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Sisters of Life
Peter Feuerherd
Source: St. Anthony Messenger magazine
Published: Sunday, January 22, 2012
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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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