It's Official: Sisters of Life Are Now an Order

NEW YORK — St. Patrick's Cathedral was packed with more than 1,200 people March 25. But it wasn't just the feast of the Annunciation that drew so many people to church on a Thursday morning in midtown Manhattan.

They came to share the joy of a group of youthful sisters who have come to be a familiar sight in the Big Apple. Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York, was about to carry out the wishes of Rome — and fulfill a dream of his predecessor, Cardinal John O'Connor — in formally making the Sisters of Life a religious institute.

Here were friends and relatives of the sisters, contributors and fans.

And young women with babies as well — women who might have aborted their unborn children were it not for their meeting a sister in a white-and-blue habit.

Saving babies’ lives is one of the works the sisters have been involved in since Cardinal O'Connor founded the group in 1991. Just across town, near theneighborhood once fearfully called Hell's Kitchen, the sisters welcome expectant mothers in need of a home where they can get the help they need as new mothers.

“Of all their inspiring qualities, what always impresses me the most is how the sisters show — not tell — us what holiness is,” said Anne Conlon, managing editor of The Human Life Review in New York, a journal devoted to life issues. “Whenever I am with them I feel submerged in serenity. How I wish I could bottle it up and take it home.”

The high attendance at the Mass, Cardinal Egan said, reflected “how much our sisters are loved and admired.

“We love to see you in the streets and in our churches,” he told the sisters from the pulpit. “We love to see you everywhere. … You tell us about life. You tell us in Mary's style.”

Two Annunciations

Until Cardinal Egan formally established the community as a religious institute of diocesan right, the Sisters of Life were, canonically, a public association of the lay faithful.

The Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life formally recognized the Sisters of Life on Dec. 16. Cardinal Egan said the 13-year-old congregation got its recognition in record time.

“They've done things in the New York style,” he quipped. “Quickly and well.”

He added that they have had “a co-conspirator in heaven,” referring to his predecessor.

Among the faithful at the Mass was Mary Ward, sister of Cardinal O'Connor, who died in 2000.

Today the order has 32 sisters in perpetual or temporary vows, seven postulants and seven novices. They are in five locations, which include a pro-life research library in the Bronx. They were recently put in charge of the archdiocesan Family Life/Respect Life Office, which assists projects designed to promote respect for life and support family life.

The Sisters of Life dedicate themselves to a unique charism. In the words of their founder: “We need to bring the Gospel of life to the heart of every man and woman and make it penetrate every part of society. … It is the proclamation that Jesus has a unique relationship with every person that enables us to see in every human face the face of Christ.”

At the Mass of establishment, Mother Mary Agnes Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life, professed vows to Cardinal Egan, and the sisters in turn professed to her their vows as members of their new religious institute. They are the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as well as a fourth vow: “to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.”

In his homily, Cardinal Egan noted that the Annunciation was celebrated this year during Lent.

“The feast of the Annunciation during Lent is exactly the feast to be celebrated” on the day of the sisters’ official establishment as a religious institute, he said. He preached on the “two annunciations.” The first, the one recalled during Advent, focuses on the visit of the angel Gabriel. The second, in Lent, reminds us that Mary became a mother again on Calvary amid “shouts of hatred,” where Christ presented her as mother of “the whole world.”

The calling of the Sisters of Life, Cardinal Egan said, is to be “an imitation of Mary.” He said “each day they make their decision to be handmaids of the Lord.” Their message to a culture that believes “if we use the word ‘choose,’ somehow it is all right to kill [an unborn baby]” is “to rethink and to recant.” Popular culture shouts the culture of death as the fashion, he said, but “the Sisters are shouting louder.”

Gospel of Life

At the celebration, Cardinal Egan presented Mother Agnes with a large Lladro statue of the second coming of Christ.

Mother Agnes said at the end of Mass that the celebration was taking place on the ninth anniversary of the issuing of Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

She called her congregation “a flowering — one expression of his teaching on the human person.” Addressing the Holy Father in thanksgiving, Mother Agnes said, “You have given the Sisters of Life our Magna Carta” in Evangelium Vitae.

“In the midst of debates regarding the morality of cloning and embryonic stem-cell research,” Mother Agnes said, “the Church proclaims what it has always proclaimed, that the Incarnation of God occurred at the moment of conception in the womb of Mary: ‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’”

“The day was a joyous culmination of Cardinal O'Connor's vision to promote a culture of life by founding the Sisters of Life,” said Mary Barnes, a member of the Friends of the Sisters of Life Committee, established to support the work of the sisters. “It was inspirational to see how his wisdom in encouraging the laity, priests and religious to work with the sisters for a culture of life was reflected in the day's huge turnout.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online.