Project Rachel, the post-abortion reconciliation ministry of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, has been healing hearts of those affected by abortion since 1984. As founder Vicki Thorn and others celebrate the 25th anniversary of its inception on Sept. 18, they look back upon the effect it has had on the lives touched by the ministry and the way God and his church heal the suffering hearts.


Vicki Thorn, founder of the post-abortion ministry Project Rachel, holds a 1994 photo in which Pope John Paul II is giving her a blessing in Rome. (Catholic Herald photo by Tracy Rusch)

“It really is an awesome experience of looking back and seeing how an idea that was really only Spirit-inspired changed the face of the abortion debate in the U.S., and, not only in the U.S., but also in other countries,” said Thorn, executive director of the National Office of Post Abortion Reconciliation and Healing since 1990, and who serves as chairman of the Respect Life Advisory committee for the archdiocese. “Never did I suspect I would be in mainland China and Australia and New Zealand and a number of European countries … talking about this issue.”

Bishops’ pastoral plan led her to action

When the bishops issued a pastoral plan for pro-life activities in 1975 as a response to abortion being made legal, Thorn said their three pronged response made her take action. They advocated “womb-to-tomb” education and the sanctity of all life, getting people involved in the legislative process to be active participants in society, and offering pastoral care for those faced with a crisis pregnancy and healing for those touched by abortion, but there was no guidance for how to deal with it.

Thorn had watched a high school friend make the downward spiral through addiction, eating disorders and selfdestructive actions after having an abortion. Thorn had worked in Minneapolis after she went to school for psychology only to learn that it didn’t teach her what to talk about with someone dealing with abortion. When she moved to Milwaukee, and became a Birthright volunteer, she wanted to prevent pregnant women from going down the same road as her friend.

She was offered the job as Respect Life director in 1977 and she saw an opportunity unfold.

“I thought, ‘You know, the church is the place that we could do this.’ That from what I saw of my friend, it was both a spiritual and a human wound that needed to be addressed, and as a church, with sacraments and the people who populate the church, we can take care of this. So that was my understanding, but then you had to find people who knew enough to be able to train priests, train mental health professionals, figure out how we’re going to deal with people in terms of how are they going to find us, the phone calls and things like that.”

Seven years of organizing

The ministry that took Thorn seven years to organize, because there were no experts on healing the spiritual hole and pain left by abortion, resulted in an array of speakers, including; a regular psychologist and a priest psychologist who could bridge the gap in terms of the spiritual
aspect, a woman who had had an abortion and worked with a priest for her healing, who gave her testimony, the sister of a woman who had had an abortion to talk about the impact on the family, a canon lawyer who talked about the Code of the Canon Law, and a Jesuit priest who Thorn described as an “automatic confessor” and shared experiences of the people he met through his work.

“They needed to hear the woman to talk about her pain and her healing,” Thorn said of the day’s speakers. “They needed to hear the family system stuff; they needed to hear the psychology of it and then how does this link together because my intention was that this would be a holistic response. As church, we have people who can address the spiritual issues as priests and we have mental health professionals and others who can address the psychology of it.”

When they started, they questioned whether the women involved were dealing with some kind of pathology, and terms like post-abortion syndrome came up. But Thorn doesn’t like the implication of that language – that something’s wrong with these women.

“This is a woman who lost her child in a traumatic and unnatural fashion. She’s grieving, hello! I mean, that’s normal,” Thorn said, explaining that pathology can exist if women try to resolve the grief and soothe the pain with alcohol, cutting or suicide attempts.

“And the process is one of helping her to process the anger toward the other people involved, to move to forgiveness, to be reconciled then with God, with her baby and with herself and forgive herself in that, that’s it,” Thorn said. “That’s not high-tech psychotherapy, you know, that’s spiritual healing and it works.”

Archbishop offered office space

Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland told Thorn she would have office space in the Cousins Center whenever she was ready, moving the cost from her budget to his. She also was connected with a financial supporter, “And on the Feast of the Assumption, I met the man, he gave me my check,” she recalled.

Through people like this, the program exists, because Project Rachel is funded through small donations. Another donor, Frank Julliano, was a convert to Catholicism with a large burden on his shoulders – he had helped a cousin get an abortion. During the two years when she began the conference, the two operated out of her house and Julliano’s place in New Jersey.

“This man had told me that he had all the furniture I needed, that when I had the money, I was supposed to call him,” she said. That furniture, carpeting and supplies, down to the pencils, fill the small Project Rachel office.

“So, then in 1990, we did another Mass of inauguration for this office,” Thorn said of the creation of Project Rachel’s central office.

Project Rachel aims to educate priests, too

Some of Thorn’s favorite work beyond the one-on-one with women is the speaking and training she does with priests and caregivers.

Fr. Ralph Gross, pastor of St. Bruno Parish, Dousman, a Project Rachel priest since shortly after it began, was among priests at the first training workshop meant to help them better understand people touched by abortion.

“Project Rachel has done a wonderful job educating priests over the years to be able to be more sensitive and more understanding of the circumstances, and to have a better insight into the crisis of abortion and the aftermath,” Fr. Gross said, adding that even those who aren’t directly associated with Project Rachel but have attended workshops have gained great insight into Thorn’s work.

For him, getting involved in the project has answered his need to reach out to the people who are hurting and help them return to the good graces of God in their minds, he said. Project Rachel has been instrumental in “breaking down some of that barrier and opening the doors of communication between those who have had abortions, been involved in abortions and the church and so they can seek out healing,” Fr. Gross said.

Many people, according to Fr. Gross, sought healing through the sacrament of reconciliation, before Project Rachel’s existence, but this has given people a chance to talk about their pain and help them heal in addition to the sacrament of reconciliation. “That’s something that I have felt pastorally is just so absolutely necessary,” he said. “So this has been a tremendous blessing and thank God it has actually gone beyond the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and has stretched all over the world now, in many places. So, it’s been a wonderful tool and a wonderful blessing on the church and for people’s lives in the church.”

Yvonne Florczak-Seeman, president of Woman’s Choice Services, an organization with four pregnancy centers in Illinois, sought the healing of Project Rachel after five abortions. While she was baptized Catholic, she had been Protestant for 40 years until Project Rachel gave her a new understanding of Catholicism and what it means to understand God’s fullness and forgiveness.

“(Project Rachel) trains the priests, it gets them to understand the compassion necessary for these women to come back home, and it forgives them of the mortal sin of abortion and opens up a whole new world to them,” she said.

While there are many postabortion healing programs – a simple Google search reflects millions – Project Rachel was set apart from all the others for Florczak-Seeman.

“I believe it’s set apart because it was the Holy Spirit that inspired Vicki Thorn, along with those priests, that I truly believe with everything that I have in my entire being that they met in the throne room of God to put it together, because it begins the process of healing for women to let go through reconciliation.”

Abortion affects more than women

In the beginning, Project Rachel focused on helping women cope with the decisions they made, but it has since recognized the need to help the many others affected by abortion.

“If every year there’s something like 43 million abortions in the world, I mean, that’s women, but there’s men, and then there’s extended family because the other children are impacted,” Thorn said of the way that the lasting effects of abortion call for ministries that help women, men, family and friends.

With the help of the Knights of Columbus, Thorn held two national conferences for men dealing with abortion, and they’re planning more. The ministry has been important not only to Thorn, but to the archdiocese and the larger Catholic community. Its growth is evident in the more than 170 dioceses where Project Rachel has sprouted, and in the mark it has made internationally, but also on occasions like Thorn’s 1994 introduction to Pope John Paul II.

When her friend told the former pope that Thorn had created Project Rachel, he knew what it was, and said, “That’s very important work,” and gave her a special blessing.

“On a universal level, the awareness that our prophetic stance on the fact that abortion isn’t good for women, men or children has to be matched with the pastoral care,” Thorn said. “You know, recognizing what a temptation this is in this world and it’s passed off as such an easy thing, but the recognition that this is a life-changing event that leaves a hole in your soul.”

As Thorn looks back upon the 25 years of Project Rachel, she remembers the many stories that have touched her, from young women who were struggling alone and had no support but Thorn’s one-on-one phone conversations; to a priest who was ready to leave his vocation but
was then contacted by a Project Rachel woman and rediscovered his purpose and calling.

“Just having somebody that you can trust, that you can talk to on the telephone is enough to get you through that kind of a crisis,” Thorn said. “…even the priests, the priests who are still priests because they did this work, because this isn’t only for the women, it’s also for the priests who help – this is what priests were ordained to do, to set captives free.”