life “a precious gift from God,” Bishop da Cunha reminded how God created us all in His image and “therefore, the value of life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death needs to be respected and preserved.”
Echoing the bishop’s comments, the four winners of this year’s diocesan Pro-Life essay contest — themed “Each of us is a masterpiece of God’s creation” — took turns reading their winning compositions aloud.
Gabriella Joaquim, second-place winner in the junior high division and a student at Holy Name School in Fall River, noted: “In today’s disposable society it is easy to throw away or discard people who are not as active or viable. As a society we must support the elderly and those who care for them.”
Her fellow Holy Name schoolmate, Benjamin Resende, who took first-place honors in the division, said: “Whether we are young or old, healthy or sick, we are all made special in God’s eyes. Unfortunately, our society today doesn’t always look at life this way. There are now so many ways that life is disrespected and abused, such as abortion and not taking care of the sick and the poor in our society.”
Meghan Powell, second-place winner in the high school division and a student at St. John Paul II High School in Hyannis, recounted how attending the March for Life in Washington, D.C. for the first time this year “opened my eyes to understand the devastation of abortion, and that each life is Sacred from conception to natural death. I learned that there are actually more Pro-Life people in America than pro-choice, and that my generation is extremely Pro-Life.”
Lastly, Victoria Tutino, a student at Coyle and Cassidy High School in Taunton who took first place in the high school division, stressed: “Life is not something that can just be thrown out but rather, it is a masterpiece. This gift is one that no matter the age, is still beautiful. All of the imperfections, blemishes, insecurities, problems, and obstacles that life has is what makes it a masterpiece.”
This year’s recipients of the John Cardinal O’Connor Awards, which are annually given to individuals who are dedicated “witnesses to the Gospel of Life,” according to Marian Desrosiers, director of the diocesan Pro-Life Apostolate, were Haley Wissler, a member of the Class of 2016 at Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro, and Arthur Gareau, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk.
Wissler was honored for her work with the school’s Pro-Life Team, as a member of the Respect Life Ministry at her home parish of Sacred Heart in North Attleboro, for being active with the Rosary for Life, volunteering at the Abundant Hope Pregnancy Center in Attleboro, leading a Pro-Life Confirmation class, and attending the March for Life in Washington, D.C. and the diocesan Pro-Life Boot Camp.
“Haley went above and beyond to joyfully share the Gospel of Life with her peers, so today it is my honor to present her with the 2015 Youth John Cardinal O’Connor Award,” Desrosiers said.
“I’m really excited and I feel really blessed at being the recipient of the award (this year),” Wissler told The Anchor. “When my teacher told me she had nominated me, I couldn’t believe it. Just knowing that I’d be recognized for something like this really made me happy.”
In addition to his work with the Knights of Columbus, Youth Ministry, as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, the Marriage Prep program, and Parish Council, Gareau has remained dedicated to defending the Pro-Life cause for more than 15 years and has been a fixture at the 40 Days for Life campaigns outside the Four Women Clinic in Attleboro for the past five-and-a-half years.
“Prayerfully and respectfully, Art would wave to the passersby — those who honk their horns in support, and those who did not,” Desrosiers said. “In either case, Art would always respond with love.”
“It’s an honor to receive the award this year with Art Gareau,” Wissler said. “He’s a great guy and I’ve seen him many times praying outside the abortion clinic. He’s an inspiration to a lot of us.”
As an active parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel for more than 25 years, Desrosiers said “there is hardly a ministry that (Gareau) has not been involved with to some degree,” which is why he was honored with the 2015 Adult John Cardinal O’Connor Award.
“I have always been Pro-Life, because I come from a Pro-Life family,” Gareau said of the honor. “It’s something we have lived, so it’s not something I had to learn. I’ve had a lot of support from my friends at the parish, I’ve had a lot of support from my family, who are all incredible in allowing me to get out and do some of these things.”
Gareau said he’s proud of all his Pro-Life work and noted that his attendance at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. remains a highlight.
“You can stand in front of the clinic alone at six o’clock in the morning, but when you go to Washington and you’re one of 600,000 strong — that’s when you realize you’re in the right place and you’re not alone,” he said.
In offering his personal congratulations to the winning essayists and award recipients, Bishop da Cunha noted how the Pro-Life Apostolate remains “an important ministry in our diocese.”
“Children in the womb are not potential persons, but persons with potential and they must be treated as such,” he said. “None of us has the right to take another life because it is a unique, special gift from God and only God determines when it begins and ends.”