On Wednesdays when we prayer advocates stand at the abortion facility on 512 1st Avenue North in Fargo, we occasionally brush up against, or at least stand near, the building harboring the equipment, tools and personnel for the only abortion-performing operation in our state.
As much as we dislike what happens there, the Kopelman building has been at times a refuge. In its cover, I’ve often found relief in the shade it provides on a hot summer day, or reprieve from extreme wind or cold.
I’ve frequently felt conflicted about this edifice, because while we mourn the deeds within, it has offered that protection from the elements we commonly need to withstand a few hours on the sidewalk. Of course, the building itself is a neutral structure that had no say in what it would become.
Despite its inhuman nature, like every structure, the Kopelman building does have a human story, and I’m likely not the first to have wondered about the history of this building where we reluctantly meet each Wednesday.
Who is Kopelman? What is the humanity at the heart of this building’s beginning?
Though I’ve only begun to uncover the details, in some initial digging, I’ve found some interesting tidbits, gleaned from the North Dakota State University archives.
The Kopelman building emerged around 1906, at the lead of Mr. Jacob Kopelman, a Jewish wig maker, providing a second home to his family’s wig business. When he died just two years after the building came into existence, his wife, Lena, assumed ownership.
Lena, the mother of six children, was pregnant at the time of Jacob’s death, and needed an income to support her family. A skilled wig and hair-switch maker, she reopened the store as Kopelman’s Beauty Shop, one of the first such businesses in Fargo.
In the basement of her store, Lena ran a “mikvah,” or plunge bath, for Jewish women to purify themselves. The mikvah is a cleansing ritual for Jewish women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth, before they and their husbands resume marital relations. For $1 a dip, Lena provided towels, water and soap.
At her death in 1947, Lena’s daughter Rose took over the shop, eventually turning the business into a men’s formal-wear store, along with selling the beauty products. Then, in around 1972, Knights Formal Wear bought the Kopelman building, which, in 1984, was renovated into a restaurant. The building sat vacant from 1996 to 2000, at which point it became the Red River Women’s Clinic.
What struck me when learning of the building’s origins was the activity that took place in its lower level: the very building currently used to separate tiny children from their mother’s wombs and bring about death once served to cleanse and purify women who had just given birth.
That reality stops me cold. It makes me feel that if walls could talk, the Kopelman building would not only tell stories of the most paradoxical nature, but they would weep in the telling.
A building that gave women a chance to feel refreshed after the very difficult labor of bringing new life into the world now has as its main goal ending life at its most innocent and vulnerable stages. The women who come find themselves not rejuvenated, but sent away with a brown paper bag with instructions on how to deal with any unfortunate physical effects.
My heart hurts to think of this, and yet it’s good to be aware. If we pause long enough to look back and see the past, perhaps we can be better guided into the future.
The Kopelman building is no spring chicken. Her paint has been peeling away for a while now, her concrete face crumbling. She’ll likely be fully refurbished, abandoned, or torn down at some point in the future.
What will be her ultimate legacy?
I think of the former Planned Parenthood building in Texas where Abby Johnson experienced a conversion and left to become a prolife advocate; it’s now been made into what’s been described as a “pro-life haven for women in crisis pregnancy” called Hope Pregnancy Center. Other facilities have experienced the same edifying fate, including those in Michigan and Iowa.
Perhaps it’s not too late for the Kopelman building to become, once again, a life-giving structure. We can only hope and pray.
[Note: I write about my experiences on the sidewalk Downtown Fargo on Wednesday, the day abortions happen at our state’s only abortion facility, for New Earth magazine — the official news publication of the Fargo Diocese. I hope you find “Sidewalk Stories” helpful in understanding the truth about abortion and how it plays out tragically each week here in Fargo, N.D. The preceding ran in New Earth’s July 2018 issue.]