Life Savers: The Sisters of Life at 30
‘We approach one heart at a time.’
A remarkable thing happened one day at Planned Parenthood in New York City about a decade ago — call it a triumph over evil.
In the desolate moments only hours before, it hardly seemed likely for a distressed, 18-year-old woman, single, pregnant and alone, contemplating the prospects for her unborn child.
Her mom had assured her that if she wanted an abortion, the choice was hers.
Yet that only deepened her loneliness and anxiety.
“God, if you don’t want me to do this,” prayed this young pregnant woman in a perplexed state, “please send me a sign.”
Later, in a daze of confusion, no bright prospects immediately in sight, she set off with two friends for Planned Parenthood, intending to arrange an abortion.
“She sat there in the waiting room, filling out the paperwork — and she was restless,” recalled Sister Mariae Agnus Dei, local Sisters of Life superior at the St. Frances de Chantal Convent in the Bronx, New York. “So she went over to the brochure rack and was drawn to one brochure in particular. By some miracle of God, our informational brochure had made it into the waiting room of Planned Parenthood — and to this day we don’t know how! She read the brochure and started to cry. She knew this was the answer to her prayer.”
We are sitting in the front parlor at the Sisters of Life convent on a quiet street in the Bronx on a sunny morning with Sister Marie Veritas, the community’s evangelization mission coordinator. “This young woman then grabbed her two friends in Planned Parenthood,” Sister Mariae Agnus Dei recalled, “hopped on a bus and came here with them. Here I am in full habit, monastically dressed, later coming face-to-face with this woman who had never met a sister in person. We both sat down together to have lemonade and cookies, and I said to her, ‘Tell me your story.’”
The single mom unburdened herself, sharing her life stories, dreams and goals with Sister Mariae Agnus Dei. And then she paused. It made Sister Mariae Agnus Dei think of the Annunciation, when the Blessed Virgin Mary learned she was to become the Mother of Jesus.
“Sister, my life is not over, and I have to let go with God,” this woman told Sister Mariae Agnus Dei.
Her next chapter had a happy ending. One of some 800 women in crisis pregnancies who contact the Sisters of Life every year for support and shelter, this single woman chose life, later giving birth to an adorable baby girl. The mother eventually completed her studies, graduating college with an honors degree in psychology. She later married, as Sister Mariae Agnus Dei put it, a “super-awesome guy.”
The story illustrates the Sisters of Life’s unconditional love for women in troubled pregnancies.
The late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York founded this contemplative and active religious community, revered for its pro-life ministry, 30 years ago this month. The cardinal contemplated the idea decades after his 1975 visit to a Nazi-era concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. “Good God, how could human beings do this to other human beings?” Cardinal O’Connor declared after placing his hands inside a crematoria oven, the melded ashes of Jews and Christians profoundly shaking his spirit and the shocking historical legacy of Dachau transforming him.
The chilling memory later led him to establish the Sisters of Life in 1991. Soon, many women responded to his call for recruits. Cardinal O’Connor was also deeply troubled by the abortion culture in New York, a city labeled America’s abortion capital. It is a staggering reality that has been met with a pro-life response.
Pro-life shelters and nonprofit charities, including EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers headed by Chris Slattery, Good Counsel led by Chris Bell, and LIFENET out of nearby Newark, New Jersey, led by Christine Flaherty — a trio of devout Catholic leaders — put down deep roots in the New York metro area in response to the crisis.
And so have the Sisters of Life.
Prayer is at the heart of the Sisters of Life’s daily life. Their day typically begins at 5am, with four and a half hours of common prayer before day’s end at 10pm. That devotion is inspired by Cardinal O’Connor, who felt society’s intense crisis of faith could only be “cast out by prayer and fasting” ((Mark 9:29), according to Sister Marie Veritas.
“Prayer is our first and most fundamental work — everything else flows from that,” she said. It is an integrated community life.
“Each of our missions is quite unique and deeply essential,” added Sister Marie Veritas.
“Our crisis-pregnancy mission is one of our fundamental works because of our vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.”
From a small cluster of eight sisters, the Sisters of Life has grown steadily into a youthful community, with 116 sisters today in the United States and Canada: 60 perpetually professed, 38 junior professed, 12 novices and six postulants. Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, a former faculty member and professor of psychology at New York City’s Columbia University and The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, has served as superior general since 1993. The community’s missions also include weekend retreats for men and women; outreach to college students in Colorado; and (not surprisingly) helping women after abortions. The sisters profess the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and, uniquely, a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.
The overall number of babies lives saved by the Sisters of Life is immeasurable. The nuns’ deep prayer life and inspiring public message of hope is likely changing the hearts and minds of many hundreds of women in crisis pregnancies everywhere. To be sure, these may never register as statistics, or show up on the nuns’ doorsteps in distress. But transformed by this prayer and profound message, we can imagine how these women lovingly raise their babies instead of having abortions. The official number of lives saved by the Sisters of Life is huge, not surprisingly, as many as 8,000 babies alone saved over the past decade, given the current number of women in crisis pregnancies the Sisters of Life now serve annually. (And that official number may be a conservative estimate.)
But the good sisters don’t keep statistics.
“Instead of saying ‘babies saved,’ we prefer to say ‘women served,’” Sister Marie Veritas said. “We have served thousands of women over the past 30 years. Each one is a gift. We are not looking at numbers. ... We approach one heart at a time.”
Sister Marie Veritas said it wasn’t by chance the Sisters of Life was founded in New York City. “In a sense,” she said, “we stand in the heart of the battle — the cosmic battle John Paul II spoke of between a culture of life and a culture of death.”
New York state in 2017 had 12.2% of all 862,320 abortions in America, the Guttmacher Institute reported; that’s a rate about double the national average. In 2019, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act that legalizes abortion up until birth. In effect, the law legally sanctions infanticide.
“New York is like a microcosm of the culture,” said Sister Marie Veritas. “You see the currents of materialism, hedonism, the exaltation of personal autonomy very clearly here. And in that, you also see this aching thirst for God: People ache to encounter a love that will answer the cry of their hearts.”
Recently, a mother of three young children in Canada, pregnant with her fourth and working long, grueling shifts, considered an abortion. The pregnancy was a “shock” to her. Feeling emotionally drained, she contacted the Sisters of Life in Toronto. It was a happy, storybook ending. The mother changed her mind, giving birth to a bouncing baby girl with the same steadfast support and love the Sisters of Life show everywhere: no judgment calls, no questions about her religious denomination, only questions about her future. “The sisters phoned every other day, kept me company, sang songs to me, brought me food, threw me a baby shower and even connected me with other pro-lifers in my community,” the mother told a student reporter at Toronto’s The Catholic Register.
If New York is a perplexing moral danger zone, the Sisters of Life are filled with hope and a joy that is contagious. Yet New York can test the bravest. The COVID-19 pandemic cast a long shadow, ending the celebration of public Masses and trimming religious practices.
Streaming Masses proliferated, but they were never the same as in-person worship. At the Sisters of Life communities in New York, the nuns could not attend Masses in person for more than 43 days because of local mandates (now lifted). In response, the communities had Communion services and an extra Holy Hour daily. Still, the sisters, who shun TVs and radios, watched Mass livestreamed only once, on Easter Sunday.
“I would say the sisters suffered deeply,” said Sister Mariae Agnus Dei. “But we also found a powerful invitation of the Lord to go deeper into ourselves, to be present to his presence drawing within us.”
COVID-19 shutdowns in the Big Apple were relentless. An annual fundraiser, the Sisters of Life Gala, was hosted virtually for the first time this year. The once-familiar sight of the Sisters of Life, purveyors of the Good News, blissfully roller blading, biking or playing ultimate frisbee in New York’s Central Park, was circumscribed. But it didn’t exactly slow them down. Two of the nuns in Manhattan, first responders, could organize food deliveries for women in crisis pregnancies. At a much slimmed-down March for Life in Washington earlier this year, though much less than the typical 40 or more religious that usually attend, two nuns marched.
The Sisters of Life saw God’s hand through it all. In February last year, Sister Mariae Agnus Dei and Sister Marie Veritas launched the uplifting Sisters of Life podcast, co-hosting Let Love. “We record it in a linen closet,” Sister Marie Veritas said cheerfully. “We launched as the pandemic started to hit, and with God’s providence, it has enabled us to be present to those we love.”
CONTACT THE SISTERS OF LIFE
38 Montebello Road
Montebello, NY 10901
20 Cardinal Hayes Place
New York, NY 10007
Hope & Healing After Abortion
- culture of life
- dignity of human life
- prolife witness
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- john aidan byrne