The Pilgrim Icon Visits the Home of Pro-Life Hero Bishop Austin Vaughn

The pilgrim icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa visited St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart Churches in Newburgh, New York on October 14-15.

Newburgh is located 60 miles north of New York City, and was General George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution. It was here that George Washington vigorously rejected a proposal that he become something like an American monarch. He also put down a potential revolt among his officers at the end of the war called the Newburgh Conspiracy, and established the Badge of Military Merit, the forerunner of the Purple Heart medal.

Newburgh was also the home of another great man. Bishop Austin Vaughn, who died in 2000, was a hero of the pro-life movement, and is honored in Benedictine College’s Hall of Fame of Great American Bishops.

In 1989 Bishop Vaughn visited my seminary – Holy Apostles in Cromwell, CT.  Not too long after I was ordained, I visited with Bishop Vaughn in Newburgh with a priest friend.  I felt I was in the presence of someone truly holy and remarkable.  Bishop Vaughn was a brilliant man with a distinguished academic career.  He had also been the president of the Catholic Theological Society and the Mariological Society.  He also distinguished himself as a pastor and in his care for the poor.  He established a soup kitchen at St. Patrick’s Church in Newburgh that still operates today.  His episcopal motto was “To Jesus Through Mary.”  He was fluent in English, Spanish, French, Latin and even knew some Polish!  

As the Rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, Bishop Vaughn was a courageous defender of the Church’s teaching against contraception, sterilization and abortion in Humanae Vitae.  In the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, who practiced non-violent civil disobedience, Bishop Vaughn was arrested several times for his pro-life activism.  Fr. George Rutler said of him: “as an inmate with a rosary he charmed convicts and shamed guards.”

Bishop Vaughn wrote eloquently of the Catholic duty to be pro-life.  In 1988 he renounced his membership in the Democratic Party, which he called "the party of abortionl"  He warned then-Governor Mario Cuomo, in an open letter that he risked going to hell if he didn’t repent of his support of abortion.  Governor Cuomo said Vatican II “had done away with hell,” which, of course, it did not.  Cuomo reacted as if Bishop Vaughn had wished that he go to hell, which also of course, he did not.  Bishop Vaughn was simply fulfilling his role of shepherd of souls and warning Cuomo, for his own good, of the consequences of sin without repentance.

I arrived in St. Mary’s Church in Newburgh just before the 9:00 A.M. Mass.  In the afternoon, I took the icon to St. Mary’s Church where we recited the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3:00 P.M.  Fr. Bill Scafidi was very gracious and took me to dinner at a local Greek Diner.  He also gave me a holy card with Bishop Vaughn’s picture on it.  He and Bishop Vaughn had been good friends. The icon was also venerated during the Miraculous Medal Devotion in the evening.  Fr. Scafidi is a Newburgh institution and featured on an extensive mural painted on railroad trestle near the Hudson River waterfront.

The next day I prayed in front of the local Planned Parenthood with members of Orange County Right to Life as part of the 40 Days for Life Campaign. Fr. Joseph Doran, a chaplain for the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate in nearby Monroe, NY was among the priests who came out to pray with us.  Wendy Wood, who coordinates 40 Days for Life, said that a woman chose life for her baby the following week.  She credits the visit of Our Lady of Czestochowa for the save.

Given it’s glorious history and scenic location on the Hudson River, Newburgh has the potential to be great city, but in 2004 New York State declared it one of the state's five most "stressed" cities based on the number of families headed by single mothers, abandoned buildings, unemployment, residents under the poverty line and adults without a high school diploma. With the fourth highest crime rate in the United States,  Newburgh is a prime example of a place where lack of respect of life in the womb has led to lack of respect for life on the streets. Malcolm Muggeridge, the late British journalist and convert to the Catholic faith, once said:

This life in us, . . . however low it flickers or fiercely burns, is still a divine flame which no man dare presume to put out, be his motives never so humane and enlightened. To suppose otherwise is to countenance a death-wish. Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other.

Planned Parenthood, bizarrely both the largest abortion business in the nation and its primary educator of youth in sexuality, is teaching the wrong lesson to the people of Newburgh. Killing unborn children is not the way to end the cycle of poverty and despair. It only exacerbates the problem.

As we spoke over dinner, Marietta Allen, who invited me to Newburgh, expressed her hope that she might be able to start a pregnancy resource center in Newburgh.  I put her in contact with my friend Joan Fasanello who runs Life Choices in Phillipsburg, NJ.  Pray to Our Lady of Czestochowa that this center will be established to offer real solutions to the poor people of Newburgh that will benefit both mothers and their babies.

Fr. Peter West
Vice President For Missions
Human Life International

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