Editor’s note: Bill Whatcott interviewed Mary Wagner and Linda Gibbons in August when both were still incarcerated at the Vanier Centre for Women. Gibbons has since been released but Wagner remains behind bars.
When I drove into the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton to interview pro-life prisoners Linda Gibbons and Mary Wagner, I was struck by the contrast between the gentle and Christ like demeanors of the two women, versus the harsh prison environment in which these two women are incarcerated. When you drive into the Vanier Centre for Women, you are greeted with razor wire fences, security cameras, and heavy steel doors.
When I provided my identification to the guard, I had to speak through a heavy sheet of security glass. I was then taken through a metal detector and led through a heavy steel door to a small concrete cubicle. In front of me was another sheet of security glass where Linda sat on the other side and we began our interview. I wished when I greeted Linda, I could have given her a hug, but one can only talk to an inmate through a heavy glass barrier; human contact is not allowed.
I asked Linda, how she was holding up in jail and she responded she was doing fine. Over the years she had minimal conflict with fellow inmates or guards. One inmate threatened her, but didn’t do anything, as Linda enjoys the protection of many inmates who appreciate her Christian influence on the unit. Guard responses vary towards Linda. Linda said one female guard was bothered by her pro-life witness and when Linda walked by the guard, one of them yelled out “where’s your hand grenades?”
Other guards and inmates have been very open to Linda’s presence. Linda described one guard who confided that she had an abortion and was still hurting from it. “The guard understood the finality of what she did. She needed healing and forgiveness as she never quit being a mother, rather she is now a mother of a dead baby,” Linda explained.
Indeed Linda does not see her time in jail as wasted time at all. Multitudes of women pass through Vanier who are hurting from abortion and Linda, who lost a baby herself to abortion is there to minister to them all.
Linda doesn’t deny her own experience with abortion played a role in bringing her into the pro-life movement and ultimately into a life of civil disobedience and languishing in prison as a prisoner of conscience. While Linda acknowledges Christ’s forgiveness, she is also clear that “while God has forgiven me, I still won’t see my baby again in this life.”
Of course Linda’s journey as a pro-life prisoner of conscience is about more than just her own abortion. Linda has a sincere desire to show Christ’s love to both abortion-minded mothers and their unborn children. Linda’s inspiration comes from the words of Christ “When you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”
Once I finished with Linda, I wrote a few notes and prayed, then the guards brought Mary into the concrete cubicle in front of me. Mary was still perspiring and breathing quickly from a volleyball game she was playing before the guards called her for my visit. Mary is quite a bit younger than Linda and is more reserved. While both women are best friends, and following a very similar path, I was struck by their differences.
Linda is in her mid-60s, an evangelical Christian coming from a non-Christian upbringing and an extrovert. Mary on the other hand is in her mid-30s, comes from a pro-life Catholic upbringing and is by her own admission more of a contemplative type.
Mary’s inspiration to join the pro-life movement came from her parent’s example. As a child she remembers the Catholic faith and pro-life values were always a part of her upbringing. Mary spoke of her parents taking her to the annual Life Chain and Campaign Life Coalition meetings. Mary was also moved by her mother, who has given life to seven brothers and sisters. Mary says her mother suffered through several difficult pregnancies, but her mom always “joyfully showed love and self-sacrifice to each child in her womb.”
As a young woman Mary graduated from the University of Victoria with a Bachelor of Arts with an English Major, then she traveled to France where she lived in a Christian community that ministered to the handicapped. After a few months Mary discerned God was calling her back to Canada to enter full-time ministry to the unborn.
Mary started sidewalk counselling outside Vancouver abortuaries in her early 20s and before long she found herself in jail at the Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women. While incarcerated, Mary was threatened by one inmate but never assaulted. Upon release from jail Mary persisted in her pro-life witness, sometimes ministering to mothers and their babies on the sidewalk and other times going into the abortuaries to share Christ’s love with the mothers and babies in the waiting room. She would give roses to women as they entered the Everywoman’s Health Centre as a sign of love.
After being incarcerated a half dozen times in British Columbia, Mary travelled to Ontario and joined Linda in civil disobedience outside the Toronto-area abortion facilities. When I asked Mary (who at the time of the interview has been incarcerated in Vanier for over a year) why she is doing what she is doing, she replied with the same words of Jesus that Linda quoted an hour earlier, “When you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”
Mary believes there is validity in civil disobedience and it is moral to protect an innocent human being from an unjust law, but this is not her primary reason for going to jail. For Mary it is about love for God and love for her fellow human being. “Each child and each mother is precious. It is worth it to go and meet them where they are at, even if it means going to jail.”
Like Linda, Mary doesn’t see her time as wasted in the Vanier Centre. Mary spends her time in prayer and writing letters. Mary has also been blessed to have a retired Catholic bishop from Pakistan and a cardinal from Mumbai come to visit her while she has been in jail. Both men have given their blessing to Mary’s decision to embark on a life civil disobedience to minister to abortion-bound mothers and their babies.
Even though Mary is quieter and more contemplative than Linda while in jail that doesn’t mean God doesn’t use her to meet human needs when they arise. One inmate was contemplating an abortion when she arrived at Vanier. Both Linda and Mary reached out to the mother and as a result the mom chose life for her baby.
When I asked Linda and Mary about the long-term goals for their lives and where they see their paths of civil disobedience taking them, their answers were both other-worldly and other-focused. Neither woman has any plans of changing course. Linda replied, “I could be in prison for the rest of my life.” Mary also replied she intends on continuing civil disobedience to reach out to mothers entering abortion facilities. When I asked Linda what she hoped to accomplish by following such a difficult path, Linda replied “I just don’t want to compromise with the killing. Even if it seems impossible to change the system, one should try. One should reach a little further than their grasp, just like one would reach out to heaven.”
Mary she sees her journey of reaching out to abortion bound mothers and incarceration as a journey that is “heaven bound.” Mary isn’t sure if her sacrifice will change any laws, but she says, “God is full of surprises.” Mary alluded to Mother Teresa when explaining her decision to give her life so completely to the pro-life cause and the seemingly insurmountable opposition she is facing, “you shouldn’t be discouraged, God calls us to be faithful.”