National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

New Mexico Showdown for Life

Project Defending Life is taking a bite out of the culture of death in New Mexico. By Joseph Pronechen.


October 8-14, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/4/06 at 10:00 AM


Project Defending Life was only formed in early 2006 in Albuquerque, N.M. — but it’s already taken giant strides in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Project Defending Life’s secretary, Phil Sevilla, credits this new vigor and direction in the area’s pro-life work to Father Stephen Imbarrato, who took the helm and is steering several pro-life ministries to work more effectively under the single “PDL” umbrella.

For all its newness, PDL is really no new kid on the block. Nor is Father Imbarrato a newcomer to pro-life work. While attending Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. (he was ordained in May 2005 for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe), he helped start St. Gerard’s Center for Life in Hartford, a crisis pregnancy center across the street from an abortion business.

“The significance of St. Gerard’s being across from the abortion mill showed me how important it is to have ministries of life directly across from the gates of death,” says the priest.

That lesson was underlined when Father Imbarrato came to Albuquerque and learned the Blessed Sacrament was reserved for adoration 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday in a small chapel directly across the street from a Planned Parenthood facility. The chapel was in the offices of the Catholic Knights, a fraternal organization unaffiliated with the Knights of Columbus.

It was there he began celebrating the one-day-a-week Thursday noon Mass. Although busy as a parish priest in the 5,000-family St. Thomas Aquinas Church, his pastor, Msgr. Douglas Raun, encouraged him to do pro-life work one morning a week.            

“After eight months, the Holy Spirit created circumstances that made me realize it was time to start a comprehensive pro-life ministry,” explains Father Imbarrato. The idea is to “supplement the pro-life efforts already going on in the diocese and to fill some gaps that existed.”

Using the chapel as a focal point, and prompted by the Holy Spirit to rejuvenate the existing Project Life — which was doing prayer vigils and sidewalk counseling across the street — he gathered a group of laypeople into the new Project Defending Life. He used the website, to which he already had rights.

“God seems to have given me the ability to organize and energize,” explains Father Imbarrato. Officially, he’s PDL’s spiritual and organizational adviser.


Adoration Helps

“We had enough people to cover adoration, and we had this other group saving babies,” says Our Lady of Fatima branch Catholic Knights president Mike Esquibel. “But we were growing at a very slow pace. When Father Imbarrato came here, he spoke and the world started coming. He was able to attract a lot of people I had never seen before.”

Then the priest opened the Project Defending Life umbrella. Gathering under it as one for the area’s pro-life efforts came other ministries like Rachel Ministries and Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.

There are now more than a dozen ministries and functional areas, one being a monthly pledge program, under Project Defending Life.

“We saw the wisdom of bringing everyone under the same umbrella,” says Sevilla. He explains that sidewalk counselors such as Phil Leahy, who’s done pro-life work in the area for 30 years, once had to do “everything — and were a bit overwhelmed” trying to get all the needed help after rescuing a woman and her baby from the brink of abortion. Now other PDL ministries attempt to provide resources such as housing, doctors and counseling.

PDL plans to develop even more ministries, including a mother-mentor program, a pro-life teen ministry, an adoption-awareness group, a speakers’ bureau and, hopefully, a group of priests to help so that a noon Mass can be celebrated in the chapel every weekday (plus one early Saturday Mass before people process for that day’s prayer vigil at two abortion doctors’ offices).

 Right now Project Defending Life is renovating the chapel to seat 60 people and to house its offices. The nine hours of adoration begun on St. Joseph’s feast day in 2000 will continue six days a week, from dawn to dusk.

One reason the chapel is now named the Holy Innocents Chapel, says Father Imbarrato, is because Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan has celebrated Masses there on two Feasts of the Holy Innocents as well as on the Annunciation. The archbishop originally gave permission for the Blessed Sacrament to be reserved in the chapel.

None of this would be happening if the archbishop did not give his approval, notes Father Imbarrato. “If he didn’t allow that several years ago,” says a thankful Father Imbarrato, “we would not have the graces built up now for this ministry.”

The graces flow for PDL’s active and contemplative aspects. People adore the Blessed Sacrament daily, while others are holding vigils or counseling in front of the Planned Parenthood or doctors’ abortion businesses. Meanwhile PDL’s Intercessors for Life ministry has people praying in private homes, nursing homes, monasteries and convents around the world.        

Incredibly, all this happens even though this priest-catalyst only devotes less than one day a week to this pro-life ministry. Father Imbarrato has recently been named pastor of three Catholic parishes: Holy Family in Roy, St Joseph in Mosquero, and Santa Clara in Wagon Mound — along with the local missions.

“I love being a country priest and I love the people of Northern New Mexico,” he says. “My duties as a pastor always take precedence over my pro-life mission work. I’m a parish priest first and a pro-life activist second.”

The multifaceted life-saving rays of Project Defending Life prove what the Holy Spirit can do with regular folks who are ready, willing and able to get behind an inspired pro-life organizer.

                                                Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes

from Trumbull, Connecticut.