I’ll never forget the time I went to prison…to meet a jailed pro-life activist
TORONTO, December 19, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – One cold February day in Toronto, Canada, I found myself in prison, separated by bullet-proof glass from pro-life heroine Mary Wagner.
I was a freelance journalist then, already living in Edinburgh, but very curious as to how a Canadian woman had become a pro-life superstar in Poland. I read the news about Mary and studied her photographs. They showed a slim, dark-eyed woman who looked much younger than her age, with delicate features and long brown hair barely touched by grey.
When I visited Toronto that year, a mutual friend named Jack reported that Mary would be happy to see me. But journalists weren’t supposed to see Mary. The prison officials would not allow me to take notes or record our conversation in any way. I would have to commit to memory what she would tell me.
In the Vanier Centre for Women
The Vanier Centre for Women is a long, low building fenced with irony. First, Georges Vanier, a Canadian Governor-General and the father of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, is being considered for sainthood. Second, the prison reserves two parking spots for “Expectant Mothers,” each with a sign illustrated with a cheerful stork carrying a baby in a sling.
Jack and I signed in at the opaque-windowed desk, showing two pieces of identification. We were directed to put our bags in lockers by the front doors. After a few minutes’ wait, we walked through an x-ray while our footwear went through another x-ray on a conveyor belt. Then we went into a cream-painted hall and into a cream painted room with thick walls separating the cubicles.
A bored-looking girl sat before the bullet-proof glass in the prisoner’s side of the first cubicle, examining her fingernails. Jack led the way to the last cubicle, where I saw a chair, a blue-grey phone receiver and Mary herself, standing in front of the window. Her hair was pulled back in its usual ponytail, and she was wearing an institutional-looking sweatshirt of dark green. Unlike her neighbour, she looked happy and interested.
Our phones hadn’t been connected yet. Mary seemed to be shouting thanks through the glass for a column I had written about her. I shouted back until she indicated the phone. I sat down and picked it up. When her voice came through, I gave the phone to Jack so he could pass along her mother’s love. He did so by placing his hand on the glass. Good-humouredly, Mary placed her hand on her side of the glass to match his. Greetings exchanged, Jack gave me back the phone.
I said, “Mary, if I repeat what you say, it's because I am trying to remember it, okay?”
“I know you prefer to keep the focus on the babies, so let's start with the babies. When did you find out about abortion?”
“I don't know,” said Mary. She can’t remember not knowing about it. Her parents were active in the pro-life movement, and so Mary began her witness as a child, going to meetings, vigils, and Life Chain. She was aware that her mother experienced difficult pregnancies and suffered a miscarriage. Her parents, who had seven children living, adopted five more.
As a student at the University of Victoria, Mary studied English Literature and French. Afterwards she worked in a crisis pregnancy shelter and discerned in prayer that she should go directly where the endangered babies were.
Her first arrest came about unexpectedly, in 1999, after she befriended a teenage girl begging on the steps of her local cathedral. Mary discovered the sixteen-year-old was pregnant and that she and her boyfriend wanted an abortion; they were merely waiting for some paperwork to be completed. Although Mary failed to convince her friend to cancel the appointment, she knew when and where it would be. She waited for the couple at the abortion clinic, and although they insisted on entering, they let her accompany them. When a clinic worker called the name of another pregnant woman in the waiting room, Mary repeated it to get her attention. When the woman glanced at her, Mary said, “You don't have to do this.” This drew the attention of staffers, who asked Mary to leave. Mary refused, and the police were called.
“How are you able to do this?” I asked. “How are you able to feel for complete strangers, to engage with them one-on-one?”
“Mother Teresa said, 'I don't see a crowd, I see different people,'” said Mary. “That makes all the difference.”
“And who are your influences? Are you inspired by the literature you studied in university?”
The First Letters from Poland
Mary smiled at that. She loves literature, but the writings that inspired her pro-life work are from Mother Teresa and Saint Therese of Lisieux. Her greatest influences have been her parents, the American pro-life activist Joan Andrews Bell, whom she first met in 2000, and her mentor, Canadian pro-life activist Linda Gibbons, who has been in and out of prison for 25 years.
“Why do you give pregnant women white roses?” I asked
“White or red roses,” Mary corrected. She explained that in 2012 she had spoken to a man named John, the survivor of a chemical abortion, who had gone to an abortion clinic on his birthday to give roses to the clinic staff and tell them his story. Mary was moved and thought it was a beautiful and non-threatening thing to do.
“And why,” I asked, “do the Poles have such a great affinity for you?”
Mary looked surprised.
“Now that's a question,” she said. “I don't know.”
The first letters from Poland arrived after she was imprisoned in 2012. During that trial, Justice S. Ford Clements had said, while lambasting Mary, “You are wrong and your God is wrong.” When the news appeared in a Polish paper, readers were shocked that a judge in Canada—Mary emphasized the word—would say that. In 2014 she accepted an invitation to visit Poland, and was taken on a nationwide tour.
Mary's face lit up as she recalled the shrines, especially of Our Lady of Częstochowa. She admitted, laughing, that she has learned a few words of Polish, but that it is a very difficult language. If she returns to Poland, she would like to go hiking.
I was reminded of a visit to Benedictine friends, cloistered nuns behind a grille. They had the same tranquillity and emanated a deep peace. I no longer felt like a journalist chasing a story; I felt like I was visiting a comrade—and there were moments in which I felt like a pilgrim consulting a mystic. Any further questions seemed pointless; only one thing was important.
What do you need?” I asked.
'This place is a goldmine of souls'
“Thank you for asking,” she said enthusiastically. “We need a priest to come and hear confessions.” Many women she has met in prison have had abortions, and they want to be reconciled with God. The Catholic chaplain was a busy parish priest who couldn’t come often. There have been only two Masses said in the prison since it was built, both of them during Mary's imprisonments.
It was a shock to me that Catholic prisoners in Ontario have so little opportunity to make their confessions and hear Mass. I promised that I would bring up the subject in the archdiocesan paper, and Mary thanked me.
“This place is a goldmine of souls,” she said.
Editor's note: The original form of this article was published by Catholic World Report in 2015. It is printed here with permission of Catholic World Report.