JOYFUL LIFE. Above, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York with the sisters; below, the sisters with Mother Agnes Mary Donovan and those they have helped, including the littlest. Courtesy of the Sisters of Life
On a winter day outside of Planned Parenthood in New York City, the Sisters of Life lead a small group in praying the Rosary. A car pulls into the lot; a sister smiles and motions for the crying, pregnant passenger to speak with her.
“I turn around and see these two nuns in full habit kneeling besides this car window, literally on their knees in the dirty snow in the cold, offering this wailing mom anything she needs ... housing, a job, a doctor, a friend. That image stays with me. It’s what they do over and over throughout our city.”
So described Lou Seelak, who often works with the Sisters of Life in encouraging pregnant moms to keep their babies.
In the religious institute’s 25 years, the Sisters of Life (SistersofLife.org) have walked alongside 10,000 women through their pregnancies and beyond, offering practical, emotional and spiritual support. They find that 90% of women who are given adequate support choose life for their children. In addition to their mission to vulnerable pregnant women, they offer post-abortion healing, evangelization and diocesan respect-life work.
When New York Archbishop John O’Connor founded the order 25 years ago, he pledged that any pregnant woman who needed help could come to the Church through the Sisters of Life and be met with aid and mercy. He wanted men and women who felt like their lives had ended with the abortion of their children to come to know healing and peace through the love of Jesus Christ, as well.
“At the heart of the vocation of a Sister of Life is the call to love as Christ loves,” the bishop said. “A sister has an awareness that no one is excluded from Christ’s love. ... Both in prayer and apostolic activities, she is a sign that ‘love casts out fear’” (1 John 4:18).
During a visit to the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, then Bishop-Elect O’Connor placed his hands inside the brick crematoria oven and “felt the intermingled ashes of Jew and Christian, rabbi, priest and minister.” Struck to the heart, he proclaimed, “Good God, how could human beings do this to other human beings?” In that instant, he received a life-transforming grace and vowed to do all he could from that moment forward to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life.
As archbishop of New York a few years later, he prayed to understand why the efforts of the pro-life cause were not more successful. The Scripture passage “This kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer and fasting” and the idea for a new religious order dedicated to life formed in his mind.
So he placed a help-wanted ad in New York’s archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York, followed by similar posts throughout the country: “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” He stated, “If it is the work of the Holy Spirit, it will work. If it isn’t, it won’t.” Eight women entered the newly formed community on June 1, 1991. Among those was Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, the first superior general of the Sisters of Life.
“The occasion of the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Sisters of Life by John Cardinal O’Connor in New York City calls all of us sisters to: remember the abundance of God’s grace received over the past 25 years; give gratitude to God, to the many other religious communities, priests, volunteers and friends who have played a significant role in the formation of our sisters; and desire to deepen our living and joyful proclamation of the charism of life,” Mother Agnes said in a statement to the Register.
“We thank God for the first 25 years of grace, and look forward with joy to live vibrantly the gift we have received.”
By 1994, the Sisters of Life had five temporary professed members and one convent, and they were assisting pregnant women in crisis. A second convent opened for pregnant women to live with the sisters. “Entering Canaan” retreats, for those women and men who suffer after abortion, began in 1996. The Dr. Stanton Human Life Issues Library was formed to house archival material documenting the history of the pro-life movement, which serves as a resource for scholars, catechists, parents and students engaged in pro-life work. Two years later, a third convent, Sacred Heart of Jesus, was added so that pregnant women could live as guests of the sisters.
On May 3, 2000, Cardinal O’Connor died, leaving in good hands his vision of a religious order that endeavors to see each human person as a precious and unique image of God.
A fourth convent, St. Paul the Apostle, opened in 2001; and the following year, Cardinal Edward Egan, Cardinal O’Connor’s successor, requested the Sisters of Life to direct and staff the Archdiocesan Family Life/Respect Life Office.
From a fledgling community of eight, today there are nearly 100 Sisters of Life. The majority are from the United States; 12 are Canadian, two are Australian, two are from New Zealand, one is Irish, and one is Spanish.
Each year, there are two “Come and See” retreats for young women considering the vocation. The community has a nine-month postulancy and a two-year novitiate, followed by a period of temporary vows and then perpetual profession. Besides vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, a fourth vow is taken to protect and advance a sense of the sacredness of human life.
Loving the Pregnant Woman
When the sisters invite women to live with them as their guests in their convents, the beautiful witness of the sisters aids the women’s faith and gives them hope.
The sisters started a new RCIA program specifically for the women they serve. “Most of these women aren’t able to keep up with a typical parish RCIA program, between their pregnancy or baby and work,” cited Sister Mary Elizabeth. This past June, Auxiliary Bishop John O’Hara of New York baptized, confessed and confirmed 15 of the moms and some of their children.
Ewa Anziano is a mother who is grateful for the Sisters of Life.
“From the moment I met them, they’ve been like a family,” she said. “The sisters came and picked up my things from the shelter and brought me to the convent. When my baby was coming, they took me to the hospital, and one sister stayed with me all night. They helped me with all kinds of resources, and with diapers and clothes.”
The spiritual support has been a blessing, too.
“Often, I didn’t make time for church before I lived with the sisters,” she recalled. “Now, it’s so important to me. Every year, we have Thanksgiving, Christmas and Mother’s Day with them. They are like aunts to my son Dennis [now 7].”
“Luckily, I was given the number of the Visitation Mission [the sisters’ outreach to pregnant moms], and I was pretty much out of hope when I spoke to them. Now I am living in a safe place. I start college in the fall,” shared grateful mom Carey.
“Everything turned out better than all right. I will never regret this decision. I will never mourn the loss of my child. I made a choice I can live with,” added Rachel.
Centered on Prayer
“The center of our ministry is prayer. We want to be a powerhouse of prayer behind the pro-life effort across the country. Cardinal O’Connor was clear that our order was to be a mix of contemplative and apostolic work. He believed that, over the course of the centuries, the Holy Spirit has raised up communities to respond to the most urgent needs of the time. He believed the Holy Spirit was inspiring this charism for our time,” explained Sister Mary Elizabeth.
The sisters devote themselves to prayer four and a half hours a day, from Mass and the Rosary for all those engaged in pro-life work to adoration, private prayer and the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
“Out of our prayer and union with Christ in the Eucharist flows his grace through our different apostolates. The cardinal saw this in light of the mystery of the Visitation. When Mary received Jesus, she was propelled to go forth to help Elizabeth. In the presence of Christ, we can then carry out his grace to all we see, so it can penetrate hearts and minds,” Sister Mary Elizabeth said. “We pray for a restoration in our society of the sacredness of life.”
As a means of eliminating distraction and building community and the culture of life, there is no TV, Internet or radio in the convents. The young women become close to one another and to the sisters they live with, immersed in a community of love and prayer. Guests are invited, but not required, to join in daily prayers and Mass.
After giving birth, guests are invited to remain at the convent for another six months to plan and prepare for a new beginning with their children.
From the beginning, a retreat house was envisioned for the community. Thanks to the generosity of the Knights of Columbus, Villa Maria Guadalupe Retreat House in Stamford, Conn., now hosts post-abortion healing retreats, seminars on life issues, young-adult retreats, evenings of recollection and retreats for priests, couples and families. Recently, staff from 17 crisis-pregnancy centers in the tri-state area came for a conference and retreat.
“Entering Canaan” retreats are led by the Sisters of Life, along with women who have experienced both the suffering of abortion and the joy of healing in Christ. The retreats are directed by faithful priests who have a sensitivity and a heart for those who suffer. They include witnesses of mercy, Scripture sharing, personal prayer, opportunities for sacramental confession and Mass.
“I remember the days before my own healing, terrified to walk into a church, certain there was a neon sign on my back stating I had killed my child and that the walls of the church were going to cave in on me. I’ve heard similar stories over the years from women and men I’ve worked with. One I remember saying, ‘When I saw the ad for the ministry I thought it was a trick. I was certain when I came I was going to get yelled at, yet I was so desperate I decided to take the risk,’” recounted Theresa Bonopartis, co-developer of “Entering Canaan” and founder of Lumina post-abortion healing ministry. “I believe it is unique, not because of what the sisters do, but because of who the sisters are. By finding the unique person behind each abortion story and offering Christ’s unconditional love, they uncover the path of hope and walk down it with each individual, no matter how long the healing journey. They have made their convents a safe haven, a place where women write the names of their children in the Immaculate Heart of Mary book: a book they know will be ever present in the chapel in the presence of the Lord, who hears their prayers and heals them.”
A growing network of faithful laity, the Co-Workers of Life, provide assistance in enabling young moms to keep their children. The help they offer is not only practical assistance, but the love of God through hope and kindness. Sometimes furniture needs to be moved into a new apartment or a crib has to be assembled; other times, a résumé needs to be written or a job recommendation is needed. Doctors, lawyers and business owners offer their services. College and university contacts help with placement and transfer credits.
The young moms aren’t the only ones who benefit from this lay outreach.
Paul Oussey went on a “Working Man’s Retreat” one fall. “I heard the nuns needed some work done: plumbing, painting, electrical, windows, trimming hedges, so I went along to help out. But doing work on their convent is just part of it. We see the love and joy of the sisters; we pray with them, have adoration, confession; we go to the nearby Planned Parenthood and pray out front,” he explained.
“That weekend was the start of a whole new life for me. In adoration, wow, something just so powerful happened. I hadn’t been to confession in 20 years! I was raised Catholic, but did I ever really realize how powerful the Holy Spirit is? I had no idea! I consider the sisters part of my family now.”
Now a “Co-Worker of Life,” Oussey employs young women and men referred by the sisters at his Long Island-based company.
The sisters are friends with many other pro-lifers, including a pro-life motorcycle club.
Mike O’Malley is one such biker. He’s also a regular at Planned Parenthood, praying outside with other members of Pro Bikers for Life (ProBikersforLife.us) and the sisters. “Sometimes it’s just the guys; sometimes I’m with my wife and kids. When you’re with really great sisters, you’re not responding in guilt. You’re just convicted! And this is what we see happen a lot,” he said. “We’ll be praying outside Planned Parenthood, and we’ll approach women and just ask them to please talk to the sisters for a few minutes, either right there with us or on the phone. A lot of the time, they’re wavering about going in to Planned Parenthood anyway.
“When the sisters start talking to them, they just open up and keep talking. They’re shown so much love and real help. The sisters invite them to come to their Visitation Mission on 71st Street, so one of us will walk over with them. They sit down, and the sisters really listen to their situations, and some are really complicated, really sad. The sisters are ready to respond to every need. How else can you explain this happening — except through the Holy Spirit, that two complete strangers meet and one persuades the other to keep her baby?”
“Can you imagine the faces we get in this city?” O’Malley commented.
“Bikers in black leather and denim, walking along with rosary beads, praying beside the sisters in their full habits?”
Vocation for Life
For Sister Maria Regina, the sisters’ charism matched the longing of her heart.
Through the start of college, “I wanted to marry and have a big family.”
But World Youth Day put another path on her heart.
“In my second year of university, I went to World Youth Day in Sydney, and what struck me were all the religious and the joy and peace radiating from them,” she remembered. “I knew I didn’t have that, and I wanted it! They’re living totally counterculturally, and they’re the happiest people I’ve ever seen!”
How did she choose the Sisters of Life?
“Back at school, my soul was restless. I wanted something more. I’d grown up knowing the Eucharist — ‘Jesus is here, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.’ I’d heard it a thousand times! — but all of a sudden, it hit me: Jesus is actually here! And he loves us, and he loves me!”
“It was Jesus in the Eucharist that set my heart on fire,” Sister Maria Regina said. “The love of Jesus is so irresistible, and yet totally gentle and free. A priest I knew when I was discerning suggested I check out the Sisters of Life, and I did — and I found that their charism matched what was in my heart.
“Jesus was showing me: ‘This is the love my heart was made for.’ He was offering me the gift of the life of a religious, a spiritual maternity to be a mother in the Church and especially to those who are most abandoned, most lonely and forgotten. I had a clear attraction to this life: I entered the order in 2010. My first-year mission was at Holy Respite, in Manhattan; and since then, I’ve been in Toronto with the same mission: to serve women at risk of abortion.”
Patty Knap writes from
Long Island, New York.