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Cardinal O'Connor calls them 'his greatest legacy'
BY John Burger
NEW YORK—It was an unusual way to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of a religious community, but for this community it was appropriate. John Cardinal O'Connor baptized a three-week-old boy in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, five years to the day after he established the Sisters of Life. Two of the sisters, dressed in long white-and-blue habits, accompanied the boy's single mother — a woman they had helped in a trying time.
That was part of what Cardinal O'Connor, the archbishop of New York, envisioned when he founded the Sisters of Life — protecting and promoting the sacredness of human life, from the earliest stages of development to the last breath.
That effort would be done in many ways, he said, but mostly through prayer. He often explains his motivation by quoting the Gospel passage in which Christ tells his apostles, “This kind of demon is cast out only by prayer and fasting.” The demons of abortion and contraception have proven to be thoroughly entrenched in society, and euthanasia is gaining ground. The cardinal, who prayed about founding the congregation for five years, felt God was raising up a religious community to pray and work exclusively for their “casting out.”
He announced his intentions in 1989, in a column in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York. The response was good — and continues to be. Today there are 40 sisters in the group, which has the official status of a pious association of the faithful. Their quick growth is phenomenal at a time when many religious communities have very few vocations.
One of the first eight women who entered June 1, 1991, was a professor of psychology at Columbia University, who is now known as Mother Agnes Mary Donovan SV (Soror Vitae, Latin for Sister of Life). Mother Agnes has lead the community since 1993, and last month, in the presence of the cardinal, became the first to profess perpetual vows.
“Today is a wonderful day for all of us, a day to celebrate the love of God,” she told a congregation of nearly 1,000 persons in St. Frances de Chantal Church in the Bronx, next to the first convent.
The community of 24 professed sisters and 14 novices also welcomed a new candidate and postulant. Of the 28 women who attended a discernment retreat the cardinal gave during the Fourth of July weekend, more candidates are expected to enter the congregation in December and February.
Bishop George Lynch, retired as auxiliary of the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., and, to many, a hero in the pro-life movement, noted that prayer is important to the sisters.
“They're very careful not to let anything interfere with their prayer life,” he told the Register.
Bishop Lynch, whose home is not far from the sisters’ Bronx convents, added that their prayer presence has provided moral support to him while rescuing at abortion clinics.
Father Joseph Koterski SJ, editor of the International Philosophical Quarterly at Fordham University and a regular confessor for the sisters, said, “They have a clear vision of how they can serve the Church by their prayer for the defense of life and their work in various ways in support of life.”
Sister Lucy Vasile SV, part of the original group, said that many women who come to the Sisters of Life are attracted to the emphasis on prayer.
“Many of us have been engaged in pro-life work, but that's not as important as prayer,” she told the Register. “Many feel drawn to living a traditional religious life. One of their first questions is, ‘What is your prayer life like?’ They want to sacrifice of themselves. They know that ultimately the victory will come through that.”
Cardinal O'Connor, who has said that the Sisters of Life are the legacy he will most proudly leave to the archdiocese, wrote guidelines and rules for the community. He often tells the sisters that a religious community can be formed only in the eucharistic Lord and that it is called to be a model of family life based on the model of Nazareth.
“He believes that one of the reasons for abortion is the breakdown of the family,” said Sister Lucy. “So our superior is called Mother for a particular reason. It's a beautiful word that is losing some of its original connotation in our society, and we want to bring it back.”
An active-contemplative congregation, the Sisters of Life spend half the day in common and private prayer, including Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the rosary. The community is discerning whether God wants them to begin a contemplative branch, and some sisters spend three months at a time feeling out the contemplative life.
The sisters recently opened a third convent, the first outside the Bronx. Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent on Manhattan's West Side will also be a home for women in crisis pregnancies. Up to 10 mothers will stay there throughout their pregnancy and for a month after birth, a time Mother Agnes called “critical.” They will receive counseling from the eight nuns there.
A trained psychologist specializing in child development and family issues, Mother Agnes sees the home as a place for women in crisis to be able to live in a “Catholic culture” for a while, especially if they are experiencing pressure to abort. Cardinal O'Connor had suggested that the home be a “holy respite” for women who are struggling with temptations, she said.
Other apostolates include retreats for mothers, monthly days of prayer and healing for men and women who have suffered the effects of abortion, and classroom presentations on chastity.
At Our Lady of New York Convent in the Bronx, next to a Catholic high school, they run the Stanton Library, with holdings donated by Dr. Joseph Stanton, a leading voice in the pro-life movement, a year before his death in 1997.
Many of the sisters have highly professional backgrounds — engineering, medicine, teaching — but they would all be “great wives and mothers,” Sister Lucy opined. “To be a good Sister of Life, you have to be a good mother. A mother sacrifices tremendously. [Cardinal O'Connor] always talks to us about spiritual mothering — both to the mothers in crisis pregnancies and the fathers who come to us and, through prayer, the children in the womb.”
Candidates come from all over the country and overseas, many because they heard Cardinal O'Connor speak of the community in pro-life talks, some having been referred by a parish priest. Sister Lucy said good candidates come prepared to live the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and — especially — obedience.
“There is a disregard for human life today because of disobedience to God's laws,” she explained. “We tend to believe that we know better: ‘my body, my choice, my everything.’ We try to counter that by living lives of obedience.”
The sisters also take a fourth vow — to defend human life against abortion and euthanasia.
Formation includes study, as well as hands-on work in a hospital or nursing home in order to recognize the sacredness of every life in every condition.
They wear traditional habits, take religious names upon becoming novices, and are led by a “superior general,” not a president or a “leadership team.”
The habits “witness to the reality of God in the world,” Mother Agnes explained.
“It reminds us that we are called to live a very radical life,” added Sister Lucy. “It can be a source of grace to people, a reminder of God. We love wearing it. It's very feminine, and we want to restore the true meaning of femininity. The true power of a woman is one who is centered on Christ. Our Lady was a beautiful model of femininity, and we try to imitate that.”
Father James Downey, director of the Institute on Religious Life in Chicago, predicted that the Sisters of Life will have a “great impact” on the perception people have of consecrated life. The sisters say that that has already begun. People stop them on the street or in supermarkets and ask for prayers. Children in the neighborhood knock on the door, asking for a rosary or instructions in how to pray it. Some are not even Catholic.
“They're a very fine community, completely faithful to the teachings of the Church,” Father Downey said. “They have a great spirit. They're the Sisters of Life, and they are full of life.”
Their joy is contagious. Cardinal O'Connor often tells the group — and those considering entering — that there can be no Sisters of Life without joy.
“They enter the life expecting to receive the joy that Christ gives,” Sister Lucy said, “and many times, that joy comes through great sacrifice.”
For more information about the Sisters of Life, contact the order at 718-863-2264.
John Burger writes from New York.