Snow stuck: March for Life pilgrims perservere through blizzard

Pro-life advocates attending the March for Life in Washington D.C. on Jan. 22 were in for a cold surprise when a mammoth blizzard dumped nearly three feet of snow on parts of the East Coast and left many pilgrims stranded.

Among those stranded was Matt Newell, a campus missionary for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). Newell is from Colorado but is currently serving the college students of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. He and a group of about 75 travelled by charter bus to Washington D.C. to participate in the March for Life and found themselves in a hairy situation on their way back home.

Newell and his group left for the March on Wednesday. It’s a 24 hour drive to D.C. from Lincoln, and they wanted some extra time to do some sightseeing in the city. By the time the march began Friday morning, not a single flake of snow had touched the ground in D.C.

However, that quickly changed. By the end of the March, Newell and the thousands of other pro-life marchers were traversing through a full-on blizzard.

Immediately following the March, Newell’s group got on the road for the long drive back to Lincoln. They headed up into the Appalachian Mountains, hoping they’d make it to the clear that was reported to exist beyond the mountains. However, after hearing about an accident up ahead of them on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, they exited and pulled over to a rest stop, where they waited for several hours until they got word that the accident had cleared.

Little did they know, that wasn’t the case at all.

Stranded on a highway

Once back on the highway, they came to a halt at mile marker 133.6, where they would remain much longer than they expected to. About 10 miles ahead, there was a big pile up right at the entrance to a tunnel, Newell said.

Newell and his group waited it out, hoping that the bus would start to to move within the next few hours. They went to sleep and expected start moving overnight.

“I kept waking up in the middle of the night, thinking we were moving, then I would look out the window and notice that we weren’t moving at all,” Newell said.

At 8 a.m. Saturday, they hadn’t budged an inch. Their bus driver had done some investigating overnight and discovered that the National Guard had been called in to help clear the highway and they hoped to have the stuck vehicles moving again by 6 p.m.

To pass the time, Newell and the students played cards, napped and watched movies. They were luckily on a charter bus, so they all had access to a restroom. Despite the circumstances, Newell never felt like they were in any sort of danger.

“I didn’t think we were going to die on the road, but part of it was a little disconcerting,” he said.

Granola bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bottled water were all they had to eat while stranded. However, volunteer firefighters were wandering the highway ensuring everybody had food and water.

The priest who was with them even said a vigil Mass on their bus to fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation, Newell said.

After nearly 24 hours of waiting, they started moving again at 9:15 p.m.; not before they dug the bus out of two and a half feet of snow, though.

Further complications

As if that wasn’t enough, even though traffic was moving again, it was being redirected to Bedford, Penn., which was the closest town. Newell and his group were forced to stay the night in Bedford, but everybody else was doing that too, making it impossible for them to find a hotel room.

Luckily though, Newell was in touch with another group from Sioux Falls, S.D. who were abel to find refuge at the Catholic Church in Bedford, and they were able to get in touch with the pastor and sleep on the floor of a gym with high school students from Sioux Falls. After spending the night in Bedford, they were finally on their way back home to Lincoln.

“It was kind of a wild ride,” Newell said.

Though the entire situation seemed like a nightmare, Newell kept positive spirits and said there were a few hidden graces that came from the ordeal.

“[The snowstorm] got more media attention on the March for Life than it normally gets,” he said. “March for Life was [also] able to work it so that a lot of the hotel rooms for people who had cancelled reservations or left early went to homeless people in the city of D.C.”

This, he said, is what the March for Life, and the greater pro-life culture, is all about.

“It speaks to actual pro-life culture.It’s not just about abortion, it’s about the dignity of human life at all stages,” Newell said. “If we can help come homeless people to get shelter during a storm, or if we can help people who need to go to the bathroom by bringing them onto the bus when we were stuck and let them use our bathroom, that’s the actual pro-lifer attitude.”

Pilgrims from Machebeuf

The students at Bishop Machebeuf High School are a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, so are blizzards.

MJ Brennan, campus minister at Machebeuf, said she knew a storm was coming to  D.C. However, her students had been preparing for the March since October and she didn’t want to let them down.

“I wanted to go on the March for Life to stand up for the rights for life, and also to stand out with a crowd in D.C., because there are a lot of pro-choice people in D.C. It was a way to tell the public what we stand for,” said Gene Lang, a senior at Machebeuf.

Although they were able to see a few D.C. sites (the Holocaust museum, an in-depth search of the national mall after their car was towed…), the weather became a problem the first night. The group was staying with Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (alias: Nashville Dominicans) outside of the city.

“That evening, we had freezing snow and rain. It took us four hours to get 30 miles,” Brennan said.

However, as the day of the March approached, they decided to move closer to the March (and airport) so they wouldn’t be snowed out.  But when they arrived at a pre-March rally, they learned that many events had been cancelled and the rally was ending early. Many people chose to skip the March. This left Brennan in a difficult position.

“Being in charge of the kids, I wanted to give them the experience of the March, but I needed to keep them safe,” Brendan said. “The weather was seriously looming the whole time.”

However, her students insisted on marching, proving that they really had come to march for life, and not just to get out of school.

“Our whole purpose was to march. Yeah, a lot of the groups took tour buses and the roads were going to get really bad, but we flew, and we had a plan. So we wanted to go to the Vigil Mass and the rally at the Capitol,” Lang said.

They did a private march to the Capitol rally, but Brennan decided they needed to leave after about 45 minutes. However, walking alone with their pro-life signs through downtown D.C. wound up being a powerful moment.

“When you’re in the March, you’re surrounded by people who agree with you. We had a different experience walking back: A woman cut us off with her car and started yelling about right to privacy…To me that was just the culture of death; you’re going to cut people off to get your point across,” Brennan said.

The group wound up snowed into a hotel. Brennan said the kids had great attitudes about the experience.

“We had all these plans to visit all these places and be really busy, but the blizzard forced us to just be together, Brennan said. “It’s so easy to be busy instead of encountering the other person. But I saw how much fun they had in the midst of that, just playing spoons and truth or dare and watching a silly movie. It was just really fun to be a part of it.”

Lang said he was happy with the experience.

“I don’t think people were really bummed to be in the hotel. We had snowball fights and would push people in the snowbanks. We took pizza boxes and we went sledding off the hills,” he said. ” We actually bonded more as a group because we all gathered in a room and played games.”

The group arrived safely in Denver on Monday. And don’t worry–they were able to keep their Denver pride on Sunday.

“We watched the Broncos game. It wasn’t very full, but we were very passionate. We were the only Bronco’s fans there,” Brennan said.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”