By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator 

In a world where messaging has taken over smartphones, computers and other electronic devices to remind us to stay safe, wash our hands and keep our distance, one ministry at a small Catholic church in Gulfport, Mississippi is joining the crowd, albeit by billboards on a busy stretch of Interstate 10.  

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This pro-life billboard is located along I-10 in Baton Rouge visible near the Acadian Thruway westbound exit. The billboard is the 10th billboard sponsored by a pro-life ministry group at St. James Catholic Church in Gulfport, Mississippi. The group plans to put up more billboards along the I-10 corridor in Texas and Florida. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 

 

Visible near the Acadian Thruway exit on westbound I-10 in Baton Rouge, a billboard shows the Blessed Mother holding the infant Jesus with the words: “Choose Life – PRAY PRAY PRAY.”  

The billboard campaign is the brainchild of Penny Sullivan, owner of a Catholic gift shop in Gulfport and a parishioner at St. James Catholic Church, also in Gulfport. Among the various items in her store was one particularly moving statuette of the Virgin Mary.  

Sullivan’s energy and love of the Blessed Mother was evident in her voice during a recent telephone interview. She said she had previously attempted to get involved in the pro-life movement but her efforts did not gain traction. A year ago, after her husband had passed away and she had dealt with a family crisis, Sullivan was inspired to try again, this time with a powerful image to spread the word.  

“It’s really beautiful,” said Sullivan, referring to the statuette. “I have a wonderful collection of the Blessed Mother and baby Jesus and the Holy Family, but everybody loves this particular one. So we decided, the way the governors are treating pro-life, we had to do something. So I thought we’d let the Blessed Mother work for us, let her intercede because people love the statuette.”  

She shared her idea with St. James pastor Father Charles Nutter who suggested she change her slogan from “Life is beautiful” to “Choose Life.” Several fellow parishioners felt the same way about the pro-life movement, with some pointing out the pro-choice messages, including late-term abortion options of up to 9 months, advertised on billboards.  

“We thought, ‘Now is not the time to be silent. We need to speak out,’ ” said committee member Karen Rhodes. “But how do you do that? And so we talked to (Father Nutter) about going into the churches and asking for a second collection, and we did this with (Bishop Louis F. Kihneman III’s) approval. The outpouring was unbelievable.”   

After sharing the idea at two local churches, the billboard ministry raised enough money to put up two billboards in Gulfport for one year. Visits to 16 churches across the Gulf Coast brought in enough donations to pay for 10 additional billboards along the I-10 corridor, including the one in Baton Rouge.  

The message also adorned some New Orleans city buses during Mardi Gras this year.  

Social media has also attracted new groups to join the cause, including the Knights of Columbus in Meridian, Mississippi, who paid for their own billboard to share the “Choose Life” message.  

Sullivan also spreads the message with her customers, asking if they have contacts who would be interested in putting up a billboard in other cities. Such an encounter led to a billboard paid for by a group in Lafayette. And now the billboard ministry is making plans to head to Texas and Florida.  

“We believe the ministry of the pro-life billboards is so important because we never know the personal circumstances, or emotions someone is going through,” said Father Nutter. “We believe something as simple as a billboard may be able to allow God to reach a specific person at exactly when and where they need it. If the billboard ministry saves just one infant life, it is worth it.”  

Rhodes explained the billboards are making a difference in ways that cannot always be known. After one speech at a church, the group was approached by a worker from an adoption agency who said, “I want y’all to know there was a lady headed to Mobile (Alabama) to get an abortion pill, and she said she saw your billboard and she turned right around and came to the adoption center and said, ‘I want to put my baby up for adoption.’ ”  

“So a lot of times we don’t know how many times it happens unless we hear the story but to us that was a sign that we are saving babies’ lives by putting this billboard up,” Rhodes said.  

The movement is also attracting volunteers from all walks and all stations of life, according to Sullivan. She said a 92-year-old man who makes a birdhouse per day from recycled materials plans to donate the money he earns to the ministry.  

“I just want to say to everybody, they don’t realize how enjoyable it is to work with pro-life and the response on the billboards has been incredible,” said Sullivan, who is busy running her shop and spending time with her three children and eight grandchildren. “Anyone who is depressed and is not serving in their church, they need to chitchat with us.”  

Sullivan, who grew up in Cottonport and lived in New Orleans before moving to Mississippi, said she is encouraged by the response since the billboard ministry began. She said the goal is to put up “Choose Life” billboards across the country and beyond, “in the areas the Blessed Mother is opening the doors.”  

“It’s just a matter of we have to do what we have to do, we can be silent no longer because so many babies are being aborted,” said Sullivan. “And all these babies have beautiful missions, we have to do something or we’re going to be accountable. (St.) Mother Teresa said if we don’t stop abortion, God is not going to bless America – that’s enough for me.  

“And we’re in the millions and all these beautiful little children are being aborted because we’re not doing enough.”  

For more information on the pro-life billboard ministry, contact St. James Catholic Church at 228-896-6059.