Go West! Sisters of Life Expand to Denver

Four Sisters Establish Apostolate to Evangelize College Students


SISTERS OF LIFE. From left to right, Sisters Michela, Maris Stella, Fiat Marie and Mary Concepta. Roxanne King


DENVER — When she was 17, Leah Yates had what she called a “life-changing experience” at World Youth Day 1993 in Denver that later led her to enter the Sisters of Life religious order. Today now-Sister Mary Concepta Yates is superior of the New York-based order’s newest — and farthest West — mission, located in the “Mile High City.”

She and three other fully professed Sisters of Life, all in their 30s, arrived at Denver’s St. Mary Magdalene parish in August to evangelize students at three metro-area state universities in Boulder, Fort Collins and Greeley.

The Register met the four sisters at their spacious Denver convent in mid-September, which is under renovation, after having housed seminarians now living in dormitories at one of the Denver Archdiocese’s two seminaries.

“This is the extreme West for us,” Sister Mary Concepta said with a laugh, noting that, until now, the order has remained tightly nestled on the East Coast, with a total of nine convents in New York, Connecticut, Washington and Toronto.

Being part of the group to establish the order’s 10th convent, the first in the Western United States, “feels exciting,” Sister Mary Concepta said.

“We are grateful to God for the gift of a new mission in Denver,” Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general, said in a statement. “It was from this city in 1993 that St. John Paul II exhorted those gathered for World Youth Day to defend the sacredness of human life. Our sisters look forward to strengthening the Denver lay faithful committed to building a culture of life.”

The order was founded in 1991 by the late Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York, who felt the ongoing spiritual battle between the culture of life and the culture of death demanded a spiritual response of prayer and fasting by a community of religious women. In addition to professing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Sisters of Life profess a fourth vow — their charism — to protect and enhance the sacredness of all human life.

Apostolates vary at their different convents and include providing practical assistance and outreach to pregnant women in need, presenting spiritual retreats, offering post-abortion healing and directing respect-life efforts for the New York Archdiocese.

“We’re a contemplative/active community, so our first work is always our prayer life,” explained Sister Maris Stella Karalekas. “All of the works we do flow from that.”

The Sisters of Life came to Denver at the invitation of Archbishop Samuel Aquila.

“Their new apostolate outside the East Coast points to the work of the Holy Spirit … and the growth that’s occurred in their community,” the archbishop said at a Sept. 16 Mass at St. Mary Magdalene Church welcoming the sisters to the Denver Archdiocese. “It’s a new beginning for us and for them.”         

The order has 97 members. The women wear a white veil with a blue band and a white habit under a navy blue scapular. A long rosary hangs from their belts, and a silver chain and medal depicting the “Madonna of the Streets” is worn around their necks. In the last two years, 26 women from across the world entered the order, including three from the Denver Archdiocese. One of them, Shannon Gunning, entered in September.

Gunning, 32, served as a youth minister, her self-described “dream job,” at a large parish in Littleton, Colo., for 10 years before finally saying Yes to the call to consecrated life she received as a high-school senior. She made her first visit to the Sisters of Life in New York City two years ago, where the Lord confirmed the call she says she had resisted.

“Ultimately, my heart was captivated by the way they love,” Gunning said. “I longed with great desperation to love the way they love. I came alive during my visits.”

“The sisters are the embodiment of being alive, and their witness is compelling,” she added. “They are women who know they are profoundly loved by the Lord, and their life is a sincere response of that gift.”

Since 2002, the Sisters of Life have served more than 6,000 pregnant women in need, half of whom were 20 to 25 years old. More than 90% of the women chose life for their children.

Statistics show that college-age women are among the most likely to pursue abortion in the case of an unexpected pregnancy.

“Obviously, we hope that being on campus will put us in contact with women who have an unexpected pregnancy and present to them life-giving alternatives,” Sister Mary Concepta said about the Denver apostolate.

The Sisters of Life will be at each of the three universities about a week every month, mainly providing a ministry of presence and prayer done in partnership with the college chaplains and Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus) campus ministry. They aim to put a face on the Church’s teachings on life and love by encouraging and catechizing the young people and helping those who are suffering to heal.

“We want to provide a framework in which (the students) can grow closer to the Lord and begin to answer the questions: Who am I? Why did God make me? What’s my purpose in life? How do I want to spend my love?” Sister Mary Concepta said.

“We know the Lord of life and love has a unique response for each one of them,” Sister Maris Stella said.

The warm welcome and energetic faith the sisters encountered in the Denver Archdiocese are concrete expressions of God’s providence, the sisters said.

“It’s amazing to be in Denver; the faith is so alive here,” Sister Maris Stella said. “It’s really impressive, all the lay initiatives that are here. The faithful are really faithful. It’s a vibrant center of the New Evangelization.”

Archbishop Aquila spoke to that vibrancy in his Sept. 16 homily, noting that four young men from Neocatechumenal Way communities in the archdiocese recently volunteered to enter priesthood formation at Redemptoris Mater Missionary seminaries in Connecticut, Ireland, Africa and India, in order to serve dioceses there. Denver, too, is home to a Redemptoris Mater seminary, one of 105 throughout the world whose vocations come from the Neocatechumenal Way, a parish-based process of Catholic formation.

“It shows the great missionary spirit present within our own archdiocese and the openness of the young people to the call the Lord is giving them to diocesan priesthood or various communities,” he said. “It is a great blessing and a gift to see that kind of witness.”

Archbishop Aquila credited St. John Paul II’s visit to Denver in 1993 with spurring the lively faith now present in the archdiocese.

“We have borne so many fruits from World Youth Day 1993 in the resurgence of the faith among Catholics within the archdiocese, and we are truly blessed by that,” Archbishop Aquila said. “I firmly believe St. John Paul II continues to intercede for us. He said we would be a place where the New Evangelization would go forth from, and we can see that it continues, even 22 years later, with the beautiful witness to the faith and the vibrancy of the Church here.”

Despite that vitality, Archbishop Aquila said the sight of the Sisters of Life in their blue and white habits and sensible black walking shoes will surprise people who encounter them.

“People here aren’t used to seeing sisters in habits — especially young sisters,” he said. “The sisters’ presence is a great blessing for our people.”

The sisters said their countercultural lifestyle should draw attention and introspection.

“Mother Agnes Mary has said there will be a uniqueness to the fact of simply having religious women on these campuses,” Sister Mary Concepta said. “There is something to the presence of consecrated religious that says, ‘Love is possible.’ (People wonder) how is it we can so radically sacrifice the goods of marriage and family life, which are very good and all women have a desire for … for the sake of something greater, for God?”

 “I have found in my work and ministry with Focus that when you propose the truth to young people they are responsive to that,” Archbishop Aquila said.

The westward expansion of their apostolate seems a fitting progression as the Sisters of Life look forward to marking the 25th anniversary of their order next June.

“We were founded by Cardinal O’Connor at a time when religious life wasn’t thriving,” Sister Maris Stella said. “It was a bold and courageous move of his to follow and be faithful to that inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It was his vision that our charism would be spread about the world. This (Denver mission) is sort of a fulfillment of that vision.”

Roxanne King writes from Denver.