Carmelite Father Joseph Nielson, 76, formerly of Marylake Monastery in Little Rock, moved to Texas in February for health reasons. He resides at the Villa de San Antonio, a retirement and assisted living community run by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago.
Longtime friend Susan Holmes of Little Rock has spoken with the priest by phone since his Feb. 11 move. She said he has a room on the first floor and no stairs to climb, which was not the case at Marylake and one of the major reasons he left. Father Nielson uses a walker to get around and had fallen several times in recent months.
"Anyone else would have been in a wheelchair by now," she said. "He has insisted on remaining as mobile as possible."
At his new home, Father Nielson is the only priest in residence. There he is able hear confessions, offer anointing of the sick and celebrate Mass, she said.
"He said he is doing well," Holmes said. "He keeps a Carmelite schedule as much as possible and devotes himself to prayer at regular portions of the day."
Father Nielson, a native of New York City, first came to Marylake in 1952 as a novice. Though he lived and worked elsewhere through the years, his connection to Arkansas remained unbroken. He returned to Marylake twice, most recently in 2002. His departure, though planned for some time, leaves a big hole not easily filled.
A big impact on others
For the past 36 years Father Nielson has fought against abortion. His efforts led the way for the first Little Rock March for Life in 1978, and the establishment of St. Joseph's Helpers, a crisis pregnancy center in 1980 and Abba House, a shelter for pregnant women and their children in 1981. He also helped form right-to-life chapters in North Little Rock in 1977 and Benton in 1978.
"When we looked around us, whether people knew it or not, we can virtually trace everyone's involvement in pro-life back to Father Joseph," Holmes said.
Jacki Ragan, of the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C., said Father Nielson is the reason she got involved in the pro-life movement.
Today she is director of the State Organizational Development Department for the National Right to Life, but in the fall of 1976 she was a stay-at-home mom and parishioner at Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock.
A friend had gone to confession to Father Nielson and her penance was to attend a "pro-life meeting" and Ragan was asked to tag along. What Ragan learned at that meeting kept her from sleeping at night and she knew she had to do something. She eventually went to Father Nielson and he invited her to join him in talking to women outside the former abortion clinic on Markham Street in Little Rock.
They went on Fridays and held a sign which read, "Mother, please let your baby live. We'll help you. Stop and talk," Ragan recalled. To her knowledge, 34 babies were saved from that effort alone.
About a month later, Father Nielson asked Ragan to speak to a local school about their work. Afraid of his request, she told him she was not qualified or knowledgeable enough to give the talk.
Father Nielson responded, "'Oh sure, I understand that. Let's see, how many babies are going to die while you're educating yourself?'"
Needless to say she gave the talk. "He had that way about him. He did so much that you couldn't tell him no," Ragan said.
In 1977 Father Nielson helped her form North Pulaski Pro-Life, the first right-to-life chapter in the Little Rock area. It was based out of Immaculate Conception Church.
Ragan said she told Father Nielson she wanted to have a March for Life in Little Rock and he agreed but ask her to make this commitment in return.
"'You have to make up your mind, that if it's just you and I, if we're the only two that show up that we'll still march,'" she said.
She agreed and went to Bishop Andrew J. McDonald who gave her permission and support. In January 1978 more than 500 people attended this first March for Life.
Loving mothers as well as their babies
Another long-time friend and pro-life volunteer Ann Covey of St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville presented the Mary Rose Doe Award to Father Nielson in 2007 at the annual Arkansas Right to Life Rose Dinner.
During her presentation on April 21, 2007, Covey recalled how the priest had arranged for her and others pray and counsel women outside Little Rock's abortion clinics in the 1970s.
"The decision to hold the march is an example of the faith, trust and confidence our honoree gave us in all we were doing," Covey said during her 2007 presentation. "As I look back on those years I am amazed at the accomplishments of our honoree. I often think of all the women and children whose lives were touched."
In a recent interview, Covey said there was no pro-life center in Little Rock in the 1970s, so Father Nielson arranged for the Carmelite Sisters of St. Teresa to open their parlor to him and others so they could counsel pregnant women they found going into abortion clinics. He also secured medical, legal and financial support for the women who chose to keep their babies. This led to the establishment of St. Joseph Helper's in 1980.
The Saline County Right to Life chapter was also created as the result of a talk Father Nielson gave in 1978 at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Benton, she added.
"Father was very insistent that when we were at the abortion clinics that we did not call out any names," Covey said in February. "He said we were not to hurt anyone's feelings. He was very firm about it. He said he would call the police on anyone who was not nice."
She said that approach always worked best. And like Ragan said, the signs they held, addressed the women as mothers.
"That first word (mother) was very important. Most of the girls going in had not thought about themselves as mothers," Covey said.
She said many years ago, Father Nielson had told her why he got involved in pro-life work. While his mother was dying, he stayed with her and after she died he took a year off to live as a hermit. At the end of his seclusion, he said God told him, through prayer, that the first person he talked to would lead him to his life's work. The first person he talked to was Father Herman Estaun who told him about the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973.
Covey said she knew the work they did could be dangerous, but she also knew she could trust Father Nielson.
"You just knew that he would stay with you, and if you were arrested, he would be with you," she said.
A prophet leading the way
Patricia Grabher of Tucson, Ariz, had similar experiences with Father Nielson beginning in 1979. She recalled how Abba House was established at the reception celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Missionaries of Charity taking over the Little Rock shelter on April 24, 2008.
Grabher said her workplace was near a former abortion clinic on 12th Street in Little Rock when she first saw Father Nielson praying outside the clinic in 1979 and she asked him if she could help. By May of that year she was taking in pregnant women who had no place to go at Father Nielson's urging. By 1981 Grabher and her husband, James, opened Abba House as a shelter for pregnant women with Father Nielson's help.
In 1982 the priest pushed to get the Missionaries of Charity to take over the home and was not surprised when their founder, Mother Teresa of Calcutta herself, visited Little Rock that June and agreed to send her sisters who arrived in 1983.
During his homily at the April 24, 2008, Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock, Bishop McDonald praised Father Nielson calling him a "deeply spiritual man of conviction steeped in prayer." He compared the priest and his "companions" to the prophet John the Baptist. When the bishop invited Mother Teresa to Arkansas, he did not think she would come, but "the 'John the Baptist' prophets were not surprised. Their faith assured them that God would hear their prayer," he said.
Ragan called Father Nielson a "truly amazing man." Around 1980 Ragan said she went to work for Catholic Social Services to organize the new adoption program for the Diocese of Little Rock. She continued to run the North Pulaski Pro-Life, which merged into Arkansas Right to Life in 1982. She then served as its director on a volunteer basis.
"You could essentially say that Father Joseph had a large hand in establishing Arkansas Right to Life," Ragan said.
She moved to Washington in 1985, losing track of Father Nielson who had been transferred to Dallas around the same time.
Despite suffering, work never ceases
In 1986 a near fatal car accident put Father Nielson, then 53, in a coma for three months followed by two years of physical and speech therapy. The formerly active priest, who was a long distance runner in his youth, was left with a severe limp which made it painful to walk. He lost his short-term memory and struggles with long-term memory, Holmes explained. Yet he retained his knowledge and teaching abilities.
"You can be talking about Scripture and he can tell you what all the words mean in Greek," Holmes said of Father Nielson.
But to remember something that happened an hour ago, he has to write it down on index cards. Some days are better than others, she explained.
"Basically the long-term memory is there, but you have to be able to supply enough to prompt it to the forefront," she added.
Since returning to Marylake in 2002, Father Nielson celebrated Mass, heard confessions and served as a spiritual director. He continued his involvement with St. Joseph's Helpers even while he lived in Dallas.
Despite his physical challenges, his pro-life ministry has never ceased. Maria Maldonado, president of the board for St. Joseph's Helpers, also known as Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center, said that with all Father Nielson has gone through, he's "always there for us."
"I can call him up on the phone any time and he will guide me and tell me what I should do and it's always what Jesus would do," she said. "He settles the problems you have in your mind and leads you to God."
Ragan said three years ago she received a letter from Father Nielson which began, "'Dear Jacki, I'm sure you don't remember me ...'".
After a long pause, she continued controlling her emotions, "That just floored me. He just had such a positive impact on my life."
They have since kept in touch, but she said he probably doesn't remember a lot of the work he did, which is very sad.
"But I think that is how he would want it, because he would never take credit for anything. He would always pass it off so someone else got the credit even if he had done all the work," Ragan said. "I think he would think it is fitting. I don't think he has any idea of the impact he's had on the right-to-life movement and on so many lives."
Holmes said Father Nielson approached his pro-life work with "an immense love for the women, not only the babies, but the women who were having the babies. Sometimes people get caught in either just looking at the women or just looking at the babies, and he had an equal emphasis on both."
From active to contemplative
In recent years, Holmes said the priest has helped her two daughters endure their own health problems.
"He's been an inspiration for how to deal with health problems. He never complained and I know he's in a lot of pain," she said. "He's unfailingly cheerful. ... I know that he offers up all of his pain and suffering for the unborn."
Even with all he accomplished before the accident, Holmes said, "his labors for the unborn never stopped. They just changed from active to contemplative."
Father Nielson has been "one of the greatest spiritual warriors" of anyone she has ever known.
"I personally think that's what has kept him going and alive is that he has continued to have this mission, but so often we look for what someone is doing actively," Holmes said.
"For one part of his life he was in an active order and it's like God took him and put him in a contemplative where his work from there has been living an intense spirituality and intense prayer life that has all been offered up for women and their children," she added.
"He has continued to be a very active participant in the spiritual battle that surrounds the abortion issue," Holmes said. "So I don't think he's been any less effective in his later years than in his earlier years. He just can't list them on a piece a paper."
Before Father Nielson left Little Rock he gave a talk on prayer for Holmes and other St. Joseph's Helpers volunteers and supporters at her home Feb. 9.
During his talk, he said the most important thing people should strive for is to please God.
"That is the Christian life. That is the religious life. That is the human life. God made us and we ought to want to please him. The best way of thanking him for having made us and loved us is to do what he wants as best we can," Father Nielson said. "Prayer is the most powerful thing you can do, because you are asking God to do something, and he can do something anywhere, anytime."
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