It had never been done before in New York. A Catholic bishop of one of America’s largest dioceses processed through the streets, surrounded by a thousand or more of the faithful, praying the rosary over a loudspeaker as he headed for an abortion clinic on a mid-June morning in 1990. Escorted by New York police officers, who drove their squad cars ahead and behind to hold back traffic at intersections, the group stopped in front of Choices, a busy abortion clinic in a busy commercial building on a busy thoroughfare in the teeming, diverse, never-sleeping Borough of Queens. Throughout fifteen decades of the rosary and numerous sacred songs and hymns, the hardy group stood and prayed beneath a strengthening sun, as sidewalk counselors attempted to hand flyers and speak to women heading into the building, and protestors screamed, “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries,” and other blasphemous chants.
More than just another New York street scene, it was the beginning of a movement of the faithful that, woven into a complex of other factors, would lead over many decades to the overruling of Roe v. Wade.
The bishop that morning was the Most Reverend Thomas V. Daily of the Diocese of Brooklyn, who had celebrated Mass in a local church before heading in procession to the clinic. The priest at his side, who organized the event, was Msgr. Philip J. Reilly, at that time rector of the diocese’s high school seminary, Cathedral Preparatory. A soft-spoken, grey-haired priest with a magnetic smile and shining eyes seemingly set on heaven, he had recently formed the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants to conduct prayer vigils and sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics. An early participant in Operation Rescue, he had joined others in New York and elsewhere in blocking clinic entrances, been arrested, and spent some days in jail. It was there that he came up with an idea that led him to begin another frontline action against abortion.
Formed in October 1989, the Helpers has saved many thousands of unborn babies and served as many young women who turned around near the doors of a clinic, or even after entering, in response to prayers and peaceful pro-life witness. Never one to let others do the work alone, Msgr. Reilly spent countless hours outside clinics, counseled thousands of women, brought many to pro-life pregnancy centers, baptized babies once bound for abortion, and traveled the United States and a number of other nations to set up Helpers groups. Now 88 years old, suffering from skin cancer and unable to walk unassisted, he has retired to a Catholic nursing home in the Diocese of Brooklyn, where his devoted niece and her husband, who carry on the daily business of the Helpers, visit him regularly. He looks forward to their company along with the little snacks and scoops of ice cream they bring to supplement the institutional food.
Although she limits visitors, his niece allowed me to sit with Msgr. Reilly for an hour last fall. In my capacity as vice postulator for the canonization cause of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, I brought with me a firstclass bone relic of Blessed Michael McGivney for veneration and prayer. It was also a chance to renew a friendship with Msgr. Reilly that had begun back at that Helpers rally with Bishop Daily, who was at that time supreme chaplain of the Knights (he passed away in 2017).
When I arrived at the nursing home, Msgr. Reilly was sitting up in his wheelchair, alert and lively, his eyes still bright and his smile quick to appear as he recalled a mutual friend on the frontlines or a visit from a mother and her child saved from abortion. The smile persisted even when remembering close encounters with abortion forces on the streets, his Irish humor and gentle manner making light of the harsh words and rough elbows he has endured over the years.
“Good things are happening,” continues to be his motto, uttered under any and all circumstances, whether his Helpers have been successful or not in their sidewalk efforts. Far from a Pollyanna-ish quip, the phrase expresses Monsignor’s unwavering faith in God’s providence, love, and mercy, confident that he will bring ultimate good out of even the worst evil.
Speaking to me of how he came to found the Helpers, he echoed words he has spoken and written many times over the years:
In any civil rights action, there will be people who protest to the point of being arrested and going to jail, and this is a great witness to injustice. But unfortunately, the people in jail are sometimes forgotten and their witness is lessened, and not everyone who wants to be part of the movement can risk arrest since they have families and other obligations. What we need are hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands standing at the doors to the modern-day Calvary, where the most innocent new lives—made in the image of God—are being killed. They are there to pray and witness, not risking arrest, so they can return day after day, week after week, and year after year, with the police escorting their processions and protecting their First Amendment rights to speech and peaceful assembly. That was the idea behind the Helpers.
The term “modern-day Calvary” struck a chord in my heart. Living in Queens in 1990, I saw a flyer at church one Sunday announcing the Helpers event with Bishop Daily, with the bold-face words, “Come and Pray at the Modern-Day Calvary.” I had been engaged in sidewalk counseling outside a clinic in Manhattan for a month or two, but it had not occurred to me that I was standing at the foot of the cross as I tried to persuade women from going inside the clinic. Yet the flyer explained clearly that the children in the womb were God’s most recent creations, and the forces of evil were determined to wipe out that image of God from earth.
Msgr. Reilly pointed out as well that in rescue operations police were assigned to arrest and carry away those who blocked clinic entrances, even if the officers were sympathetic to the cause. In a Helpers procession, on the other hand, he worked with the local precinct to obtain a parade permit, and officers were assigned to lead and protect the prolifers. “Most police officers are Catholic and many are pro-life,” he remarked. “In this way, we have our natural allies working for us and with us, which is the best of both worlds. They are there to protect our First Amendment rights to religion, speech, and assembly.”
It was because of Operation Rescue, I told him, that I was initially forced into sidewalk counseling. I had met some pro-life activists late in 1989 at an all-night vigil and they invited me to join them at the abortion clinic that morning. With no sleep, I stood in the prayer pen outside Eastern Women’s, which at the time was the busiest abortuary in Manhattan but closed down a few years later. I joined in the rosary on that wickedly cold morning, watching the sidewalk counselors approach women as the clinic escorts (or “deathscorts,” as we called them) ran interference and even grabbed informational pamphlets from the women’s hands and tore them up with glee. Saturday after Saturday I returned to pray, but one morning I didn’t see the familiar counselors on the sidewalk. They were serving a jail sentence for a rescue sometime back, I was told. Someone handed me a stack of pamphlets and said, “You’re up. Get out there!” That was my introduction to sidewalk counseling, I laughingly told Monsignor.
Our discussion inevitably led to perhaps the most notable Helpers event: the June 1992 participation of New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor in a pro-life Mass and prayer procession through the midtown streets. As a reporter for the archdiocesan weekly Catholic New York, I received a flyer for the upcoming event. When my editor asked me to confirm that the cardinal was really committed to leading the procession, I called Msgr. Reilly, who said O’Connor’s office had just confirmed his participation that day. I then wrote up a short announcement for the newspaper, and soon the story became headline fodder for the city’s daily tabloids. Since his arrival as archbishop of New York in 1984—just in time to declare that the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, could not support abortion and still claim to follow her Catholic faith—Cardinal O’Connor had proved to be an irresistible media figure. Since then, the tabloids had made hay out of any connection between O’Connor and the issue of abortion, and the cardinal was not shy in speaking out plainly on the subject. To show that prolifers cared for mothers and their babies at all stages, he promised that any pregnant woman in need could come to the archdiocese and receive free maternal services through Catholic Charities.
Thus, on the basis of the brief notice I wrote, the city’s dailies concluded that the Church was embarking on a new, in-your-face tactic in the abortion wars. Never mind that Bishop Daily had been leading Helpers events in his diocese each month, and Cardinal Roger Mahony had led a Helpers procession a few months earlier in Los Angeles; in the mind of the New York press, the Church’s presumed “power broker” was escalating the battle in the heart of the media capital. Soon there were reports of death threats against His Eminence if he dared to lead a procession to an abortion clinic. Photos from that memorable day show the cardinal walking with his rosary beads, surrounded by plainclothes detectives and even New York Giants all-star tight end Mark Bavaro. If the cardinal looked like he was carrying a few extra pounds, it was because he wore a bullet-proof vest, so seriously did the police take the threats.
To his credit, he did not back down. He never did when it came to speaking out for innocent victims and those who were rejected by society, including the AIDS patients he frequently visited at Mother Teresa’s New York hospice. So on June 13, Cardinal O’Connor offered Mass at St. Agnes Church, a block from Grand Central Station, then processed prayerfully with a thousand of the faithful for a full thirteen blocks south and two avenues west till he arrived at Eastern Women’s. The scene was madness, with police in riot gear and pro-abortion mobs screaming every imaginable curse and incantation as the well-protected cardinal was escorted to a spot across the street from the clinic. I was covering the event and knew I could not use the lede that came to mind, accurate as it was: “The demons were out in force this morning as Cardinal O’Connor led a peaceful, prayerful procession to the heart of hell in midtown . . .”
Msgr. Reilly listened as I recalled that day, and he observed, “It means so much when bishops and cardinals come out to pray with the Helpers. These are their shepherds, and they want to know that what they do has the moral and spiritual support of the Church.”
Changing to a lighter subject, I asked about his early years and his call to the priesthood. Again, that smile spread wide and his eyes brightened with memory. Born in the Maspeth section of Queens to an Irish father and an American mother, he became an altar boy as soon as he was old enough to memorize the Latin responses of the Mass of those days. Almost immediately he knew that he would become a priest. After graduating from Catholic grade school, he went on to Cathedral Prep, the same high school seminary where he would later serve as principal. He then completed four years of theology studies at Immaculate Conception Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1960.
His niece Susan added her own perspective at this point, explaining that her uncle is such a good priest because he has the heart of a father. When she was growing up, he made sure his nieces and nephews said their prayers and made Mass on Sundays, and treated each one as a unique individual with a special calling from God. “I don’t know what life would have been without him,” Susan said.
After ordination, he served at Queens parishes before being assigned to Cathedral Preparatory to teach Latin and mentor the chess club. There he spent more than two decades, stepping down from his position as rector in 1991 to devote himself full-time to pro-life work, with Bishop Daily’s permission.
After leaving Cathedral Prep, Msgr. Reilly was assigned as chaplain to the nuns at Precious Blood Monastery in Brooklyn, which became a center for pro-life prayer and planning for years to come. He also traveled far and wide, throughout the U.S. and overseas to South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, setting up groups to operate under the guidelines of the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.
As my visit was nearing an end, I asked monsignor for a final thought. Catholics—and all pro-life people, he reflected—must choose life in the midst of a culture of death. Ultimately, it is a matter of right and wrong, good and evil, life and death. “We must care for everyone, the babies, their mothers, even those who are against us, even the abortionists, because this is God’s work, and God wants all to be saved. We pray for the salvation of everyone.”
At our request, he imparted his priestly blessing to me and his niece. Then it was time for some ice cream.
Brian Caulfield works at the Knights of Columbus headquarters in New Haven, Conn., where he is editor of the website fathersforgood.org and vice postulator for the cause of Venerable Father Michael McGivney.