In November 1998, Cardinal O’Connor wrote a column for Catholic New York entitled “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” After hundreds of letters in response, in 1991 eight women entered what became the Sisters of Life. Inspired by Cardinal O’Connor’s prayer—“Lord, show us how you want us to love these women”—they heard the call and answered it. They strive to love each person as Christ does and receive each person as his mother, Mary, would.
From that small initial “yes,” the order has grown and now includes three homes in New York; another in the Bronx; a retreat house in Connecticut; a place in Toronto, Canada; and a house of studies just outside Washington, DC.
Sister Catherine lives at Holy Respite at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent in New York City. Here, in the heart of Manhattan, the sisters provide pregnant women with the opportunity to live with them—both during and up to six months after they give birth to a child. Two of the sisters work for the Family Life Office of New York, while the other six serve the pregnant women who either live with them or walk through their doors. Their days and nights are devoted to both prayer and the practical work of their ongoing mission. Morning prayer includes the Divine Office, silent meditation, and Mass before the women eat breakfast together and then go about the “Martha” part of their work.
A typical day might include visits to the ER, follow-up checkups, advocating for the women as they fill out housing applications or address issues of back pay, and helping them continue or return to school or work. They also hold babies, change diapers, and listen to women when they are feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. Adoration takes place before lunch, and there is evening prayer as well.
The sisters work with women who, in many cases, have become cut off from society in some way. The Sisters of Life become family; they become sisters to these women. They make “room in the inn” for the mother and child, and they minister to the father as well through the Knights of Columbus whenever possible. Fifteen years have passed for some of the first mothers who came to live with the sisters, and they still drop by to celebrate birthdays and graduations. They invite the sisters to weddings, and ask them to visit their own families.
Each sister wears a medal with the phrase, “And nothing would again be casual or small,” from Father John Duffy’s annunciation poem, “I Sing of a Maiden.” The sisters live knowing that every act of service, every act of love to others, is an act of service and love for Christ.
Family of support
Sister Monica Faustina and Sister Amata Filia work at the Visitation Mission. They talked with Catholic Digest about how the sisters receive the grace to bring Christ to others as well as the call to imitate Our Lady in that mission. Living out the visitation means fielding upwards of 900 calls a year. Eleven sisters alone at the mission cannot handle that volume of need, so they partner with laity, the Co-Workers of Life, and the Knights of Columbus.
The work the sisters do first involves meeting with those seeking help. Often someone is pressuring the pregnant woman to abort and she feels cut off, alone. The sisters work to create a family of support for the entire pregnancy and beyond. Nine of the sisters serve the women who come to the mission, while two sisters serve as liaisons and trainers for the co-workers, providing days of reflection and instruction for those who will become the hands and feet of Christ for the women who seek out the sisters.
For example, “Ann” came with her husband to the Sisters of Life with a crisis pregnancy. Ann did not want to have an abortion, but she had received great pressure to abort due to her unborn daughter’s prenatal diagnosis. The sisters helped to locate a pro-life doctor and a neonatologist. They also secured a priest so baptism could take place following birth. “Ann’s” daughter lived for a precious 15 minutes, but her parents held her from conception to natural death. The sisters also helped with the hard task of planning the subsequent funeral, but they say it was “an amazing thing.” The mother brought her child all the way to eternal life, and by her willingness to love, that act transformed something the world sees as beyond painful into something beautiful. She and her husband did all any parents are called to do—to love their children into heaven by emptying themselves and serving their child first.
The turn around
While giving this interview, our conversation was interrupted. The sisters received a “turn around,” meaning that a woman who was considering abortion had decided instead to get assistance. She told the sisters that she’d visited to the abortion clinic before and received information from a sidewalk counselor. Even though she had decided to return to the abortion clinic, she was hoping to see that same sidewalk counselor. Providentially, that same witness to life still stood on the sidewalk, still praying, still offering anyone who sought it an alternative to the culture of death—and this time, the “turn around” mother took it.
The Sisters of Life serve more than those in crisis pregnancy; they also minister to those mothers who suffer from the tragedy of abortion. Villa Maria Guadalupe in Stamford, Connecticut, is a retreat center that provides hope and a healing ministry for those suffering from abortion. The sisters who serve at Villa Maria Guadalupe are on a mission of accompaniment. “Mercy,” Sister Mary Teresa says, “is the greatest and hardest gift for any of us to believe in.”
Sister Mary Teresa said the first step for any woman seeking to avail herself of this ministry, is to reach out. It is then their job to “Go, pick up the pieces lest they be lost” (John 6:12).
Those who make that call are invited to come to a day of prayer and healing. These days are sacramentally based and held once a month. The day includes testimony from a woman who has been healed and stories of real women who have experienced the profound peace and healing after abortion. The day of prayer is just the beginning of the healing process. Those who attend receive ongoing monthly support, with talks and presentations on various topics such as guilt, shame, forgiveness and depression. “What’s really beautiful is that I am still in relationship with women from my very first mission,” Sister Mary Terese said. She added, “There’s hope for healing, and if they come to one of our retreats, they will find a safe and welcoming place to come.”
Sisters for life
None of these ministries offer quick fixes, cure-alls, or instant solutions. They provide gifts of fellowship and community, healing and hope, and the fellowship doesn’t end simply because a baby has been born. Just as there is never a point where God is finished loving us, each person who comes into contact with the Sisters of Life community becomes part of it from that point on even when their own lives move forward. The Sisters of Life see their ministry as an ongoing mission of accompaniment, walking with whoever comes through their doors from that point on.