Memory of a Thanksgiving Past

A tribute to an early and ambitious pro-life Catholic, Mr. Gil Durand

As we marked Thanksgiving last week, my memories reached back 50 years to Thanksgiving 1973. I remember the day well: sunny but chilly. The memory is an opportunity for me to salute a man I never met, Gil Durand. (I think it’s Durand. It might be Durant. He doesn’t come up when I “google” him).

Gil Durand was head of the Committee of Ten Million, a project he launched to fight Roe v. Wade. That’s how I got involved with him. He was apparently a successful California businessman and entrepreneur who was shocked by Roe and wanted to organize politically to overturn it. At the time I was a 13-year-old kid who had just learned what abortion was (I heard the announcement of Roe on the five-minute NBC News break during my lunch hour, right after the original Jeopardy!) and was shocked and wanted to do what I could to change things. I developed my political and civics consciousness thanks to Roe. One reason I became a moral theologian was interest in the bioethics issues Roe raised.

Durand’s story was reported in The National Catholic Register. It wasn’t even so much a story as an ad. His plan to fight Roe was to collect ten million petition signatures, to be presented by congressional district to each member of the House and Senate, asking for enactment of the Hogan Human Life Amendment. He already foresaw and wanted to stop euthanasia, too. He was convinced that showing up in Washington with ten million signatures would have been such a political shock that Congress would have to respond. In 1973 it very well might have been.

In 1973 ten million signatures would have been a little over five percent of the American population. That would have been a daunting task, but Durand had a plan for that, too. There were at least 35 million Catholics back then. If every Catholic parish across America simply handed out and got the petitions signed during or after Sunday Mass, over the course of a month or two the requisite number of signatures could be assembled. Then, by Roe’s first anniversary, we could show up in force in Washington demanding the ruling go down.

I wanted to be part of that, so I wrote to Mr. Durand in Glendale, California, asking if he could send me some petition forms. I was somewhat afraid, because he had asked for those who could help defray costs to send $5 for 20 sheets (400 signatures) and this kid didn’t have $5 to send.

To my surprise and delight, an envelope arrived with a pile of petitions and a note not to waste anything but to send back what I didn’t use.

The petition drive taught me a lot of things. It taught me to see my hometown — Perth Amboy, New Jersey — not as my immediate neighborhood but as something bigger. Walking house to house, I met lots of people. I learned to pitch a case quickly and, often, effectively. I began to see the different kinds of houses (and different classes) that lived on streets that hitherto we just drove along.

I remember Thanksgiving 1973 because I reasoned that while my mother was baking a turkey I had a good four or five hours with lots of people home that I could get lots of signatures. I probably got about 100 that day. (I also smelled a lot of different turkeys!)

I also should have learned how generally useless most Catholic clergy were in making abortion an issue. Of the nine Catholic and three Eastern Rite parishes in town, most of whom I visited, only one — the Hungarian Byzantine parish — was willing to pursue the Durand Plan and get petitions signed after Divine Liturgy. The pastor said he’d take care of it and I should come back Tuesday. I did and Fr. Basil gave me about 100 signatures. Most of the big parishes (including my own Polish parish) thought it scandalous that we might broach this issue “in church!” I thought it was scandalous that we could tolerate killing babies and not talk about it in church!

I imagine Gil Durand also discovered the ecclesiastical indifference in Catholic circles. Looking back a half century later, I have to say:

– Durand was a layman who took his Vatican II vocation to change society seriously, addressing an issue Vatican II called an “unspeakable crime.” Here was a Catholic layman putting his own time and money into an effort to lead change, which only required the Church to make its infrastructure, an infrastructure in every state, minimally at the disposal of an issue that, in 1973, was clearly considered “Catholic” — and our pastors did nothing.

– Remember that, in 1973, the federalization of abortion by Roe was a lightning bolt out of the blue. There was no real national right to life organization because abortion had previously been fought only at the state level. That people like Mildred Jefferson and Jack Willke could rapidly stand up the National Right to Life Committee was a testament to their work. Abortionists were organizing right after Roe and came into their own in the Carter Administration; the bishops pretended hand-made signs could suffice to create a countervailing political force. (Funny, they don’t pursue that kind of amateur hour politics when it comes to getting immigration grants.)

– Going into 1974 with no plan to protest the first anniversary of Roe, it was another lay Catholic, Nellie Gray, who threw together the organization that became the first March for Life on January 22, 1974. Again, if Nellie Gray and Gil Durand had been able to show up in Washington with ten million signatures in 1974, would Roe have stood almost 50 years?

I probably sent in about 1,500 signatures by the time I finished collecting them for the Committee of Ten Million. I figured if one Polish American teenager in New Jersey could do that, why couldn’t the Catholic Church, marshalling all her resources, succeed in this effort?

I don’t know what finally happened to the Committee of Ten Million. I doubt Durand ever got his ten million signatures.

I know I learned a lot — about practical politics, about civics, about the Church and the gap between what it says and what it does, and what a lot of people were eating on Thanksgiving on the side streets off Johnstone in Perth Amboy. I don’t know if anyone can fill in the gaps of whatever became of Gil Durand and his Committee. While abortionists are busy churning out “histories” (take a look at the shelf Rutgers University Press has published), the story of the U.S. right to life movement, especially in the 1970s and 80s, contains many memories like this.

I hope at least this blog post memorializes a Catholic layman who did what he could to bear witness to faith and life.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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