PHOTO BY SR. ELIZABETH ANN BINDER, COURTESY OF THE SISTERS OF LIFE
THE SISTERS OF LIFE are a community of 64 women
who combine an active apostolate in convents with
meditative quiet—sometimes punctured by the
squeals of babies.
Their dedication to the cause of life traces its roots
to a 20th-century symbol of death, the preserved
remnants of the Nazi concentration camp at
Dachau. It was there, years before he became internationally
famous, that the late Cardinal John J.
O'Connor of New York reflected before the crematoriums.
Contemplating the meaning of mass
death, the cardinal dedicated himself at that
time to promoting life in all its forms.
It was at Dachau, the cardinal later said, where
he put his hands inside the brick crematorium
oven and "felt the intermingled ashes of Jew and
Christian, rabbi, priest and minister." He came
away with a question: "Good God, how could
human beings do this to other human beings?"
Years later, as archbishop of New York, the cardinal's
question morphed into a concrete
response through the formation in 1991 of the Sisters of Life. The
vision forged ahead after the cardinal wrote about it in Catholic
New York, his archdiocesan newspaper, in 1990.
The column was simply titled: "Help Wanted: Sisters of Life."
It sketched out the cardinal's vision as he sought out women
who would be interested in answering a call to pray, assist those
harmed by abortion and promote the Church's pro-life agenda.
Answering the Call
Among those who took the cardinal up on his offer was Agnes Mary
Donovan, a former school psychologist and, at the time, a professor
at the prestigious Teachers College at Columbia University in
New York. She became one of the original eight who formed the
Sisters of Life.
She was a young professor, enjoying life in New York City and
her work, which she likened to "a secular monastery" of academics
intent on improving the world. Donovan was also a
devout and serious Catholic, at the time being tugged by the call
to religious life. How that call would be answered she did not know,
but she awaited events to discern its signs.
She attended Mass every Sunday, followed by her perusing the
Sunday New York Times at a breakfast coffee shop. There she read
about Cardinal O'Connor, then at the center of various political
and ecclesial storms focused on his opposition to abortion. In the
pages of the paper, she remembers, the cardinal would be portrayed
as a stubborn and stern moralist.
"But he was right," recalls Agnes
Donovan, now Mother Donovan, superior
of the Sisters of Life.
She was also led to the Sisters of Life
by an infant—her own niece, now a
college student. Holding her niece in
her arms, Donovan contemplated the
impact of abortion and other threats to
human life. She recalled the time when
she had learned, as a little girl in school,
about the Holocaust and immediately
came home to her mother and asked,
"When did you learn about this? What
did you do about it?"
Donovan wanted to be able to tell
her niece that she tried to do something
The two visions of the Holocaust—the cardinal's and her own—intersected,
and the result is nearly two decades of
intense focus on charity and education.
"We are not involved in politics per
se," says Mother Donovan, well aware
that the Sisters of Life's agenda has
become a subject for polemics in the
public sphere. "But we are entrusted
by the Church to proclaim our faith,
that all human life is created in the
hand of God," she says in an interview
from the kitchen table of the congregation's
headquarters, a simple convent in
Yonkers, New York.
The Sisters of Life pursue their apostolate
through, among other activities,
the Holy Respite Mission in Manhattan,
a sanctuary for vulnerable women and
their children, born and unborn. The
convent opened 10 years ago. In that
time 150 women and their babies have
lived with the sisters, joining in community
life and preparing themselves to
reenter the world.
The community also operates a
retreat center in Stamford, Connecticut,
that offers reflection weekends for
women who have experienced abortion,
provides leadership for the New
York Archdiocese Respect Life/Family
Life Office and maintains a library dedicated
to pro-life issues.
The sisters also speak on pro-life concerns
and are fixtures at pro-life events,
such as the March for Life in Washington,
D.C., each January. Dozens of sisters
also provided an outreach to young
people at the 2008 World Youth Day in
Sydney, Australia, which they will
repeat at the 2011 World Youth Day in
Their work has focused on the New
York City area, but in 2007, at the invitation
of Archbishop Thomas Collins,
the sisters expanded to Toronto, beginning
a similar mission with five sisters.
They have also involved the wider
community via the Co-Workers of Life
program, through which 10,000 lay
helpers throughout the United States
and Canada dedicate themselves to
assisting women with troubled pregnancies
in their own communities.
Every week, says Mother Donovan, a
dozen or so women come to the sisters
"They are pretty much abandoned by
everyone who matters to them," she
says, noting that includes not only the
father of the baby, but often their own
families as well. Still, the women who
come to the sisters are willing to endure
the sacrifices needed to give their children life. Many come to the sisters emotionally
battered and vulnerable.
"Even though their situation is dire,
the reality of the child is a joy," says
Mother Donovan. The atmosphere of
such homes is different from days gone
by. Much of the social stigma of single
parenthood has been eased, most of
the women decide to keep their babies,
and, after giving birth, they will come
together for Christmas parties and other
events with the sisters who cared for
While the Sisters of Life find themselves
renewed by these relationships,
they are also bolstered by the presence
of novices who are attracted by their
ideals and want to commit themselves
to a life of service and prayer.
Novices undergo a rigorous formation,
including studies on the work of
Cardinal O'Connor, medical ethics and
theology. Some, like Sister Maria
Michela, come to the Sisters of Life
after pursuing their own studies and
Sister Maria had a comfortable, busy
and accomplished life while at the University
of Wisconsin. At the time, she
figured that graduate studies in biochemistry,
conducting research on
childhood cancers and teaching undergraduates
would surely lead to a productive
career in biomedicine. But
something was missing, something she
could not put her finger on. There was
a pull to do something more, something
Growing up in Indiana, surrounded
by a devout extended family, Sister
Maria had an active faith, encouraged
by a parish youth ministry and regular
Bible study. One day while she was living
in Madison, Wisconsin, a city
known for its lakefront, she was reading
how Jesus approached the disciples'
boat while walking on the water:
"‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.'
Peter said to him in reply, ‘Lord, if it is
you, command me to come to you on
the water'" (Matthew 14:27-28).
"These were the words that I heard
the Lord saying to me as he called me
forth out of my nice, comfortable ‘boat'
of graduate school to walk toward him,
to follow the vocation he had planned
for me," says Sister Maria. "I was being
asked to step out of my own boat—my
comfort zone—and follow him. I said
The Sisters of Life appealed to Sister
Maria's spiritual side and her love of
children. "I was looking for a community
that made the Eucharist a center of
their daily lives along with a love of Our
She is joined as a novice by Sister
Bethany Madonna, the daughter of a
retired Air Force officer, who she says is
a living example. "He lives his life for
others—service before self," says Sister
Bethany. A middle child with two
brothers, she says that her devout
mother and faithful family instilled in
her a powerful faith.
"A youth minister in my Florida
parish would talk about vocation and
challenge us by saying, ‘Consider what
God is asking,'" says Sister Bethany.
"As a senior in high school, in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, I first
felt the Lord calling me to consider religious life.
"At the time I thought he was asking
me to put aside my desires of being a
wife and a mother," she recalls. "He
was going to fulfill superabundantly
the desires of my heart by inviting me
to receive his love, to be his bride, to
mother his children as my own. To be
called to religious life is to be called to
deep union with Christ, spiritually
mothering the world."
Her dedication to the pro-life cause
solidified as a freshman at the University
of Central Florida. "I was asked by
a friend to come and pray one Saturday
morning outside an abortion facility,"
says Sister Bethany. "What had been an
abstract legal term, what others call a
procedure or a right, suddenly became
a reality. I could put a face on it. It was
the face of my peers, my brothers and
sisters in Christ."
Graduating in 2006, she worked for
the Respect Life Office for the Diocese
of Orlando. She met the Sisters of Life
at the March for Life in Washington,
D.C., and was attracted to their values
Sister Bethany is now completing
her canonical year as a novice in New
York, a year of prayer and study, preparing
for a life of service.
The reach of the Sisters of Life, however,
extends far beyond those relative few
who come and join them as formal
members. Their apostolate to pregnant
women and their children has reached
Maria Stuart, from Queens, New York,
is one of those women. She recalls when
she first encountered the Sisters of Life.
It was three a.m. and Stuart, then a 23-year-old expectant mother, was left with
few choices. A bad living situation had turned worse. Four months pregnant,
without a job and now, suddenly, without
a place to live and on the street, she
called the number she had kept in her
purse for two months. The Sisters of Life
answered the phone, came and picked
her up, and her life changed forever.
Desperate for options, Stuart interviewed
with them and thoughtfully
considered whether this was the place
for her and her unborn child. She went
back, intent on giving a bad living
situation one more chance. It would
This story has a happy ending, but it
was not without its challenges. "It was
not easy at first. You are not there
because things are going well," says
Stuart. "It was a hard transition. Your
life is falling apart and you come into
a place where the community is already
established. Trying to find your way is
hard, but it changed my life."
Stuart got a job, and her comfort
level within the community improved
over time. She gave birth to her daughter,
Amaya, and two months later went
back to work. Eight months after that,
she had saved enough money to go out
on her own and settle into a new life.
She and her daughter continue to
see the sisters on a regular basis. "They
are like family to me," says Stuart.
She speaks proudly of her daughter,
who turned three years old last August.
"I raise my child with affection and
discipline," says Stuart, a living legacy
and lesson from an early morning
The Sisters of Life also offer laypeople
an opportunity to join their apostolate.
They include Isabel Rivera of New
York City, whose encounter with the sisters
radically changed her perspective.
She knows how easy it is to embrace
moral ambiguity and ambivalence.
"Someone close to me, someone who
influenced my life greatly while growing
up, had multiple abortions. I
thought this was O.K. and normal,"
she says. "It wasn't until I became a
seriously practicing Catholic, about 10
years ago, that I was forced to reexamine
Rivera began leading Bible groups in
local parishes, as well as pursuing her
music ministry. But she was looking to
act on her pro-life beliefs. "I didn't
know how to get involved," says Rivera.
"I knew I wanted to act, but I wasn't
looking for something strictly political.
I didn't know what to do or where
to do it."
When the Sisters of Life visited the
Church of Notre Dame, her Morningside
Heights parish, she saw her opportunity.
The sisters asked for volunteers,
specifically "handmaids," which led
her to reexamine the biblical origins of
"The concept of a handmaid is neat.
I kept going back to what Mary said in
response to the angel Gabriel's Annunciation:
‘Behold, I am the handmaid
of the Lord. May it be done to me
according to your word'" (Luke 1:38).
The handmaids are, according to Rivera,
Her first assignment was to assist a
pregnant woman in the Bronx. "It
became a phone ministry. We would
talk about once a week. I learned the
value of prayerfully listening. I also
realized that this was something God
wanted me to do and I could bring all
of my gifts to this very powerful ministry,"
The Sisters of Life take the usual vows
of poverty, chastity and obedience. But,
when they receive their white and blue
habit, they also take a special fourth
vow: to protect and defend the sacredness
of human life.
"That's what gets us up in the morning,"
says Mother Donovan. "It colors
everything a Sister of Life does. It's the
way we are called to love." It is a
demanding life: The needs are overwhelming
in the midst of a society
where more than a million abortions
are performed each year. The work is
never done. That can be frustrating.
The sisters cope with their challenges
through the power of prayer. "The work
will come and go. But the prayer never
changes," says Mother Donovan. Their
routine calls for two hours of morning
prayer and an afternoon hour of the
Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration, followed
by Mass and evening prayer.
Each sister spends nearly five hours
every day in prayer.
"That's the heart and soul of the Sisters
of Life. All that we do flows from
that. That's where we receive our love
and the love to give to others," says
What they do could not happen
without reliance on God, she says.
"We're simply instruments of God.
There's no way 64 women could do
this alone. The need is like a tidal wave.
We stand before a tidal wave of grief, a
tsunami of brokenness," she explains.
While the mission is demanding, the
appeal is steady. Last year more than
400 women inquired about joining the
sisters. After a process of discernment,
about a dozen enter each year. They
come from all over the United States
and the world, and many bring their
own professional gifts to the apostolate.
Cardinal O'Connor, who died in 2000,
became, by the time of his death, an
admired figure in New York. He even
earned lavish praise for his leadership
in the pages of the newspapers that
occasionally blasted him for controversial
forays into abortion and other
contentious political and moral issues.
When the elite of the city attended
his funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral,
he was praised for his work on behalf
of Catholic education and social services,
his support of better Jewish-Catholic relations and his engaging
repartee with the local media.
Yet he would probably agree that his
greatest legacy grew out of his Dachau
moment, reflecting upon a horror and
making good come out of it. That
legacy is awakened whenever a frightened
young woman places a call in the
early morning hours to a Sister of Life
who offers her and her baby shelter,
support and human dignity.
Those interested in the Sisters of Life
can contact Sister Antoniana Maria at
718-863-2264 or by going to their
Web site at www.sistersoflife.org.