Citizen Cover Story, November 2011
The refrigerator in Eleanor and Joe McCullen’s Newton, Mass., home is covered with photos.
Babies alone. Babies with their moms. Toddlers. Elementary school kids. Entire families.
You might expect that, considering that the McCullens, both in their mid-70s, are grandparents. The thing is, these kids aren’t relatives.
They’re just a few of the hundreds of children born after Eleanor met their moms on a sidewalk outside an abortion clinic over the last 11 years.
It’s nothing she ever imagined she’d be doing at this point in her life, but in the year 2000, Eleanor — a lifelong Catholic — had a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit that turned her life upside down.
“It was like St. Paul being knocked off his horse,” she says. “I was going to Mass, but this was a deeper conversion.
“I was talking to [my priest], and he said, ‘Why do you think this happened to you?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.’ And he said, ‘You’re supposed to go out of your comfort zone now and build up the kingdom of God. That’s the purpose. You have to stretch.’”
Eleanor had no idea how she was supposed to “stretch” herself. Married at the time for 41 years, she’d spent her adult life as a homemaker, raising three children and then her grandchildren.
“I’m older. That’s one reason I thought I couldn’t do it,” she says. “At the time, I was 64. So when this priest suggested working with mothers who are contemplating abortion, I said, ‘Oh, Father, I’m too old!’ He said, ‘Are you 103?’ I said ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Then you’re not too old.’”
Stripped of excuses, Eleanor reached out trepidatiously to Christian sidewalk counseling ministries.
“I took a step of faith to make telephone calls and say, ‘I’m available,’ ” she recalls. “I also said, ‘If I get a machine, I’m going to hang up!’ But each time, a person answered.”
For the first four months, she simply prayed while other counselors talked with women outside a local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic. But one day, a counselor was out sick and Eleanor was asked to fill in — and a whole lot of lives began to be affected, one by one.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning, between 7 and 11 a.m., you can find Eleanor dressed in a suit, pushing a baby stroller outside an abortion clinic. In the stroller are a portable DVD player that shows a baby’s ultrasound and a stack of pamphlets for pregnancy medical clinics in the area.
Her approach is simple.
“My main thing is just, ‘Good morning,’ ” she says. “ ‘What can I do to help you? I’m available if you have any questions.’ I give them a brochure and my telephone number. I just say I’m there to help them, I can take them to a safe center right then if they want to go find out about their options, not to rush into anything. If they don’t feel there’s help available for them there, they can always come back to the abortion clinic tomorrow.”
Over the years, she’s found it’s amazing how far a simple greeting can go.
“One of my mothers early on — the little boy is now 8 — I asked her why she stopped to talk, and she said, ‘You said “Good morning,” ’ ” Eleanor recalls. “That morning she and the father had had a terrible fight, and it was calming to hear that.”
As gratifying as it is to help a distressed pregnant girl into her car and take her to A Woman’s Concern — a 19-year-old pregnancy medical clinic with four locations statewide — to get an ultrasound, as joyful as it is to see the tears flow when that girl decides abortion will not be her choice for this child — for Eleanor McCullen, it’s not the end of her work. It’s just the beginning of new relationships.
“I’m there while the ultrasound is going on and the tears are coming,” she says. “I’m there through the nine months. I’m there when the call comes to go to the hospital. I’ve been there at the christenings.”
That’s been her approach since that first fateful day when her colleague got sick, said her husband Joe. That was when the line of girls, women and couples started coming through their front door to their living room — and it hasn’t stopped since.
“I think that first day, she spoke to a couple, and they were the first ones that she brought to the house — because at that point, she didn’t know what to do,” he recalls. “They were sitting in the living room, and she opened the Yellow Pages. She found A Woman’s Concern and called them, and they said, ‘Bring them over.’ ”
One of Eleanor’s favorite traditions has been holding baby showers for mothers who change their minds.
“I had one mother I was talking to outside Planned Parenthood, and she said she had to have the abortion,” Eleanor recalls. “I told her God had a plan for her child, and she said, ‘I know, but I still have to get the abortion.’ She just kept walking toward Planned Parenthood, and I told her I was disappointed because I’d have a baby shower for her and she’d have everything she needed. She stopped and said, ‘You’d do that?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and she said she’d love a baby shower — ‘where’s A Woman’s Concern?’
“So we do those in my house. We have strollers and baby clothes. It’s a blessing, and my husband is generous, and we’re happy to do it.”
That’s not to say the aftermath of helping women who’ve changed their minds about abortion is all sunshine and roses. A lot of the women Eleanor meets on that sidewalk aren’t there because they personally want to be — they’re there because they feel they have to be, thanks to their parents or boyfriends.
“I think Eleanor would be reluctant to talk about some of the details of these cases,” Joe says gently. “Mothers dragging their daughters into the abortion mills, Eleanor talking to them to change their views — then getting a call from the irate father, telling her to meet him at some Dunkin Donuts down in Roxbury. And she goes. It’s not a good neighborhood, but she goes.”
That’s not a hypothetical situation. Right now, there’s a 5-year-old kid somewhere in Massachusetts with a young mom and two grandparents who couldn’t be more thrilled that he’s in their lives — thanks to one lady who was willing to step outside her comfort zone.
Occasionally, the confrontation is not with people who are considering abortion, but with others who are trying to keep them from it.
“When people are concerned about abortion and take the approach of yelling at the woman, she tells them to stop, that’s not the way,” Joe says. “She’s a quiet person, but she has a very strong way about her when she’s making her point.”
As a couple, the McCullens haven’t stopped at buying countless strollers and sets of baby clothes for those showers. They’ve helped with rent. They’ve furnished apartments. They’ve bought groceries. They’ve gotten refrigerators fixed. They’ve let women stay at their house in Massachusetts and families borrow their second home on the coast of Maine. The phones in both locations ring constantly — sometimes because women need material support, and sometimes because they just want to talk to Eleanor. Some of them are people she’s been involved with personally — and some are people who have been referred to her by mothers Eleanor has helped in the past.
“Everybody has a different story,” Eleanor says. “I don’t pay for cable or things they don’t need. I find out what they need, not what they want. So financial assistance is always wonderful, but I call on people for moral and spiritual support too — encouraging the young mother and father.”
Though Joe, who owns a capital firm, doesn’t join Eleanor on the sidewalk, he gets involved in other ways when she asks.
“Fathers need mentoring,” Eleanor says. “Maybe the man doesn’t have a job and needs help with his resume. My husband does that. It doesn’t take much time. It’s just a little bit of getting out of your comfort zone, a little bit of stretching. Once you start, it’s like, ‘This is fun!’ and it makes you feel good.”
“Eleanor is the front-line soldier, and I’m just in the supply office,” Joe says demurely. “For the most part, probably 90 percent of the cases, these people have turned their lives around. Sometimes these are young men who are struggling to find themselves and be good fathers, live a lifestyle that they aren’t accustomed to. It’s not necessarily the way they were brought up, but they take the responsibility of being a father seriously. They have difficulties, especially in this economy, but they’re good solid people who are doing their best under difficult circumstances, so we continue to support them.
“They call me on my birthday. To be called ‘Dad’ is really a neat thing.”
Though the McCullens have no way of really knowing this side of heaven how many children’s lives they’ve touched, Joe says “there are hundreds living now because of [Eleanor’s] involvement.”
Eleanor can tell you about some twins she’s very fond of, though.
One of them is named Eleanor. And another is named Joe.
Karla Dial is a contributing editor to Citizen and CitizenLink Daily News.