‘The Joan of Arc of the Gospel of Life’: pro-life movement bids farewell to Nellie Gray (photos)
WASHINGTON, August 24, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The pro-life matriarch who saw the March for Life through its paltry beginning to its status today as the fulcrum of the pro-life movement in America - and arguably, the world - was laid to rest late Friday morning in Washington, D.C.
Over 150 mourners gathered in Mary Mother of God Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. to pay their last respects to Nellie Gray, whom Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston called “the Joan of Arc of the Gospel of Life.” Gray was foundress of the National March for Life that now draws over 400,000 Americans in a massive witness to the sanctity of life on Capitol Hill each January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Gray, 88, passed away and was found in her home August 14.
Both O’Malley and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington assisted at the ceremony, a Missa Cantata Requiem in the traditional Latin rite of the Catholic Church.
Hanging in the vestibule were Nellie’s trademark red fur coat and hat, seen at countless rallies throughout the decades, with a March for Life pin still attached. From the loft, the haunting melodies of traditional Catholic requiem chants, including the Dies Irae, graced the ceremony as a reminder of Nellie’s loyalty to her faith.
Following the ceremony, Gray’s body was interred at Cedar Hill Memorial Park Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.
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Those who knew Nellie remembered how she, a World War II veteran with three degrees, including a law degree from Georgetown, was tireless in her decades fighting full-time for the rights of the unborn.
“She dropped everything and took up this cross,” said pastor Alfred J. Harris during the homily.
Terry Scanlon, the founding Vice President of the March for Life Education & Defense Fund, called his longtime friend “a real Renaissance lady” who was content with little in return for her work: Scanlon said Gray, after beginning the March for Life, “accepted a small pension and lived on this pension for the rest of her life, never accepting any remuneration from the March.”
Nellie, Scanlon noted, died with her boots on - she was calling up fellow elders in the pro-life movement to share reminisces of the first Marches for Life only two weeks ago.
“There were to be no exceptions in legislation banning abortion, there would be no compromise. This was her tireless message, and one to which each board member has always subscribed,” he said.
Cardinal O’Malley fought tears as he recalled helping his charismatic friend organize the first March for Life in 1974. The initial results were discouraging, with four people filling four charter buses, he said. It was thanks to Nellie’s unflagging commitment that the March grew to the massive annual throng it is today - and of late, inspired several more around the globe, including in Rome.
Yet Nellie’s cause, according to O’Malley, was not “life” - that was too abstract for her.
“Nellie’s cause was babies, preborn babies. How many times did we hear about preborn babies?” said the cardinal. “She was the voice for the children of the silent scream.”
Cardinal Wuerl agreed that Nellie never saw people in the abstract.
He described his first time up on the speaking platform at the March for Life one year as a young bishop and being confronted by Nellie, who turned to him and asked, “where is your hat?”
“She didn’t see masses of people, she saw individuals. She saw this young bishop who should have had his hat,” he said. Her question to each of those individuals, he said, was: “Where is your voice?”
“‘Where is your voice?’ Isn’t that what was the driving force, and continues to be, of the March for Life?”
Maryland state senator Frank Shore recalled Nellie as “so full of life.” “She got us all to the march,” Shore told LifeSiteNews.com. “She would identify and introduce the entire audience.”
Sister Shirley Ann of the Sisters of Life told LSN that Nellie’s work “really put a face on pro-life.”
“I couldn’t imagine a January without a March for Life,” she said. “It always lifts our hearts to see so many people there, and to see the March become so young, too.”
The March for Life Board of Directors asked those wishing to honor Nellie to donate to the Nellie Gray Legacy Fund in lieu of flowers.
The Board of Directors of the march have published that they and many of Nellie’s friends are “planning a special memorial service in Nellie’s honor at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.”