Despite today's culture, pro-life center president sees hope for the future

Cathy Donohoe and Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop Frank Caggiano. Donohoe was the recipient of a 2015 Bishop Thomas V. Daily Pro Vita Award presented by the Brooklyn, N.Y., diocese and the Knights of Columbus. (Ed Wilkinson)
Cathy Donohoe and Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop Frank Caggiano. Donohoe was the recipient of a 2015 Bishop Thomas V. Daily Pro Vita Award presented by the Brooklyn, N.Y., diocese and the Knights of Columbus. (Ed Wilkinson)

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Cathy Donohoe
Who she is: President of The Bridge to Life Inc.
Lives in: Flushing, N.Y.

Sr. Camille: I recently learned of your involvement with Bridge to Life. Please describe that organization.

Donohoe: The Bridge to Life Inc. is a local life center with satellites in both Astoria and Flushing. We help young women and men choose life. We provide counseling for pregnant women and assist them in obtaining prenatal care, housing and referrals to appropriate agencies. We have a material assistance program through which we've helped more than 4,000 women and their families in the last year. We were able to provide clothes, blankets, diapers, car seats, strollers, layettes and cribs for babies and children. Mothers return every three months for material assistance for their families.

What drew you to this work?

I've always wanted to help people. I am drawn to helping the underserved and marginalized in the world, the most vulnerable being the pre-born. It isn't enough to say you are pro-life; you have to do something. I empathize with our clients and assist them in creating a better life for their families.

What do you do within the organization? 

I am the president of the board of directors, ensuring that our vision is acted upon every day, and I also volunteer at the Flushing center three days a week. I chair our monthly meetings. I actively recruit volunteers who I feel can contribute to Bridge. I speak at numerous functions promoting Bridge throughout the year. I counsel young women when they come to us in crisis. We give referrals from prenatal care to emergency housing.

What are its challenges?

We're challenged by the culture we live in. This is a culture where sex is casual. Unborn babies are discarded at tremendously high rates. Life is not considered sacred. Our challenge is to get the girls to come into the center for assistance. They come for material assistance, but not so much for pregnancy tests. They can buy a pregnancy test at a Dollar Store! They can now go onto their iPhones and ask for abortion providers. They can easily obtain the morning-after pill. 

What are the satisfactions you gain from your efforts? 

Every day, there are satisfactions because we know that we were able to make someone's life a bit brighter. Just last week, a young woman came in for material assistance. She needed a bassinet. We had a crib available, but she lived in a small apartment and a crib wouldn't fit. We weren't able to help her. This is a rough situation because we had a mom come in, pregnant with her second child. Her first child had died in the mom's bed. She had rolled over him! We always try to get a place for the baby to sleep. Anyway, when she was getting ready to leave, a young man came in the back door carrying a bassinet. His son had outgrown it! I told him what had happened and asked if he wanted to give the mom the bassinet. He said yes, and the mom started to weep. She was so grateful.

Where and with whom did you grow up? Tell us about your parents and siblings.

I grew up on Long Island in a typical Irish Catholic family. I have two older brothers and a younger sister. There's only a four-and-a-half-year spread from the oldest to the youngest.

My parents were very active in my parish, St. Martin of Tours. My dad was a Knight of Columbus and my mom was on the PTA. My dad had a great devotion to Our Lady of Fatima and would promote her cause at local parishes, especially on First Saturdays. My mom spearheaded a major fundraising campaign to enlarge the church. She wasn't happy with the way the pastor was going about it, asking for old money. She wanted to invite young families to give what they could so that they could better feel that this was their church. She far exceeded her goal. Dad was more of a pray-er and Mom was an activist. Since her teen years, she was part of the Young Catholic Workers, having known Dorothy Day! I am definitely their daughter. My parents were married for 46 years before my mom was called home to our Lord. Dad lived for 10 more years, dying in 2012.

How else would you describe your childhood?

I grew up in a loving family. My siblings and I knew that we were loved. We were expected to study hard, and we learned to give back. My mom attended just about every one of our sport activities. She was very much interested in our lives. Every child in the neighborhood knew that they could come into our home and be received with a smile. 

What schools did you attend?

We all attended Catholic grammar and high schools. I attended The College of New Rochelle and was educated by the Ursulines.

Did any relative, teacher, friend or other adult influence or inspire you?

I always loved the woman next door, who was the neighborhood nurse. She was greatly respected. My parents didn't bring us to the emergency room unless we first were checked out by her. I also was inspired as a child by my godmother's faith and the faith of my mom's siblings. My aunts and uncles certainly lived their faith. 

Please tell us something about your husband and how you met him.

I've been married to my husband, Al, for 26 years. Our relationship is itself a love story.

My cousin was in a horrific accident. His mom, my godmother, was a widow for many years and raised four boys on her own in Brooklyn. She always talked about how her faith was tested and tried. It is her faith that enabled her to go on. I wanted to take her for dinner after the accident. My mom joined us. Off we ventured into Brooklyn. After dinner, she said she wanted us to go to a new Irish pub where a band was playing. We went. Al saw me across the dance floor swaying to the music. He asked me to dance, and the rest is history.

Do you have children?

Al had been married before and had three children with his first wife. He had just moved back to Queens after having lived in Miami for about 10 years. Knowing that I wanted to be married in the Catholic church, he went through the annulment process. He was granted one, then asked for my hand. We struggled to have children, and six years later, Catherine Ellen was born. Seventeen months later, Mary Grace was born.

They have very different personalities, yet both have big hearts. Mary Grace is passionate about her education and future goals. She attends Stonehill College run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross. Currently, she's on an internship in Washington, D.C., and attends classes at American University. She is bright and independent. She aspires to be a U.N. delegate and an attorney. She hopes to be able to empower marginalized women.

Catherine wants to be a middle school teacher. She's attending Queens College and is active in her sorority. She does a fine job as a tutor. She's usually the life of any party and makes sure everyone gets home safely. 

Do the demands of Bridge to Life impact on your family life?

No. I would have to say that I have lots of energy and I have been able to do whatever I needed to do for my family. My work at Bridge is on a volunteer basis. I am a registered nurse with a Master of Science, and I teach nursing on a part-time basis at a local community college. I taught at the College of New Rochelle for 17 years and was still able to be the CYO girls' swim coach for nine years, and Respect Life chair of my parish for over 25 years. I'm also a graduate of the Brooklyn diocese's lay ministry program.

Does your husband share your dedication to our faith?

Yes. We both serve as eucharistic ministers in our church, and we also bring Communion to people who are homebound.

What do you think enables you to do so many things?

I have a talent, like my mother, for bringing people together. I can see their worth and utilize their talents. I'm not afraid to speak up for the forgotten. I have a marvelous group of men and women who volunteer, many on a weekly basis, for Bridge. As a leader, I offer Bridge my time and talents and much of my energy. 

What does it have to give you? 

I am so blessed. Bridge gives me the satisfaction that I am living my baptism promises. I am able to be Christ to so many people in one day.

Where do you find support for this organization?

I find support from a number of places. We certainly cannot count on our present administration. Our president is not anti-abortion and promises to veto any legislation that crosses his desk. We don't get any federal funding. We get a little from our city council. Most of our support is from private donors. We receive donations from local parishes and from local Knights of Columbus councils. We reach out to youth and college groups.

How many constitute your working team?

We have approximately 20 volunteers who come to the center weekly. Our board comprises nine directors. We have a group of men who collect items for us. We have four volunteers who solicit donations for our annual dinner dance.

Do you belong to a parish?

I belong to Holy Family Parish in Fresh Meadows, Queens. My husband and I have been parishioners for over 26 years. I'm the chair of the Respect Life Committee and was recognized by the diocese with the Pro Vita Award in 1999. Ours isn't a very active parish and has no adult formation program. We had a very active Legion of Mary and Bible study with over 70 members, both male and female. Both were disbanded last year, and the leader left the parish. I miss the Bible study. I think so many parishioners are spiritually empty. We don't have any women's group. We have an active Knights of Columbus. I lead the rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet after Mass during the week.

Do you have a favorite Bible verse or story?

My favorite Bible verse is "The Lord is my shepherd." I love it because it reminds me that I am never alone. Christ walks beside me, carrying me when needed. He is there whenever I call upon him. I can be brave and courageous because he will never leave me. This is something that has been taught to me by my parents and I hope that my daughters have learned that from Al and me.

How do you respond to success and/or failure?

In the last number of years, I have been recognized for my pro-life work. I am humbled to be honored, and I accept my recognition on behalf of all my volunteers at Bridge. I try to include them whenever possible. I try to acknowledge where my success comes from and to always be thankful.

I am fortunate to have had family support all my life. Whenever I've failed, I've regrouped and tried again. I'm determined not to let any obstacle stop me from what I want to do.

Can you provide examples?

In high school, I didn't make the musical I tried out for. I was distraught. My mom gave me a touching card. It was a poem called "Bloom Where You're Planted." She encouraged me to try again. One of my classmates, mature beyond her years, talked to me when I was upset. She told me that it was all in God's plan. The people who were accepted in the show needed that experience. God had a different plan for me.

Another disappointment was that I didn't pass my nursing boards on the first time. This was a humbling experience. It certainly made me appreciate the demands of my profession. I love being a nurse.

What makes you happy? 

I am most happy when I am helping others. I am blessed with a wonderful husband and family. I'm secure in my love for them. I try to be the best wife and mother that I know to be.

What saddens you?

The culture we live in saddens me. The loss of the sanctity of life and its sacredness. We are living in an impatient, disposable world. If something is not perfect, just throw it out. This upsets me.

What else would you like us to know?

I love being around young people. I love being able to shape their minds and to be giving them opportunities to learn from my experiences. I have attended over 20 Marches for Life in Washington. The last few years I have organized a bus from my parish. I like sharing the experience with the youth. I love to be part of their enthusiasm. There is hope for this generation.

Thank you, Cathy, for contributing to that hope.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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