By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Bill Francis has a message for the parents of the teenagers who made the pilgrimage to 2016 March for Life.
“We were blessed to have these kids with us,” said Francis, director of the Diocesan Respect Life Office. “They are the pro-life generation.”
And that went double, triple and quadruple on the evening of Jan. 23 when all four Heartland Trailways buses taking the pilgrims home became trapped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as a blizzard of historic proportions descended upon them.
There they would remain for the next 24 hours, at Mile Marker 133 about 15 miles west of Bedford, Pa.
There could have been panic. There could have been tears. But instead, the teens of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph made the absolute best of an absolutely terrible situation and seized yet another opportunity to proclaim their Christian witness, in action as well as words.
“They took leadership,” Francis said.
“They got out helping to distribute their food and help people around us in need,” he said.
Imagine how Francis’ heart lept to his mouth as the bus convoy ground to a halt.
Francis had been keeping an eye on the weather for days, and knew well before the pilgrimage even assembled and left Jan. 20 from St. John LaLande Parish in Blue Springs that Winter Storm Jonas was forming with a bulls-eye on the nation’s capital and points north.
He even made a concession to the weather and cut short the pilgrimage. He had all pilgrims and buses ready to roll as soon as the Jan. 22 March for Life was over, marking the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton abortion decisions.
They got out of D.C. just fine, and were rolling along western Pennsylvania that evening, approaching the Alleghany Tunnel, when an 18-wheeler lost control and jackknifed, blocking all westbound lanes.
Not knowing how long they would be stuck there with the blizzard now bearing down, Francis learned something new from the bus drivers that put everyone’s mind at ease.
A Heartland Trailways coach bus, on a full tank of fuel, can idle for a full week. Fortunately, the drivers stopped to top off the fuel tanks less than an hour earlier. The pilgrims would at least be warm.
As with every trip, all the buses were loaded with non-perishable snack foods such as fruit and chips, and cases of bottled water to ward off youthful hunger between stops on the long trip to and from Washington, D.C.
And, the buses also had plenty of pro-life movies to watch — such as Bella, Amazing Grace — plus the teens of course had their own laptops, tablets and cell phones with plugs on the bus to keep them charged.
A word about that to parents, said Francis, who fielded dozens of phone calls from anxious parents back home.
“Call your kids. Why call me?” he said.
But then again, Francis said parents might have had trouble getting through to their children on their own cell phones.
“They were too busy taking pictures and putting them on Facebook to call home,” he said.
As the hours went by, the party grew.
The pilgrims slept on bus through the worst of the storm. By daybreak, 12 hours into what should have been an ordeal, they were treated to an absolute winter wonderland.
“This event is part of my life,” said Francis, who has been organizing the diocesan pro-life pilgrimage.
“We go through this part of Pennsylvania every year, through the Alleghany Mountains, and it was always dark out,” he said.
“This was the first time I saw it in daylight. That was some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen,” he said.
The teens and adults spent the hours three ways. They would head out in the snow to play and build snow men and snow forts, they would search for people, particularly in nearby passenger cars who needed help, even offering them the use of their bus restrooms, as well as sharing food and water.
Then an odd thing happened as they were stuck, as Francis put it, “in the middle of nowhere.”
The media began to call.
The Kansas City-St. Joseph pilgrimage to D.C. wasn’t the only pro-life Catholic pilgrimage stuck on the turnpike. Francis estimated that just from what he could see there were another 20-30 buses from various dioceses and Catholic universities stuck in just that same section of the turnpike in a jam that reached for miles beyond in both directions.
Both local and national media began calling by phone, Skype and Facetime for interviews.
Francis said he gave his charges this simple advice: “Remember why we are here. Don’t miss this opportunity to talk about the witness for life.”
By Saturday evening, their story had been covered by every newspaper and television station in the Kansas City-St. Joseph market. Every single interview included two basic themes: “We are here to defend the lives of unborn” and “This is awesome!”
“Every year, the media ignores the March for Life. We can have 400,000, 500,000 and the media ignores us,” he said.
“This year, it took a blizzard, but we were finally getting the word out,” Francis said.
That was a big dose of inspiration to the pilgrims, after they took part in one of the smallest Marches for Life in years because the dire weather forecast kept thousands home.
“We’re doing God’s work,” Francis said.
“You never know how much witness you are,” he said. “When you feel like you are not making a difference, remember who was at the foot of the cross.
“If the Mother of our Lord and the evangelist St. John couldn’t stop witnessing at the cross, what we went through was nothing compared to what they went through,” Francis said.
“Just show up and the Lord will do the rest,” he said.
At about 9 p.m. Jan 23, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had cleared the wreck and plowed enough of the turnpike to get the passenger cars out first. The buses and the 18-wheelers were advised to double back to Bedford 15 miles east and spend the night there so that the turnpike could be completely cleared of snow.
Francis said Heartland Trailways, in constant communication with the drivers, found an American Legion Hall for the Kansas City-St. Joseph pilgrimage to spend the night. Francis insisted that the drivers, who hadn’t slept for 36 hours, check into a hotel with a proper bed and even offered to front the expense.
They got to the American Legion Hall at about 10 p.m., roughly the time they were scheduled to arrive back home in Blue Springs and St. Joseph. There, they found another very welcome surprise.
A banquet honoring Vietnam veterans had been cancelled because of the blizzard. But the Pennsylvania American Legion volunteers showed up anyway to cook for their guests from the Midwest.
It was the first hot meal the pilgrims had eaten in nearly two days.
“It was a feast,” Francis said. “We had ham, roast beef, scalloped potatoes, spaghetti.”
The next morning, Msgr. Ralph Kaiser, a veteran of March for Life pilgrimages, celebrated Mass in the Legion Hall for the group, and they were on the road again by 7 a.m.
When they reached Blue Springs at about 2 a.m. Monday, a news crew from KCTV-5 met them. When the pilgrims from St. Joseph got back to St. James Parish a couple of hours later, they were met by a news crew from KQTV-2.
And they seized the opportunity to witness for the lives of the unborn again.
“To a person, everyone said it was the best pilgrimage they had ever been on and they couldn’t wait to do it again next year,” Francis said.
“I didn’t see anyone scared,” he said. “There was even a peace with the snow coming down because we were in God’s hands.”