The consistent life ethic is more than just a catch phrase or a philosophy for Deacon Jerry Skerrett and his wife, Lee. For the Wayne County couple, it's a way of life.
For decades the Skerretts have been committed to living out the consistent life ethic, which is the principle that urges Catholics to affirm life from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. In fact, in 1996 Lee Skerrett was one of the first recipients of the Diocese of Rochester's new Vita Award, which is given each year to individuals who have shown deep commitments to the consistent life ethic and made outstanding contributions in support of the dignity of life.
This past October, Deacon Skerrett's name was added to the list of those who've won the prestigious award since its inception. Deacon Skerrett received the 2011 Vita Award during a surprise -- for him, at least -- ceremony at the end of the Oct. 27 Respect Life Dinner, which was sponsored by Catholic Charities of Wayne County in conjunction with Knights of Columbus Council 897, Finger Lakes Area Right to Life and Birthright of Ontario.
Deacon Skerrett arrived at the dinner that evening with no idea he'd be leaving as a Vita Award winner. He was looking forward to the scheduled talks by Rochester-area pro-life advocate Carol Crossed, who spoke about feminist history and abortion, and local Catholic Dorina Hayes, a member of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, who talked about her own experience with abortion. Deacon Skerrett didn't think anything was amiss when Deacon Timothy Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of Wayne County, stood up after the women had finished speaking and walked to the front of the room with something in his hand.
"Right at the end of it he pulled this thing out and made the presentation," Deacon Skerrett recalled. "It was a big, big surprise. I had no idea whatsoever."
Deacon Sullivan said he's been impressed by the Skerretts ever since he met them two years ago at Birthright of Ontario. Lee Skerrett is director of the crisis-pregnancy agency and Deacon Skerrett is chairman of the agency's board of directors.
"It was obvious that this was truly a labor of love for Jerry and Lee," Deacon Sullivan told the Catholic Courier. "There was nothing flashy about their operation. They were grateful for every single resource available to them."
Deacon Sullivan said it was clear to him that the Skerretts were not interested in any recognition for themselves, but truly cared for the women they served through Birthright.
"For so many years they have devoted countless hours serving the needs of pregnant women in distressed situations. As important as any specific assistance they provided was the inspiring example of Christian marriage and teamwork they have presented to everyone who knows or observes them," he said.
The Skerretts helped found Birthright of Ontario in the 1980s, said Deacon Skerrett, who with his wife belongs to St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Wayne County. In the mid-1980s Father Anthony Mugavero was assistant pastor at St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Ontario, which now is one of St. Maximilian Kolbe's three worship sites. Father Mugavero asked a woman affiliated with a Birthright agency in the Southern Tier to speak at the parish, and after listening to the woman the Skerretts felt compelled to open a similar agency in their own area. Inspired, they recruited a few like-minded individuals and set about opening Birthright of Ontario.
"We started it on Main Street in Ontario, and it's been there ever since. We've been with it ever since," Deacon Skerrett said.
The agency supports women who are pregnant as well as those who've recently given birth by providing maternity and baby clothes, as well as diapers and other baby supplies, he said. These mothers are welcome to take these supplies free of charge, and the mothers don't need to meet any income requirements, he added.
"Women who are going through problem pregnancy situations, it's a terrible emotional strain on them," Deacon Skerrett observed.
This strain is somewhat relieved when the women realize they have somewhere to go to find help in providing for their babies. The mothers also are relieved to find caring, compassionate people to talk to at Birthright, he added.
"It makes a big difference in facing the whole situation," Deacon Skerrett said. "And it's not just for problem pregnancies. We have married couples who come in, too."
Deacon Skerrett also ministered to Wayne County's migrant community for many years, helping migrant farmworkers obtain food, clothing and places to stay. He also tried to meet the migrants' social needs by helping to organize coffee hours after Mass so members of the farmworker community could gather to relax and socialize, he said. The Skerretts have been heavily involved in Stephen Ministry at St. Maximilian Kolbe for more than two decades, and they've also spent countless hours visiting sick members of the parish as well as those confined to their homes or nursing homes.
"It kept us happy," Deacon Skerrett said.