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HAVERHILL -- In 2015, 549 women entered Merrimack Valley Women's Health Services on Fridays, the day the Haverhill clinic typically performs abortions, and prayers were offered for each and every one. The faithful vigilers stand outside the clinic in all weather, all year round. Twice a year, they participate in 40 Days for Life, the campaign of peaceful protest, prayer and fasting where constant vigil is held from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day for 40 days. The current campaign runs from Feb. 10 to March 20.
For years, 40 Days for Life has been held in six Massachusetts cities -- Attleboro, Boston, Haverhill, Lynn, Springfield and Worcester. When the previous Haverhill coordinator stepped down after the last campaign, it was unclear whether the campaign could continue. The Knights of Columbus Council 202 in Haverhill recently agreed to take up the torch.
The first 40 Days for Life was conducted in College Station, Texas in 2004. Since then, 675,000 people have participated in 607 cities and 32 countries.
In Haverhill, Council 202 members have prayed outside the clinic on Fridays year-round for several years. Joe Sarcone, a Third Degree Knight, said he goes every Friday to stand for the babies and their mothers; he does not want the women to suffer from the pain the life-altering procedure can bring.
"You have to pray for both parties. Every day you hope that these people walking in are receptive to the prayer. If anything is going to change, it's going to have to be God," he said.
In 2016, six babies were saved in Haverhill. So far this year, one woman changed her mind, but she was pregnant with twins, so two babies were saved. "It's a great boost when something like that happens," he said.
Also a boost, are the 40 Days campaigns, which attract a larger, more constant presence. They attract attention and increase awareness of the abortion clinic. Sarcone said that many passersby inquire about the campaign, and some end up joining.
Sarcone himself got involved after meeting John Cronin, whom he called "one of the greatest, greatest guys." Cronin, a stalwart of the prayerful witness outside the Haverhill clinic, passed away last July 4.
National 40 Days for Life Campaign Director Shawn Carney wrote about Cronin in an e-mail to supporters after he visited the Haverhill campaign last year.
"On the days when John felt really ill, he would still go to the vigil and remain in his car to pray. He was that dedicated and never complained," he wrote.
Deacon Tom Anthony, Grand Knight of Council 202, said he hopes to see more people fill the gap that Cronin left. He called abortion "the pre-eminent Pro-Life issue."
"We're obligated to help if we can," he said. "The power of prayer cannot be overestimated."
Anne Magnus, marketing and events manager of the Pregnancy Care Center in Haverhill, said that 40 Days campaigns have been a blessing to the pregnancy resource center. The vigilers have referred women seeking an alternative to abortion to the center.
She called the prayerful presence outside the abortion clinic is "a bright light guiding the lost to find hope and healing in Jesus Christ."
Rita Russo, director of the Boston 40 Days campaign, encouraged everyone to participate wherever and whenever they are able.
Many of the vigil sites host special events throughout the campaign. In Haverhill, there will be a Mass on held Feb. 13 at 11:30 a.m. at St. John the Baptist Parish in Haverhill, followed by praying the rosary outside the clinic, a quarter mile walk away. In Boston, Auxiliary Bishop Emilio S. Allue, SDB will lead a Spanish Vigil on March 19.
"I think God expects us to defend these unborn children and speak up," Russo said. "No injustice was ever overturned by covering it up."