What a Long, Joyful Trip It’s Been

Theo Stearns is president of Catholics United for Life, an organization begun in 1974 as a response to Roe v. Wade.

She’s also a member of the St. Martin de Porres Community in New Hope, Ky., a group composed of Third Order Dominicans. The community began as a hippie commune in California and became Catholic, largely because of Roe v. Wade.

She spoke with Register correspondent Thomas Szyszkiewicz.

How long have you been in the pro-life movement?

Our conversion and re-conversion to the Church was stimulated by what happened in 1973. In 1973, I was being pressured to abort my fifth child, and this was sort of a cataclysmic event for us. You realize we were a community before we became Catholic?

You were something of a hippie commune, if I’m not mistaken.

Right, in California. We had tried to live on the land, grow our own food. But somehow, something was missing and our search for truth began to predominate ecological concerns. So we had moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., and it was there that I was being urged — and it was for medical reasons, not just for reasons of convenience — to have an abortion. We had to face the fact that, in perhaps a more radical meaning of the word, abortion was in no way “liberal” because it was a destruction of human life.

My baby was born in August of 1973, and I became a Roman Catholic with others in our community, or those who had been but had not been practicing, in December of 1973. We immediately asked the bishop of Santa Rosa if we could start a pro-life group called Catholics United for Life.

You said that your community started a search for truth rather than merely looking at ecological concerns. What was it that spurred that?

I don’t know — it seems to have been our character. At that time, of course, we had come out of the war protests, the civil-rights movement. We wouldn’t have called our concerns “ecological” as much as going back to nature or being natural or getting away from a materialistic society. But we were sort of evangelical in that regard. We liked to communicate and talk with other people and discover the best way to build community. We had a focus on building community at that time and bringing other people into a way of life that we thought was good.

Of course, our definition of “good” at that time had some consistency with what really is good, but was also misguided. In the course of doing that, we began to look at most of the thoughts the people around us were involved in, which included the Eastern religions, and after some discussion and reflection on that, we rejected the Eastern religions and somehow we came back to the objectivity of Christianity.

It was quite a road for us to travel to get from there to the Catholic Church, however, and this is where the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was sort of a catalyst. When we rejected abortion, it was very obvious to us that the one institution in the United States that was clearly against abortion was the Catholic Church, and that opened us to taking our search there and looking at the Catholic Church.

What was it in your community that caused you to reject abortion?

I think one thing is that some of us were a little older, and we already had children. We had seen children being neglected because of people’s ideological searches and that the children needed to be protected and taken care of. For example, we rejected any use of any kind of drugs because the children were present. So, from the beginning, I guess our children sort of saved us. It was their presence that caused us to give some thought. One of the members of the community had also had an abortion.

I think one of the aspects of our life that aided us in rejecting abortion was that we talked with each other about these things and what they meant, what their practical consequences are and what it meant in the whole scheme of reality.

How did you move from California to New Hope, Ky.?

We didn’t live in Fresno; we lived on the very heavily traveled highway to Yosemite National Park…. We had some zoning problems in trying to build a community, and we became concerned, for various reasons, that we needed to find another location. We put out a newsletter at that time that said we were looking for a new location, and we got a letter that said to contact the abbot at the Abbey of Gethsemane. We did, and for a price we couldn’t turn down — this had been a community before us, associated with the abbey, and we just assumed the existing debt and we were able to move into very primitive circumstances. But we weren’t unaccustomed to that — no running water, no electricity, no bathrooms in most of the buildings. We moved in 1983 to this present location.

Are you involved in other activities?

One of the Dominican confraternities has been an apostolate for us, it’s called the Angelic Warfare Confraternity. It is a special pledge made, traditionally by young people, but also by any others, under the patronage of Thomas Aquinas and Our Lady of the Rosary, for chastity. Also, in the last couple of years, I’ve seen the growing importance of youth in the pro-life movement. This is a personal thing for me because I have 28 grandchildren, and the oldest is 18. It is important that we invest in young people because they are the future, but more than that, they really have different perspectives on the Church and the pro-life movement which are so fresh and important today — they don’t carry all our burdens, with what happened after Vatican II and how we’ve been treated by so-and-so.

We will be doing a youth conference in Louisville, Ky., on July 21-24. We’re going to have great priests, great religious, some wonderful sisters, but the focus of the conference really is the young people themselves. So we’re also trying to find out what we can do to get youth involved in their own right in the pro-life movement, not just as a caboose behind us.

How does the pro-life apostolate affect your everyday life as a community?

St. Martin’s has its own apostolate in a certain sense even though these two are intimately related. We have New Hope Publications. We do some books and other materials, but we do a large amount of pamphlets that are doctrinal in nature. We also have a chapel with a resident chaplain, which we have had since 1979, Mother of Sorrows Chapel. Presently, we have nine Masses a week, daily Masses and others. This is the real point of integration of the two apostolates, more than any other aspect. We always pray for the defense of human life and the end of abortion. But we have our Gospel of Life Masses and two Masses a week are devoted to different themes of pro-life intercession — for repentance of abortion, for the healing of mothers who have had abortions. We circulate a list of intentions for Masses.

We’ve been very privileged otherwise to not have jobs outside of our community. Since we print and publish for about 50 other Catholic organizations, we’re able to do our work here and do our apostolate. So working on our doctrinal publications, working with other Catholic organizations and working on the pro-life issues is just an integral part of our everyday life, which includes prayer and intercessions and the sacrifice of the Mass.

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

writes from Altura, Minnesota.