Delta, B.C. sidewalk counsellor Mary Wagner has grown up
‘living and breathing pro-life’

By Paul Tuns
The Interim

Mary Wagner is an unassuming young woman who has found herself both on the front-lines of the abortion struggle and behind bars for her beliefs, but there is no sign that she is about to quit. Indeed, her fight against the injustice of abortion has just begun.

A 26-year-old graduate of the University of Victoria who lives at home with her family in Vancouver, Mary has come to where she is through prayer. She has prayed to God for guidance and so she can discern what He wants her to do. She believes that God wants her to spread the truth about abortion and help those who are harmed by it.

She frequently pickets at Vancouver’s two abortuaries, Everywoman’s Health Center and the Elizabeth Bagshaw Clinic. Mary also offers help to women entering the abortuaries – which she calls the killing centers – and prays for the children who are killed there, the women who lose their babies, and the staff who work there.

Glenn Reed is Mary’s friend and often witnesses with her. He says their presence outside the abortuary is small but important and wishes others would join them. Referring to their practice of praying for the abortuaries’ staff and clients, he adds that an “us-versus-them mentality” is un-Christian and a hindrance to offering help. “Mary is so gentle and non-threatening. It is great to have her out there,” he says.

Mary has been arrested numerous times, the first being Feb. 1, 1999. She refused to leave the Bagshaw Clinic after she followed and offered assistance to a woman who had walked in. She wasn’t charged. A month later she was arrested at Everywoman’s and faced 11 charges, including attempting to physically interfere, sidewalk counselling, and protesting. She was given a suspended sentence.

She then began regularly witnessing at the Bagshaw Clinic. The posters she displays are seen by an estimated 30,000 passing cars a day. She says most passers-by are indifferent but that she does get both support for and opposition to her witnessing. She says it is important to display the picture of the baby at eight weeks because too many people have never faced the humanity of the child in the womb. She quotes Joan Andrews Bell, the U.S. pro-life activist, who says the unborn need “non-violent champions” who force “society to face the reality” of abortion.

Being a non-violent champion has come at some cost for Mary. On November 22, she was arrested and charged for being inside the no-protest bubble zone protecting the Bagshaw abortuary, and for her witnessing earlier that month. She refused bail conditions that included obeying the bubble-zone, and spent Christmas in jail as a result. Most of the charges were dismissed, but on January 11 she was found guilty of attempting to interfere and was given a 15-day sentence and a $1,000 fine. On January 21, she was let go due to good behaviour.

Growing up, Mary had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. The fact that she is now in the center of the abortion battle is the result of a life of prayer and the influence of her family life.

The sense of a spiritual journey has always been important to Mary, says her mother Jane Wagner, but it has intensified in recent years. The family always prayed together and went to church, she says, but it was a trip to Denver to see Pope John Paul II at the World Youth Day in 1993 that led to a spiritual awakening. After going to Denver, her mother remembers seeing “a new fervour” in Mary.

The trip to Denver was eye-opening for Mary. She recalls seeing countless youth spiritually energized by the presence of the Holy Spirit. She felt a closeness to God that she had not previously experienced. “It made me understand how God watches and loves each one of us in a close and personal way.” She always knew God loved her but now she realized that she had God’s protection and unending love. Because of that she could “feel happy, full of joy, and live as Christ taught us.”

Mrs. Wagner says that for a while the family did not pray together as often as it had when the oldest of their 11 children were younger. Mary encouraged them to “bring back the rosary, say family prayers, to get back in the habit of praying. Now, its a regular thing again, even when Mary’s not around.”

Mary was not only exposed to her family’s deep faith while growing up but also the issue of abortion. Her father Frank Wagner was a long-time president of Campaign Life Coalition British Columbia, and her mother worked with Birthright, manning their crisis lines. Mrs. Wagner says that she told Mary “that I was helping mothers with their babies because it was hard for them.”

“Living in our house, Mary lived and breathed pro-life,” says Mrs. Wagner. The family dedicated themselves to fighting the evil of abortion “since Trudeau’s fatal 1969 decision and there wasn’t any way Mary wouldn’t have been exposed to it.” The family prayed for an end to abortion and attended numerous pro-life rallies.

Other than immersion into the pro-life cause, Mary was a typical teen who participated in gymnastics and soccer and who enjoyed learning languages, which she studied at university. She is “almost fluent” in French and German, and is familiar with Spanish – although two Honduran women she met in prison “taught me that I didn’t know Spanish as well as I thought,” she admits.

Her mother said she was “a normal teen, although she never got into trouble. She had friends and went to dances and parties. But there was a wholesomeness about her. She was gentle, compassionate and patient. She doesn’t ever raise her voice.” Mrs. Wagner says that her daughter’s demeanor and whole being certainly has led to and helps her in the pro-life work she does.

Not everyone is up to the demands of sidewalk counselling, witnessing and offering help to those who need it, but Mary seems to possess the selflessness and gentleness to do it. An interesting component of Mary’s sidewalk ministry is that she offers a rose to women who are entering the abortuaries. While few accept them, CLC B.C. president John Hof says they are a powerful statement of Mary’s love for these complete strangers and the babies inside them.

She got the idea from a friend who found out that he had almost been killed by abortion. The person then gave a rose to the staff members of the abortuary on his birthday. “I thought that was beautiful and loving,” Mary says, “to reach out to the abortionists this way.”

Glenn Reed says that people “are shocked that someone is talking to them, caring about them at this critical time in their life.” He says there are only a few seconds that sidewalk counsellors have to reach potential abortuary clients. Mary’s unusual outreach tells them “we are called to love everyone.”

Accepting that her daughter was going to be on the front lines and possibly get arrested was not easy for Mrs. Wagner. “Prison is a dangerous place,” she says. “Mary is small, she’s thin. I was horrified thinking what might happen to her in there.”

“I’m stunned by her courage,” her mother explains: courage on the streets witnessing, courage in the courtroom and courage in the prison. That courage and Mary’s ever-present smile relieved some of her mother’s fear. “We’d go and visit her and she’d come into the common room with a great big smile on her face just as she had when we visited her at university.”

While in the Burnaby Correction Centre for Women, Mary was able to talk to other prisoners, about 90 per cent of whom she says have aborted at least one child. One woman confided that she wished someone like Mary was there to offer her hope and friendship when she had aborted her child. She informed women who still suffered from the abortions they went through that post-abortion counselling is available and distributed post-abortion syndrome literature.

She also found opportunities to evangeize in prison. John Hof says that she had requested literature to pass on to inmates. “God used Mary to witness on the streets,” Hof told The Interim while Mary was still in prison, “and now he’s using her in prison to touch the hearts of these women.”

Whatever good came from Mary’s ordeal, the “legal mess” still upsets Mrs. Wagner who wonders “what kind of society would allow abortion, but put a peaceful, loving, caring young woman in jail.”

After the judge’s verdict in one of her court appearances, Mary asked if she could say a few words. She was given permission, and requested a few moments of silence to remember her brothers and sisters who have died by abortion. The judge, who observers said was not friendly to Mary throughout the proceedings, allowed this and those in the courtroom remember several minutes of silence until Mary signalled it was long enough. Her mother says, “you could feel the seconds ticking away but even at this moment she wasn’t thinking about herself.” Such selflessness is not unusual. When she was asked by others what they could do for her while she was in prison she told them to witness for the unborn.

Now that she’s out of prison, Mary is once again helping her mother take care of the younger family members, four of whom have special needs. She gets breakfast ready for her younger brothers and sisters at 7 a.m., helps them get ready, and spends time with them and does the housework during the day.

“It’s a Godsend to have her home,” says her mom, who appreciates the extra help. It gives her some time to run errands or attend to the needs of another child. But such household help is nothing new; Mrs. Wagner recalls even when she was just four years old, “Mary was like a little mother,” as she tried to care for her newborn brother.

Jane Wagner says she is humbled to be Mary’s mother. She doesn’t take any of the credit for the person Mary has become, saying, “God and Mary’s own goodness brought her to this.”

Mary continues to pray for guidance, to know what God wants her to do next. Glenn says Mary is a peaceful, prayerful person who doesn’t talk much. When she does talk, she is soft-spoken. “But she does a lot,” he says admiringly.