The Chiaroscuro Foundation recently released New York City abortion data by zip code in the form of a map. Since it took us a while to have the map developed, we have actually had the data for some time. As we thought about it and discussed it, it occurred to us that the zip codes with particularly low abortion rates were perhaps even more interesting than the zip codes with particularly high rates. We wondered why some zip codes, such as 11219 in Brooklyn, came in substantially lower than many other parts of the city. We decided to see if we could find anything interesting in some of these places.
So I searched for a Catholic church in 11219 and found Regina Pacis. I contacted the pastor, Msgr. Marino, and asked to meet. When I arrived the following Monday morning, I drove around the neighborhood a bit before going to the church. It isn’t a terrible neighborhood, but it isn’t a well-to-do neighborhood either. With such a low abortion rate, I had expected it to be somewhat more upscale. As I arrived at the church, I was even more curious than before about what Msgr. Marino might think of the low rate of abortion in his neighborhood.
And then I saw it: the Chapel of Mary Mother of the Unborn.
It all started in 1989, when Msgr. Marino was parochial vicar at Regina Pacis. He went to have dinner with a cousin upstate who had married a Jewish woman. The conversation turned to abortion, and things got so heated between Fr. Marino and his cousin’s wife that she asked him to leave. On his way home, he was heartbroken to think that he, a Catholic priest, was unable to defend the Church’s teaching on abortion adequately, even among family. He thought and prayed about it for days, and eventually came up with the idea of developing a response that would not be anti-abortion, but pro-life: a devotion to the Blessed Virgin, Mother of the Unborn.
After being treated a bit dismissively by his pastor and his bishop, Msgr. Marino got official recognition for the title of Mary Mother of the Unborn from Rome. He wrote a prayer and had it approved by his bishop, found a statue, and converted the old baptistery at Regina Pacis into the chapel of Mary Mother of the Unborn. And so it began.
Next to the statue, which is perched atop the baptismal font, is the Book of Life: prayers written for women who are expecting; couples who are having a hard time conceiving; couples mourning the loss of an unborn child through miscarriage; women mourning their abortions; parents wrestling with the anguish of an adverse prenatal diagnosis; mothers, fathers, grandmothers giving thanks for safe delivery. Nearly seventy large books have been filled with handwritten prayers since 1989. The walls are adorned with pictures of babies born in answer to prayer to Mary Mother of the Unborn. Every year, on the Feast of the Annunciation, Msgr. Marino brings the statue up to the church and blesses all the pregnant women of the parish, all the newborns, and all those mourning the loss of a child.
Occasionally women considering abortion come to Msgr. Marino, and he gives them his best counsel. When he senses that he has done all he can, he often takes the woman to the chapel and leaves her there. He tells the story of a couple who discovered by ultrasound that their child had not developed any arms at all and who were considering aborting him for that reason. He feared he had been unable to persuade them to carry the child to term and left them at the chapel, dejected. Several months later, they returned to present to him a child – born with two fully developed arms.
There she was, Mary Mother of the Unborn, right in the middle of a zip code with one of the lowest abortion rates in the city, in the middle of a cluster of zip codes with relatively low abortion rates. After two years working in the pro-life movement in New York City, I had never even heard of her. I hope some of you have and that many more will. Perhaps it is a devotion for our time, certainly for this city. Mary, Mother of the Unborn, pray for us:
O Mary, Mother of the Unborn,
protect the gift of human life which your
Divine Son has allowed to be given.
Give strength and joy to all parents as
they await the birth of the precious
child they have conceived.
Give courage to those who are fearful,
calm those who are anxious and guide
all of us, with your motherly care, to
treasure and protect the miraculous gift
of human life.
We ask this through your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen