A Habit for Life
by Mary Meehan
An update on the religious order that seeks to cast out the
abortion demon with prayer, fasting-and action
While it's not in the job description of a religious superior,
Mother Agnes Mary Donovan sometimes finds herself tinkering under
the hood of a car. In a drenching rain here in the Bronx, N.Y., as
she tried to drive two guests in one of "our clunkers," the car
So she hopped out, opened the hood, jiggled a battery wire and-
presto!- the engine started.
Keeping the clunkers going is one small part of her-work. As
mother superior of the new order the Sisters of Life, the former
psychology professor attends to everything from religious
formation to finances for her 28-member order.
Her vocations director remarked that "our day changes every day,"
something that requires "an openness to the Spirit."
Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York founded the Sisters of Life
in 1991, after several years of reflection and prayer and a
retreat for interested women. It's a contemplative and active
order devoted to the protection of human life.
Besides the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience,
the Sisters of Life take a fourth vow "to protect and enhance the
sacredness of all human life."
In typically American fashion, people keep asking the sisters what
they But Cardinal O'Connor once remarked, "Always say our
is more important than our " He tells them that
"action follows being," and that actions "are holy only to the
degree that we are holy."
Mother Donovan explained that "what gave birth to many of our
vocations" was the "knowledge that there is nothing humanly we can
do" to reverse abortion and "this terrible culture" that promotes
"As His Eminence is fond of telling us," she added, "this is an
evil that can only be cast out by prayer and fasting."
Prayer is "our first work," Mother Donovan said. The sisters pray
as a community for several hours each day: Mass, the Divine
Office, eucharistic adoration, the Rosary.
Besides prayer, their work now includes retreats for pro-life
activists, crisis-pregnancy work and running a pro-life library
and resource center. In addition, "we commit ourselves to one
public witness a month," Mother Donovan said. That includes
praying at an abortion clinic locally and taking part in the
annual March for Life in Washington.
The sisters' religious habit, dark blue and white, makes them
stand out in public witness and also in their Bronx neighborhood.
Wearing a traditional habit, Mother Donovan said, means that
people "flock to you. They beg you for prayers."
The sisters host retreats and days of recollection for pro-life
activists at their convent off Baychester Avenue in the Bronx.
Sister Lucy Marie Vasile remarked that "the whole community takes
part when there's a retreat day." So far, she said, the sisters
have focused mainly on the mechanics of arranging a retreat:
contacting a priest to give it, providing the meals, planning
They are also available to retreatants who want to talk. Recently,
they hosted a group who pray at an abortion clinic and have been
discouraged to see "women always going in."
"We were just so grateful that they were out there praying,"
Sister Vasile said. "We were just encouraging them to persevere
and be faithful," and telling them that "God will know the
Activists, she said, "love the quiet" of a retreat and "love the
Another sister suggested that pro-lifers need "a religious
community that supports and buoys them up." It's important for
them "to know that we're here and that we're kind of the generator
to help them through our prayer."
Sister Vasile noted that the sisters are likely to take a more
active role in the retreats by giving some of the reflections. "We
can never replace the priest, and that's not our point," she said.
But people "look to us to share with them our lives."
The crisis-pregnancy work is currently less formal. Mother Donovan
said it includes spiritual counsel for pregnant women, as well as
providing clothing and furniture where needed.
Last summer, one woman lived with the sisters "for support and
protection" as she awaited the birth of her child. That was "a
wonderful experience for us," said Mother Donovan, who hopes to
have special residences for such women one day.
The sisters' immediate neighborhood is a poor one; most residents
are black or from "The Islands," such as Puerto Rico, Jamaica and
the Dominican Republic. They live in a city where one subway
station has musicians who play "Amazing Grace"-but another has a
poster advertising "Abortion Up To 24 Weeks."
Many women are in crisis pregnancies, Mother Donovan said, because
"they have been abused, have been misused, have allowed themselves
to be." They expect "and, God willing, they receive true love from
a sister, and they feel that. There's a sense that they can tell
you anything. I don't know why they feel that, but they do."
The sisters view their Dr. Joseph R. Stanton Human Life Issues
Library and Resource Center as a service to the prolife movement.
Formally dedicated in October, it's now open on a by-appointment
The sisters come from states such as New York, Pennsylvania,
Missouri and Colorado-one, though now a U.S. citizen, was born in
the Philippines. Most have business or professional backgrounds,
including teaching and personnel work, engineering and nursing.
Many were deeply involved in prolife work before entering
Religious life but, like Sister Vasile, felt that "I needed to
give my life further in some way."
Sister Mariea Dolorosa Gill, a young Missourian who worked with
mentally handicapped people, had friends who experienced abortion;
she saw "all the suffering that was going on because of it." She
prayed, "God, I will do anything to stop this," since it "was just
devastating the whole world around me," she said.
From their own experience, the sisters understand many problems
facing lay people today. Sister Margaret Ruth Mary Robbins worked
in a hospital that had attached to it an adult-care facility,
where "they were promoting withdrawal of nutrition and hydration."
She remembered feeling that she had to "get out of this, or I'm
gonna be part of the problem."
Sister Loretto Michael Creed, who worked as a nurse for many
years, recalled, "I just really didn't even like to talk about"
abortion, but became active against it because pro-lifers kept
giving her information that she finally couldn't ignore.
Involvement in the charismatic renewal was another major
influence. "Then pro-life was just a natural; it just followed,"
Mother Donovan expects another group of candidates and postulants
in February. Meanwhile, she has to deal with funding for her young
order. "We're increasingly needing to depend upon our benefactors
to survive, to live our lives and to do our work," she said.
Would the Sisters of Life like to see a Brothers of Life order?
"Oh, we'd love it!" said Mother Donovan. "It's always been talked
She believes that "God will raise them up."
Meehan writes from Rockville, Md. The Sisters of Life can be
reached at Our Lady of New York, 1955 Needham Ave., Bronx, NY
10466; phone: (718) 881 -8008.
Discerning a vocation for life
A recent visitor described the sisters of life as a joyful order.
But Sister Margaret Ruth Mary Robbins, the community's vocations
director, noted that "you're not always happy" Adjusting to
Religious life, she suggested, is "like building a good marriage.
You're stretched like a rubber band sometimes. Most of the time,
you're stretched. But that's how you grow. You're at peace,
because you know God wants you to be in this position."
She advises young women who think they may have a vocation to the
Sisters of Life to "fervently pray" and to find a spiritual
director who can help discern "whether it is an authentic call."
Sister Robbins likes to do "phone visits," in which she helps
women "find their niche, whether it be the lay apostolate,
marriage" or a religious vocation.
Some women enter the Sisters of Life but leave before taking vows,
though Sister Robbins indicated there are fewer dropouts now than
in the order's first years. Women who leave "are still our
friends," she said, and have gained much from the experience of
convent life, so "it's a win-win situation."
Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York gives retreats, usually
twice a year, for women who are interested in joining, the Sisters
of Life. "He seriously discusses the vows," Sister Robbins said.
"And he loves Religious life, and he talks about it very
seriously.... The cardinal says in the retreat that it would be
wonderful if you were called to the Sisters of Life, but if you're
called to another community praise God!" Mary Meehan
This article was taken from the January 19, 1997 issue of Our
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