Philadelphia’s Cloistered ‘Pink Sisters’ Encourage People to ‘Find the Silence’ to Fall in Love With the Lord
Their bright-pink habits symbolize ‘the love and the joy of the Holy Spirit.’ Bursts of pink also are present throughout the convent and chapel in the stained glass, the altar flowers, and even in the color of the dishes used for visitors.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated since initial publication.
PHILADELPHIA — Entering into an old chapel on Green Street in central Philadelphia, first-time visitors will always observe the startling sight of a nun clad in bright pink continuing an unbroken 108-year vigil of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
There is always a sister either kneeling before the Eucharist or a group of them beside the altar singing the Liturgy of the Hours from behind the bars of the ornate grille that separates them from the outside world. These Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters — fondly known as the “Pink Sisters” — live their lives of faith centered around perpetual Eucharistic adoration and prayer for the world.
“Love, it’s everything,” said Sister Mary Amatrix, sister superior of the convent, speaking with the Register from behind another grille in their visitor’s parlor. She quoted the words of St. John of the Cross that “at the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” Indeed, their order is a visible reminder of love, as their bright-pink habits, the first thing people notice, symbolize “the love and the joy of the Holy Spirit.” Bursts of pink also are present throughout the convent and chapel in the stained glass, the altar flowers, and even in the color of the dishes used for visitors.
And the order itself was born out of a countercultural act of love in a troubled time. St. Arnold Janssen, the order’s founder, founded the Society of the Divine Word, a missionary order of priests, in Steyl, Holland, in 1875, during the Kulturkampf in his native Germany, a time of religious persecution for priests. “They said he was either a fool or a saint,” Sister Mary Amatrix said of St. Arnold founding an order amid this cultural upheaval.
His missionary order prospered, and he founded the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters as a purely contemplative order in 1896 to support missionaries, priests and the world with their perpetual prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. “He knew that prayer would do the work more effectively than just being active,” Sister Mary Amatrix said, adding that he “had a great devotion to the Holy Spirit.”
Another act of love and devotion to the Eucharist brought the order to Philadelphia in 1915. When Archbishop Edmond Prendergast became archbishop of Philadelphia in 1911, he had “a very deep devotion to the Holy Eucharist and he wanted to establish a house here” for adoration, Sister Mary Amatrix explained. When he heard of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, he wrote to their co-foundress, Mother Mary Michael, who sent sisters from the motherhouse to help establish the Chapel and Convent of Divine Love.
The City of Brotherly Love welcomed the Pink Sisters. Sister Mary Amatrix said that, from the beginning, the sisters loved the city and that the city helped them in many ways. She noted that even amid the world wars, when there was a lot of anti-German sentiment in the U.S., the many German-born sisters in the convent were not given any trouble due to the “faith of the people of Philadelphia.”
‘Find the Silence’
The majority of the sisters in Philadelphia now are from the Philippines. Due to a vocations shortage for their order in the U.S. in the 1980s, sisters from the Philippines, including Sister Mary Amatrix, were sent to Philadelphia as vocations flourished in their country. The sisters are very concerned over the order’s vocations crisis and have observed that young people today have trouble with patience and concentration.
The solution, Sister Mary Amatrix believes, to helping young people discern the voice of God amid the distractions of the world is for young people to fall in love. “You fall in love, all your attention is towards the beloved,” she said. “That’s the same thing with Jesus.” She noted that “the Holy Spirit always works in quiet, powerful and mysterious ways, so they have to really find time for silence.”
She encouraged people to take “even just three or five minutes” every day with Scripture or a prayer, because “if you let the Lord in, even just a tiny bit, he will inspire you.”
Sister Mary Amatrix noted that many young people “don’t experience silence in their homes” and said even a weekly family Rosary would help foster this openness to God. “The devil is always trying very hard to make so much noise because he cannot stand it,” she said. She encouraged walks in nature without looking at a phone because contemplating natural beauty is also a pathway to God.
She also recommended contemplating great art, referencing Pope Benedict XVI’s words in his meeting with artists: “Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face-to-face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God.”
Sister Mary Amatrix feels for young people, saying that many today are starved for love. “Sometimes when you cannot stand the silence, it’s because you do not want to face yourself,” she said. “All those thoughts come up; all your anxieties, your insecurities.” She emphasized that “young people need love, they don’t want words,” and “they need love from their parents. They need love from friends. That’s how they get to know God’s love.”
She wished that people could “discover how much they are loved by the Lord,” but “they need that time to really come to realize what love is, what true love really is.”
While ever-present distractions may have increased due to phones and social media, Sister Mary Amatrix doesn’t think the world is “much worse than it was many years ago,” saying, “it’s the same world; it’s just different concerns.” Amid new evils, she said, “the constant is that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.”
“Our founder always said there are three altars of the Blessed Trinity: in heaven, in the tabernacle and in our hearts,” she said. “The more you expose yourself to Jesus, receive him, the more you cause the growth of your life within you.”
The USCCB’s Eucharistic Revival initiative can hopefully help “to bring that first love” of the Eucharist back for the faithful, Sister Mary Amatrix said. Even within the convent, she noted, “we have the first love, and then, suddenly, it tapers off, and you have to keep on reviving that first love. That’s why we have retreats and examination of conscience.”
The Mystery of Vocation
The sisters’ days are very structured in the cloister and for their central mission of perpetual adoration, the sisters have been taking half-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since 1915. In addition, their schedule includes Mass, mealtimes, recreation, housework, gardening and answering correspondence.
“Life inside is so simple,” according to Sister Mary Angela. “It’s a joy that the world cannot give. We’ve been in the world before we entered. It’s really different: Here we have peace of mind.” While she acknowledged the “challenges and trials” of community life, she said that it’s different because “you are living on the grace of God,” and if you “give everything to the Lord, he will do everything.”
There were many challenges and trials in Sister Mary Angela’s path to this life. She first felt called to be a sister in high school in the Philippines, but her father strongly opposed the idea. Amid a successful career, she felt a strong call again, inspired by Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 World Youth Day visit to Manila. She initially was not thinking of a contemplative order, but the idea kept returning to her in Eucharistic adoration.
When she finally joined the order, her family attempted to forcibly remove her from the convent, as they had removed one of her cousins who had joined an active order of nuns. She pointed to the bars of the cloister’s barrier and said her vocation was partly “thanks to this grille because otherwise they could have pulled me” out.
Over time, her family was reconciled to her vocation and became supportive. With tears in her eyes, she recalled how, just before his death, her father called and told her, “It’s only now I understand your chosen vocation. You are on the right path. Thank you so much for choosing that vocation.”
“Our vocation is really a mystery,” she said. “Even though our loved ones would be against us, really the Lord calls you.”
Sister Mary Triana, who is also from the Philippines, felt a call to be a nun at 9 years old but did not think that she could leave her family. “I started to stay away from the vocation,” she said. As she attended parties and concerts as a young adult, she remembered seeing people “so happy” with the music and the atmosphere, but “something would stop me and it would ask at the back of my mind, ‘Are you happy with this? Is this the life that you really want?’”
During a pilgrimage with her cousins, the cab that was supposed to bring them to the Carmelite sisters “brought us to the Pink Sisters” instead, and she kept going back. “Something would really pull me there,” she said. She entered that May, in 1992, as her family made bets about how long she would last in the order.
Coming from a wealthy background, she found the adjustment difficult at first, as before entering, she had been used to a “television set in my own room” and a maid. As she adjusted to the challenges of life in the cloister, the grace of the Holy Spirit helped her do things that seemed impossible. “I would always pray, ‘Holy Spirit please help me,’” she said, adding she has been “touched” by all the aid the Holy Spirit has given her and does not know how she would go “day by day if not with his help.”
The sisters don’t see themselves as “cut off” from the world, despite the bars of the cloister. Instead, they feel very connected to the world through their constant prayer for it. Sister Mary Amatrix referenced a saying that “contemplative sisters always get the news first” because people will reach out asking for prayer.
Sister Mary Triana feels a connection to the people of Philadelphia and the world because they “come here to ask our prayers and then they write their petitions. We really pray for them. We get to know their concerns.”
One special intention that the sisters continually pray for is the “sanctification of priests.” Sister Mary Triana said that priests especially need prayers, as they are “in the forefront working with the people.”
The sisters spiritually adopt diocesan seminarians to pray for their vocations. Sister Mary Amatrix said they also pray for the perseverance of priests, bishops and cardinals, “as we pray for our own perseverance,” because living out a vocation is not easy.
The sisters receive all sorts of prayer requests. They brought up the time a woman wanted a child, asked for their prayers, and ended up conceiving twins. Prayers have also been answered after requests from men and women looking for spouses. They even once observed a couple become engaged in the chapel.
Sister Mary Triana said that young women entering their own community worry, as she did at first, about leaving their families behind. But once they are inside, they have a deeper “spiritual closeness” with their families. Sister Mary Angela attested to “the grace that your family is receiving even if you’re not consciously praying for them,” saying, “the mere fact that you entrusted them to him, it was already executed.”
Graces like these, Sister Mary Amatrix said, demonstrate how Christ “spoils his brides” who keep their perpetual vigil with him in the Convent of Divine Love.