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Cross the Bridge for Life turns 13; no end of growth in sight for joyful event

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By Gail Finke

With little publicity, an annual family celebration of the gift of life continues to grow. 

Thousands assemble in Newport every year for Cross the Bridge for Life, a hybrid event that’s part street festival and part fitness walk – with prayer, food, music, and family activities along the riverbank thrown in for good measure. Conceived as an interfaith, family friendly day for people from both sides of the Ohio River to celebrate life at every age and stage, the event outgrew its original home at the foot of the World Peace Bell years ago, and growth shows no sign of slowing down. 

 “The idea was to have a huge presence in the area – not with a protest, not with a demonstration, but with a celebration of God’s gift of life,” said Karen Riegler, one of the event’s founders. Then head of the pro-life office for the Diocese of Covington, Riegler is now retired but continues to help plan and run the festival.

The idea, she said, came from a coalition of pro-life groups on both sides of the river. “We wanted it to be for all ages and non-denominational,” she explained. “Right from the beginning we had music, face painting, and clowns. We wanted to fill the Purple People Bridge with the joy of life.”

No one knew how many would turn out 13 years ago, but the plaza beneath the bell was filled with people and the crowd for the walk, led by Covington’s Bishop Roger Foys, stretched across the bridge. “We were so excited,” Riegler said. “Bishop Foys said, ‘This is exciting, this is important, this is something we need to continue.’”

Paula Westwood, executive director of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, was at that event and active in planning it. “We wanted to be very visible,” she said. “We’ve learned that if we do not stay visible, people will forget about us. We want people to know there is a lot of help out there for women and children and families on many fronts.”

Produced by busy volunteers on a shoestring budget, the festival quickly began to overflow the Peace Bell’s plaza and block busy streets. Soon it needed a new location, an official home for tax purposes, a permanent steering committee, and significant sponsorship. 

Although ecumenical, for legal purposes it’s now co-sponsored by the Diocese of Covington and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The pro-life coalition has grown to 24 members and an event committee works on development, outreach, and sponsorship. Now held at the Newport Festival Grounds below Newport on the Levy, the event features the signature walk, an array of booths from pro-life and life-supporting organizations, food trucks (a picnic with free burgers, once provided by a sponsor, had to end because of changes in food regulations), a keynote speaker, and a short prayer service. Knights of Columbus and a pipe and drum corps from the Ancient Order of Hibernians lead the walk across the bridge and back, and members of the American Heritage Girls present the colors.

Volunteer Jackie Vezina, president of Lutherans for Life at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Florence, Kentucky, works hard to invite pro-life churches from other traditions. Most attendees seem to come from Catholic parishes, she said, but it’s difficult to tell — everyone who comes receives a matching t-shirt.

It’s grown so much it’s phenomenal,” she said. “I hope I’ve had luck getting the word out that everyone is welcome. This is an issue for all people who value life.”

This year Bobby Schindler will be the presenter at the short opening program. President of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, he is an international advocate for medically vulnerable people and their families. Both Bishop Roger Foys and Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr will also offer prayers and participate in the walk.

“It’s wonderful to have both bishops come,” Westwood said. “There really isn’t anything this big that we can see our bishops at – people may hear about them attending the March for Life, but this is probably the biggest thing locally where we can see them, and it’s really touching to see young people want to meet them and shake their hands.”

Bob Wurzelbacher, director of respect life ministries for the archdiocese, said the event is “the number one big pro-life event in the area. I don’t know of anything else that even comes close.

“Two to three thousand people come,” he added. “It’s a festival atmosphere that’s fun for children, but also, if you’ve ever been curious about any of the pro-life issues, this is your chance to find out about them. Now, as ‘assisted suicide’ is starting to seem like a good idea to a lot of people, it’s a crucial time to be aware of the beauty of life at all stages, and this is a celebration of the joy of life.”

 “We are so grateful for our sponsors,” Reigler said. “The dioceses keep the wheels moving, the coalition keeps the event humming, the Newport Police are wonderful, and we’ve been blessed with great weather. Easter Rising has been playing for the past few years and everyone seems to love them. Some people have been coming every year, and now they bring their whole families. 

“It’s a wonderful event.”

Cross the Bridge for Life 2018 runs from 1-4 p.m. on June 3; a brief program at 2 p.m. will be followed immediately by the walk across the bridge and back. Activities, food, and music will be held before and after the walk; for information visit CrosstheBridgeforLife.org.

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