The founding of Priests for Life goes back to the activities of several priests in the San Francisco area.
In 1980, Dominican Fr. Emmerich Vogt, OP, was a chaplain at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, when Planned Parenthood opened an abortion facility nearby. He was told by students that some of them were going there for abortions. Fr. Emmerich began to picket that killing center along with others and in 1981 along with seven lay Dominicans, secured themselves inside the abortion mill in the early morning, before abortions began. They were all arrested, had a trial, and were given a two-week prison sentence.
At that point, Fr. Emmerich decided to begin Priests for Life in an effort to help priests who were too busy to research life issues to get timely information for their preaching.
Fr. Emmerich then got together with Fr. Frank Filice who was ministering as Newman Chaplain at San Franciscan State University. He had been a professor of biology at the University of San Francisco (1947-1976) and founder of United for Life of San Francisco (1968), co-founder of the St. Ignatius Institute (1976). He was married with seven children when he studied to become a married Deacon. His wife died from complications related to kidney failure in 1976, and so he retired from his professorship and went on to become a priest, ordained in 1979.
Along with them was a young priest named Fr. Lee Kaylor. In 1990, he read about a piece of anti-life legislation on the ballot in Sacramento. He called Fr. Filice and Fr. Emmerich and they decided to mail a letter to all the priests of California, urging them to bring the issue into the pulpit and use it as a springboard to proclaim the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life. Though they considered this a “one-shot” mailing, the response to it was so good that it spurred the momentum of Priests for Life.
The three priests got together to elect the head of Priests for Life, and each got one vote. So Fr. Emmerich suggested that Fr. Filice, being the elder, be the first leader of Priests for Life. Fr. Emmerich served as Vice President and Fr. Lee Kaylor as Secretary-Treasurer.
Not long after that, Fr. Emmerich was reassigned to Portland, Oregon and Fr. Filice felt called to establish the Holy Family Oratory of St. Philip Neri in the parish of San Jose de la Mesa in Tijuana, Mexico.
Fr. Kaylor, however, continued the work of getting approval of the organization within the Church and establishing it as a not-for-profit (501 (c)-3) entity with the government. He secured the help of an attorney, Mr. Jerry McLaughlin, to draw up the papers, and got various other lay people involved, such as Keith and Mary Ann Eiler who headed the Bay Area chapter of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF),
He also involved two other priests in the leadership of Priests for Life, Fr. Robert Cipriano (of the Archdiocese of San Francisco) and Fr. Robert Kiefer (of the diocese of San Jose).
With the help of another lay person named Delores Anderson, who donated $2000, the first Priests for Life newsletter was drafted, printed and mailed to all the dioceses of the United States. Fr. Kaylor also sent a letter to all the U.S. Bishops, introducing the group and asking for their help in distributing the newsletter via diocesan priest-mailings. Once this was done, Fr. Kaylor left for vacation, putting everything "in God’s hands."
When Fr. Kaylor returned to his parish a week later, he found that God hadn’t wasted any time. Not only were there scores of letters waiting for him from priests all over the country, but his secretary informed him that the parish had been flooded with phone calls. Even more amazing, the San Francisco archdiocesan switchboard had been overwhelmed with calls asking about Fr. Kaylor and Priests for Life. Fr. Kaylor quickly arranged a meeting with Archbishop John Quinn and explained his idea for Priests for Life. Archbishop Quinn immediately embraced the concept and granted the group official approbation in 1991 as a “Private Association of the Faithful, a term drawn from the Code of Canon Law.”
Meanwhile, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York had announced in 1991 the formation of the Sisters of Life in New York, a religious congregation he established to focus on the sanctity of life. Fr. Lee Kaylor’s mom, who was a widow, decided to go to New York to enter the first group of the Sisters.
Meanwhile, Cardinal O’Connor had ordained (in 1988) Fr. Frank Pavone, who had a strong passion for defending the unborn since 1976. When Fr. Frank heard about the Sisters of Life, he began to think that something similar should be established for priests. He was told about Priests for Life, contacted Fr. Kaylor, and signed up as an active member.
At a certain point Fr. Lee Kaylor decided he wanted to go into the Air Force, and called Fr. Pavone in 1993 to ask him if he would be interested in leading Priests for Life. The timing was amazing, because Fr. Pavone had just arranged to have a meeting with Cardinal O’Connor to ask permission to devote his ministry to the defense of the unborn. In a letter to the personnel director of the Archdiocese of New York, Fr. Frank had expressed his conviction that this is what he was called to do, and indicated that he was putting his personal money into getting the venture started.
Cardinal O’Connor granted him permission to do pro-life work full-time, as of September 1, 1993, as the first fulltime National Director of Priests for Life. Fr. Cipriano and Fr. Kiefer sent a letter to the priests around the country who had signed up as members of Priests for Life, and told them that Fr. Pavone was available for this fulltime position, should they elect him to it. They did so, and Fr. Pavone went to San Francisco for a Mass at the Cathedral during which the founding priests of Priests for Life designated him as Director. They gave him a check for $3000, which was all that Priests for Life had in the bank, and told him, “Take this, and defend life.”
Fr. Frank then embarked on a journey to all 50 states and five continents to promote this work, meet with pro-life leaders, and raise awareness within the Church and society about abortion.
Various other priests over the years were also been given permission by their Ordinaries to work full-time to promote Priests for Life including Fr. Richard Hogan, Fr. Denis G. Wilde, O.S.A and Fr. Walter J. Quinn, O.S.A. Other priests have been granted permission to work with us on a part-time basis, such as Fr. Tony Mastroeni.
Since 1993, the staff of Priests for Life has grown from one person to 50 full-time paid employees and from a budget of $3000 to 12 million. Working with Fr. Frank from the beginning have been Mr. Anthony DeStefano, Vice Chairman of the Board and Janet Morana, Executive Director. Senior Vice President Mr. Jerry Horn coordinates, among other things, key public relations and media work.
Over the years, this association, listed in the Official Catholic Directory, has obtained the enthusiastic endorsement of many leaders of the Church, such as Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Cardinal Renato Martino, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, and scores of other bishops throughout the United States and the world. Earlier in our history, His Eminence Cardinal William Keeler, when serving as Chairman of the Bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities, expressed his active support. Cardinal Roger Mahony likewise expressed his support in 1994 when he was Chairman of the same committee. When serving as the Holy Father's representative in the United States,
Most Reverend Gabriel Montalvo, warmly endorsed Priests for Life. Also, from the beginning, the late Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo endorsed the work on behalf of the Vatican, and later renewed that endorsement. Cardinal Trujillo was the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, which was established by Pope John Paul II to coordinate and foster the pro-life, pro-family activities of the entire Church.
Priests for Life has been warmly endorsed by Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who asked Fr. Frank Pavone to come to India to speak to her sisters and priests of the region.
In 2003, Priests for Life was granted NGO Status by the United Nations.
Priests for Life has received many inquiries from other countries who want to establish similar associations, such as has been done in Austria under Cardinal Schonborn. We also receive inquiries from young men looking for a priestly or religious vocation centered in pro-life activity.
Priests for Life has grown into an entire family of ministries, embracing everything from healing after abortion to political activism.
Together, these ministries now constitute a multifaceted, Catholic-inspired organization which, like EWTN and the Knights of Columbus, is not an “association” under Canon Law, but has its own independent board and structure while operating in union with the Church. Cardinal Renato Martino, one of our key advisors, explains in a letter how valuable these recent developments in the structure of Priests for Life are for the whole Church.
A key characteristic of the mission of Priests for Life is its ability to work with and support many varied groups and facets within the prolife cause. These groups are grateful for the witness of Priests for Life on many fronts.
To learn more about the Priests for Life organization and its history and mission, watch our introductory video, a powerful and professional presentation!
Click here to hear an Audio Intro to Priests for Life
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