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Sisters of Life
By Peter Feuerherd
This congregation of sisters can trace its roots to the Dachau concentration camp and one cardinal's vision for life.

Q U I C K S C A N

Answering the Call
Ministries to Promote Life
Attracting New Members
'Service Before Self'
A Living Legacy
Handmaids of the Lord
The Power of Prayer
A Cardinal's Greatest Legacy

Sister Bridget Haase
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 pro-life.

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.

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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 Madrid.

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 seeking assistance.

"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 them.

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 careers.

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 else.

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 yes."

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 Lady."

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 and mission.

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 thousands.

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 not last.

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 phone call.

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 those beliefs."

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 term.

"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, "Christian companions."

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," she says.

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 Mother Donovan.

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.


Peter Feuerherd is a freelance writer/editor from Rego Park, New York, where he is also an adjunct professor of journalism at St. John's University.


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