Yellow Flowers and Loving Friends: A Tribute to Pro-Life Advocate Deirdre McQuade

The former spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops on pro-life issues died of breast cancer Easter Thursday.

Deirdre McQuade was committed to the pro-life cause.
Deirdre McQuade was committed to the pro-life cause. (photo: Courtesy photo from McQuade family)

WASHINGTON — Deirdre McQuade, who served as spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on pro-life issues for more than a decade, died April 21 during Easter Week, after a three-year battle with metastatic breast cancer. She was surrounded by family, a large community of friends and yellow flowers — the color she called a reminder to have “great hope.”

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, told the Register that McQuade, 53, was “a woman of great faith and deep love who devoted her considerable talents and energy to protecting and fostering the vulnerable — especially the unborn.” 

A funeral Mass will be celebrated for McQuade on May 3 at St. Jerome Church in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Tom Grenchik, the executive director of the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, commented that in his years of working with McQuade, “it was inspiring to see how she was always focused on the other. This was especially true in her work with those who were fighting their own battles with a terminal illness. Deirdre left a legacy of not only helping to share their stories of faith and trust in God’s providence, but also in giving witness with her own story.”

McQuade’s mother, Genevieve, told the Register that she saw the good of the path that God had led her daughter on starting in her early years with a strong grounding in the faith. 

“I thought she would have influence on people in the business world, in the corporate world, never ever thinking she would find her path in pro-life work,” she said. She revealed to Deirdre in her final weeks that she recognized that she has “had far more influence and far holier influence with how her life developed” in contrast to the corporate career path that her daughter left behind after prayerful discernment.

Deirdre’s younger sister, Pamela Shannon, told the Register that her sister “was open to being used for God’s work” throughout her life. The sisters overlapped for two years at Bryn Mawr College, where Deirdre received her undergraduate degree in 1990. McQuade went on to earn a master’s degree in philosophy and a master of divinity degree from the University of Notre Dame. 

During their time at Bryn Mawr, Shannon said they helped found a pro-life group, where they “learned to speak to very diverse women who did not agree with us. It was a very liberal campus, very few Catholics and very few pro-life women.” She said this was an early example of how her sister “was being used” by God. 

While studying afterward at Notre Dame, McQuade worked as a counselor at a pregnancy-help center and then served as director of pastoral research and outreach for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. Prior to beginning her service with the USCCB’s pro-life office in 2005, she also worked as the national program director at Feminists for Life, supervising its college-outreach program, 

Shannon emphasized that her sister was “imperfect” and “broken” in many ways, but her openness to being used by God only increased with her cancer diagnosis, and she “evolved through that,” with “other people benefiting from that,” as well.

She said she witnessed her sister “linking her suffering to Jesus on the cross” and also “offering her suffering for other people and their situations” during her battle with cancer. She described her as “a person who lived with a lot of intention, and that carried through with her academic life, her relationships, hospitality” — all grounded in “her Catholic faith and values.” 

Shannon once captioned a photo of her sister with her two housemates as a “little church,” something she said resonated with people because her sister’s home was a “reflection” of parish life, with religious art and a welcoming community of relationships. 

Drusilla Barron, one of McQuade’s housemates and a longtime friend, told the Register that, for McQuade, “the thing that mattered was the person she was encountering.” She described her friendships with the neighbor girls who even tried to invite her to their limited-attendance high-school graduation. She also befriended “the person who tended the shop where she bought food on her way back from chemo” and asked him “to pray for her and promised to pray for him.” 

Barron said McQuade wasn’t an angel, but laughingly added that “angels are scary,” describing her as someone who chose to “love from rather than live from her flaws.” 

In her final days, McQuade had many of her friends come to visit. Barron said there was laughing and talking throughout the house. People also brought yellow paper plates, as “she loved yellow. It was, for her, a symbol of hope.” She said that there were realizations for her at the end of how deeply McQuade cared for her friends, including discovering that she had been paying most of the mortgage while charging her and their other housemate very little.  

Kathryn Jean Lopez, a friend of McQuade’s and columnist at National Review, told the Register that McQuade “had such a pure heart and solid faith. She radiated his light. This was so before cancer, and the light only grew brighter as she suffered. She introduced countless people to the Sisters of Life’s Litany of Trust and Sister Thea Bowman, who was a true friend to her, even if she did not get the physical healing so many were praying for.” 

Deirdre McQuade
Deirdre McQuade (r) was friends with Kathryn Jean Lopez (c) and the Sisters of Life. | Courtesy of Kathryn Jean Lopez

McQuade’s family is asking anyone who is so inclined to donate to the Sisters of Life in her honor. 

“The last issue I worked on with Deirdre when she was at the bishops' conference was assisted suicide. She believed suffering had meaning as a moral and intellectual truth,” Lopez said. “She advocated to protect the vulnerable in public policy, law and education. And she embraced suffering when it became her cross. She suffered with joy. That’s possible! It almost seemed a miracle to watch her — even from afar. She truly wanted to do the will of God. She marveled in his creation. She knew her true home is heaven.” 

Pro-life advocate Arina Grossu, another longtime friend of McQuade’s, called her “a champion for life and a devout Catholic,” saying that “she will always be known for her love of others and her joyful and peaceful presence, even in the midst of great suffering. She lit up any room she walked in and thought of others before herself until her last breath. She lived well and she died well, surrounded by friends and family, and having received the sacraments.”

Grossu also pointed out that someone at Notre Dame shared a picture of the tulips at the university grotto shortly after McQuade’s passing — they had bloomed in yellow array.