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Stewartstown woman runs retreat to help those who have had abortions

A Stewartstown woman started running the program 20 years after her own abortions


Rebecca Hanlon



Shoved to the ground, a woman quivered under raised hands.

Each clenched a rock that at any moment would be pelted at her body until the last heavy breath would leave her body.

The story of the adulterous woman is a powerful one sometimes shared in Sunday morning sermons. But before she would be killed for her adulterous acts, the book of John in the Bible said Jesus stepped in to save her.

The first without sin, he said, might throw the first stone.

"Who are you in that story?" asked Joy Crimmins of Stewartstown.

It's a question that first cut to her heart in 1999 when she attended Rachel's Vineyard, a retreat in Philadelphia for women who sought counseling after having an abortion.

For more than 20 years, Crimmins had pelted her own soul with thoughts of self-hatred and grief.

At 18, she'd had her first abortion.

Growing up in a conservative Christian home, she felt her only option for avoiding the shame of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy was to terminate it.

A little more than a year later, after meeting her fiance, Brendan, she'd have a second abortion.

But instead of feeling morally pushed to abort the fetus, she was told by her physician that it wasn't safe for her to carry the child because she has a double uterus, and the baby was growing in the smaller of the two.

"After that second one, it hit me," Crimmins said. "I had killed my baby."

After her wedding, Crimmins would continue to long for a child with her new husband. When she became pregnant at 25, she searched for a doctor who would help her deliver a healthy baby.

The pregnancy was tough, and their daughter, Kristin, would be born premature. But the love Crimmins had for the tiny girl bubbled over.

As she'd watch Kristin grow up into her early teenage years, the old feelings returned.

"I didn't want her to make the same choices I had,' Crimmins said. "I wanted her to know she really did have choices, and abortion didn't have to be one of them."

When Kristin was 12, Crimmins told her daughter about the abortions.

But the feelings of guilt and shame didn't go away.

After attending a Mass on healing, the priest repeatedly prayed for those who had abortions and for their aborted children.

"It was drilled right into my heart," Crimmins said. "He was speaking to me. He was praying for my children."

The next day, while browsing the pages of a magazine, Crimmins would stumble across an unusual advertisement.

A letter would clutch her already tattered heart. It was written from an aborted child to its mother. And it told her she was forgiven. It told her she had nothing to fear.

The letter was an advertisement for Rachel's Vineyard Ministries, a branch of the Catholic Priests for Life program.

That year, Crimmins would attend a weekend retreat in Philadelphia.

The question was presented to her during one of the first talks. Who was she in the story of the adulterer?

Each person was given a large rock and told to write in a large marker whatever it was they were carrying — pain, guilt, the what-ifs.

The rest of the weekend, they carried that rock everywhere: to bed, showers and meals. It was a constant reminder of what they threw at themselves throughout their lives.

But at the end of the retreat, each rock would be left behind.

The self-hate. The fear. The sadness.

Each was let go.

The power of the exercise stuck with Crimmins, and in 2001, she finished the training to lead retreats in York County.

Crimmins' sister, brother and mother would also attend retreats, having gone through emotional pain after either having their own abortions or holding on to pain of a loved one going through it.

"When you find the best thing, you want to share it," Crimmins said. "It doesn't matter if it's the greatest lipstick you've ever tried or a newfound faith in God. And for me, that's what this is. I have to share it."

It took two years for Crimmins to introduce herself as someone who had an abortion, as opposed to someone who just ran the program.

She still struggles with her choices, and regularly sees a therapist to continue working on her emotional battle.

"It's still a part of me no matter how healed I am," she said. "I don't know that I'll ever be completely whole again. But I know I want to be open to where God wants me to be."


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