ROCKFORD, Ill. — Some refer to the old Turner School here as a “house of horrors.” It’s a fortress-like Victorian structure in the heart of town.
The school was closed in 1978 and sold to a man who has a mask of Satan leering from within one of the windows. He transformed the school into an abortion facility, the Northern Illinois Women’s Center.
For the first year since 1988, however, no more pregnant women will enter the purple-painted door of the former “girl’s entrance” and then exit without their unwanted children.
The Northern Illinois Women’s Center, the only abortion business within 70 miles of Rockford, announced Jan. 13 that it would not re-open after a three-month license suspension for committing an array of Illinois health-facility violations. The violations included unsanitary conditions, blood-stained surgical instruments, failure to employ a registered nurse and failure to perform pre-surgery physicals or maintain proper records.
Nor did the owner, Dennis Christensen, or his colleague, Stewart Kernes — Wisconsin-certified physicians who live in that state — have the admitting privileges at a hospital, a requirement of doctors operating private practices.
Pro-life activists are overjoyed at a victory they attribute to prayer, patience and political action, having finally pressured the state to perform last June the abortion business’ first health inspection in 11 years. (In 1989 the Northern Illinois Women’s Center’s founder, Dr. Richard Ragsdale — once arrested on child-pornography charges — won a court settlement in which the state of Illinois agreed to create a new class of lightly regulated abortion “clinics” that are not held to normal surgical-center standards, including regular inspections. Ragsdale died in 2004.)
“Why it took so long boggles the mind,” said Rockford resident Patricia Bainbridge, chairwoman of the board of Human Life International and former director of the Diocese of Rockford’s Respect Life Office. “Why the state seems to protect these abortion mills and the media give them a pass is shocking. But I’m so thankful for all the people who were at that place, day after day, for years, praying and offering practical help for those women.”
The conditions under which those people bore witness, offering help such as counseling and a mobile ultrasound unit, included enduring the antics of the building’s owner, Wayne Webster. Besides residing in the building in which his son once went to school, he also served as the security guard and media spokesman.
Webster taunted protesters while wearing a devil costume, blared rock music over loudspeakers on days when the facility was open for business, spewed obscenities and created window displays featuring a blasphemous “shrine” (a rubber chicken on a crucifix, for example).
“But whenever the news crews would show up, the windows would be cleared, and whenever he served as clinic spokesman, the [Gannett-owned] Register Star took him seriously,” said Frank Munda, a founder of Stephenson County Right to Life and editor of ProLifeCorner.com. (“We regret the loss of another abortion provider,” stated the paper’s in-house editorial after the business closed.)
A Special Kind of Prayer
But the tide slowly turned against the Northern Illinois Women’s Center. According to a statement by the Thomas More Center, which offered pro-lifers legal assistance in their dealings with the state, last June’s inspection was finally performed after “repeated requests for public records and medically informed objections [that] were communicated to the Illinois Department of Public Health by a courageous pro-life registered nurse [who wishes to remain anonymous].”
The situation on the scene had radically improved by that time, however, said Kevin Rilott. A member of the Rockford Pro-Life Initiative, the Catholic grade-school teacher and father of two adult sons regularly kept a sidewalk vigil for the past 15 years. He attributes the closing to prayer in general — “Prayer is the foundation of our work.”
But it was prayer of a special kind that “turned the tide,” he said.
In 2009, Rockford Bishop Thomas Doran gave priests permission to stand outside the facility and recite the prayer of infestation, a form of exorcism not directed toward any individual, but to dismantle the evil that might exist within a place.
“Within two to three weeks of priests saying these prayers, the number of abortions began to drop,” Rilott said. “Over a few months, the number of abortions was cut in half and the numbers of women seeking our help probably doubled. The clinic, which had been performing 25-75 abortions a week for years, also reduced its days of business from three to two.”
Father Kevin Butler, a parochial vicar in the diocese, recited that prayer of infestation. Sometimes he was joined by three other priests, each at one corner of the building, “so that prayer would come at that place from every direction.”
“The killing of a baby in the womb is evil, and the devil has to do with it; so we have to fight the spiritual battle against abortion, too,” he said.
Before then, Father Butler said he had been “losing faith” in the Rockford Police Department and local government, because “it seemed like they were protecting the abortion mill and giving pro-lifers a hard time.”
“But it was like a veil lifting,” he said. “I’m humbled to think about the power of God at work in this whole situation, and I believe reciting those prayers played a special part.”
Though the only abortion facility in the area has been closed — the nearest are in Madison, Wis., and the Chicago area, each 70 miles in different directions — local pro-lifers remain vigilant.
“I think Rockford is a pretty pro-life community, and we’ll keep our ears and eyes open to stop another abortionist from setting up,” said Patricia Bainbridge of Human Life International. “We’ll be especially vigilant that they don’t come under an assumed name to deceive anyone like Planned Parenthood did in Aurora [Ill.].”
Others are working to keep abortion not only out of Rockford, but out of mind as an acceptable alternative to bringing a pregnancy to term.
Lisa Youngblood, director of the Rockford Area Pregnancy Care Center, said they helped many women whom people like Kevin Rilott counseled from going through the “girl’s entrance.”
And she is encouraged by pro-life trends.
“We’ve seen quite an increase in women coming to us for help,” she said.
“And we’re doing a big push right now to expand hours and get more volunteers, especially medical professionals to provide ultrasound time.”
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago and once lived in Rockford.