MILWAUKEE (CNS) — Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki said the life and work of Project Rachel founder Vicki Thorn, who died unexpectedly April 20, stand “as a living testimony to an unwavering and unconditional defense of life at all stages, and to the mercy of God’s love.”
Thorn was 72. The Catholic Herald, Milwaukee’s archdiocesan newspaper, reported that she died of a massive heart attack. Funeral arrangements were pending.
As the founder of the post-abortion healing ministry Project Rachel, she single-handedly created a post-abortion healing ministry at a time when none existed. She maintained an office at the Milwaukee archdiocesan pastoral center for 37 years.
During that time, her ministry expanded across the U.S. and around the world. Now overseen by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Project Rachel is a diocesan-based network of specially trained priest confessors, mental health professionals, spiritual directors and others who provide ongoing, one-on-one confidential post-abortion care.
In an April 20 statement, Archbishop Listecki said he and the pastoral center staff offered “our deepest condolences” to Thorn’s husband of 50 years, William, and the couple’s six children.
William Thorn is associate professor emeritus of journalism and media studies/Institute for Catholic Media at Jesuit-run Marquette University’s Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.
“Our hearts are breaking as we mourn Vicki Thorn, founder of the post-abortion healing ministry Project Rachel, & recipient of the 2021 @NotreDame Evangelium Vitae Medal. May she rest in peace,” tweeted the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.
Thorn, who also was executive director of the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing, received the Evangelium Vitae Medal at a Mass and banquet in April 2021.
COVID-19 caused the presentation to be delayed a year; she was to receive the honor in April 2020, but in March of that year, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a worldwide pandemic.
The annual honor is always announced on Respect Life Sunday, the first Sunday of October, and usually presented the following spring. The award consists of a specially commissioned medal and $10,000 prize.
Thorn, a certified trauma counselor and spiritual director, started Project Rachel in 1984 while working in the Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The first training workshop for a small group of attendees was held Sept. 19, 1984.
In a 2021 YouTube video produced by the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture when Thorn was honored with the Evangelium Vitae Medal, she described the reaction she often received after being introduced as a speaker.
“All of a sudden (a) woman will come up to me and she’ll say say, ‘May I give you a hug?’ And she’ll just wrap her arms around me and hold me very tight,” she said. “She’ll whisper in my ear, ‘Thank you.’ And I know what the story is: She had had an abortion and Project Rachel restored her.”
She grew up in a very devout Catholic family in Rome, Minnesota. When she was a junior at Our Lady of Lourdes School, she learned something that was life-changing for her: a very close classmate had had an abortion between her sophomore and junior year, arranged by this classmate’s mother.
“This was a very, very painful experience for her and she was emotional mess,” Thorn recalled. “All I could do was love her and be present to her. But it was a life-changing experience for me — that abortion was not a nonevent. It left enormous footprints in someone’s life and left enormous pain.”
“I just kept thinking what could we do? How might we help her? And then it dawned on me we could offer counseling to people who had abortions,” she said. This led her to start Project Rachel for women and men who’ve lost children to abortion. “There were so many people who knew somebody who was wounded that it spread like wildfire.”
Mary Hallan FioRito, the Cardinal Francis George fellow at the de Nicola center, described Thorn “as the heart of the pro-life movement.”
“She is someone one who is able to see Christ in every person she encounters,” she said. “She has really developed an entire new way of not just the Catholic Church but other denominations across the globe looking at the question of abortion, looking at how you meet a woman where she is to be able to help her. … And that’s what Project Rachel is all about.”
Thorn “saw the need to bring together the spiritual component of healing along with the psychological,” Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, then chairman of the bishops’ pro-life committee, said in the video.
“It helped the church see more clearly that the women are the second victims of abortion. She had this call, this unique to call to help the church do this essential part better — to communicate the mercy of God,” he said.
Thorn was the author of “Progetto Rachele, il volto della compassione” (“Project Rachel, The Face of Compassion”), published in 2009 by Libreria Editrice Vaticana. She wrote numerous article and spoke internationally about Project Rachel and the effects of the aftermath of abortion on women, men and family members and about the post-abortion healing process.
With her husband, she was inducted in 2008 into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. In 2009, she received the People of Life Award from the USCCB for her pro-life service to the Catholic Church, and in 2017, Pope Francis reappointed her as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. She was first named to the academy in 2011.
Thorn had a degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota. She was a bereavement facilitator trained by the American Academy of Bereavement and a perinatal loss facilitator certified by Resolve Through Sharing.
She earned her certification in trauma counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and was a longtime member of the Association of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health.
Additionally, she wrote and spoke about the sociological changes in society since 1960 and “the spiritual and psychological wounds” carried by Gen X and Gen Y as a result of those changes. She also wrote about the role of stress in making abortion decisions and ways to help women in crisis pregnancies.
Lately, she had been giving presentations to high school groups, college students and adult groups on her recent research on the topic of the “Biology of the Theology of the Body.”
Thorn was a member of St. Catherine Parish in Milwaukee. Besides her husband and children, she is survived by 19 grandchildren.
“We as Christians, as Catholics, are called, I think, to be evangelists but also … to be involved in truly caring about people,” Thorn said in the de Nicola Center’s video. “God’s mercy is bigger than anything we can do and for us to be able to promote God’s mercy to people who are really very, very emotionally hurt is so important.
“But it’s that importance of recognizing that God is there for everyone and there is nothing bigger we can do that is bigger than God’s grace and God’s mercy.”