The Sisters of Life: An Interview With Agnes Mary Donovan
The congregation of the Sisters of Life was founded in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York to promote the sanctity of human life. Among the first to join, Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., has been superior general since 1993; she resides at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent in New York City, which offers a home for pregnant women. She has a doctorate in psychology, and before entering her religious community she taught at Columbia University Teachers College. The interview took place at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent (450 West 51 St., New York, NY 10019) on Oct. 21, 1999. The interviewer was George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America.
What is the purpose of your special fourth vow to protect and advance the sacredness of human life?
Our fourth vow colors everything we do. Each human life is an intentional creative act of God, made to participate in the love of God and made for its own sake. Recognizing the great dignity that God has created in each person drives all our prayer and all our work. Our overall aim is to promote and celebrate the culture of lifeto promote ways of living that attest to the dignity of each sister in our community and each person we touch in our apostolic work. In contrast to the culture of life, you see the culture of death everywherein the way we are tempted to cast aside not only the unborn, but the aged, the infirm and the handicapped.
Does your commitment to life issues include opposition to the death penalty?
Yes, although we don’t work directly on that aspect of the issue. In our apostolic work, we focus our efforts where we feel the need is greatest in terms of sheer numbers. But Pope John Paul II has made it clear that there is no need for the death penalty in developed societies, because we have the capacity to protect ourselves from those who are chronically and dangerously criminal. The reason given for the use of the death penalty is that it allegedly protects society. But where there are other means that a society can use to protect its members, these must be used first. Death can never be an answer to life’s problemsit’s too facile a solution. We see death as a solution to difficulties in living promoted not only in the death penalty, but also in euthanasia and, of course, in abortion. The culture of death wants us to believe that death can be an answer for life’s problems, but it never can be that.
How do the Sisters of Life combine the active and the contemplative life?
We make the effort to combine the two through our prayer and through our apostolic work. In prayer, we follow the Liturgy of the Hours, setting aside the first two hours of the day for prayer in common, meditation and the holy sacrifice of the Mass. By rising early we experience a sacred space and time to pray and to be with God. We practice silence throughout the morning so as to continue our recollection. Then at the end of the afternoon, we gather for prayer againthe rosary and silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Thus prayer marks our day and creates a rhythm within which we live our lives. Here in this house, where pregnant women are our guests, our lives of prayer create the consistency and structure of each day. Prayer forms the walls of our home. Our guests are consoled by the fact that we pray very specially for them each day.
How many pregnant women live here?
We have room for 11, but since this is the first year the house has been open, we have only 6 guests. Some day soon, when it is fully operational, we will have 6 or 7 sisters serving 11 women. We are intensely personal in the services we provide, because the purpose of our work is evangelization; the only way we can do that is through relationship with those we serve. The women who have come to us are from many places. One woman is from Liberia, another from Kenya, a third from France. We also had a woman from the Philippines, another from Italy for a short time, and of course we have New Yorkers and others from around the United States. Our first guest came on the day after Christmas last year, and we recognized her arrival as a gift from God. We weren’t quite ready to begin our work when she arrivedit was a couple of months before we thought we would be readybut begin we did, and it has been a wonderful experience. Most come to us through crisis pregnancy centers here in the city and from pro-life centers and groups throughout the country.
What are the women’s greatest needs?
What they have said to me, almost every one of them, is, "How good it is to be here, because I feel so safe." We think of the environment we create here as a "holy respite," a place where the women can be nurtured and where they can step aside from the busy-ness of the world and have an opportunity to reflect on the direction their lives are taking and the very big decisions they have to make. Some come early in their pregnancies, some later. The length of each stay is dependent on the needs of the individual woman and our capacities here. Their temporal needssocial services, counseling, at-home careall that is taken care of through the Maternity Services Program of the Catholic Home Bureau. What we primarily provide is the spiritual setting and support throughout the pregnancy. Our emphasis is on the spiritual side. Some are very prayerful women, and for others the spiritual side is completely new to them. Many are not of our faith, but they all seem to respond to a sense of the part God plays in their lives.
Is there much interaction between the guests and the sisters?
We live together under the same roof. The sisters have their rooms on one side of the convent, and the guests on the other, but we come together for meals, which we ourselves prepare. Most of the women have jobs and so are out during the day, going their separate ways. We have a computer whiz who works in a data systems department, another who searches titles, another who is a flight attendant on leave. The guest from Liberia can’t get a traditional job because she lacks documents, but she volunteers at the diocesan chancery, and that may help her obtain the appropriate papers. They lead busy lives, but they have formed themselves into a close-knit community that they come home to. The community the guests form is evident each evening as they sit around the dining room table for a couple of hours sharing with one another, which is what we had always hoped fora natural community and bond among our guests.
How long do the guests stay?
They stay through the time of the child’s birth and then for whatever number of months they need to get on their feet. Even during pregnancy, most are beginning to make a plan and to move toward some sense of where and how they will live following the birth of the child. They encourage one another and share the various resources they learn about, forming a network of information within the house. It’s an edifying thing to see. Most choose to keep the child, though the first two chose to place their babies for adoption. Both kinds of decision are equally heroic, because the decisions were made with self-sacrificing love in answer to the question, "What is the most loving thing I can do?"
What other apostolates do you have?
We have another convent in the Bronx, called Our Lady of New York. Eleven sisters are missioned there for the apostolate of evangelization: the work of preaching and teaching on human life and human love. We also offer retreats for pro-lifers and evenings of recollection, as well as monthly retreat days for women and men who have suffered the effects of abortion. This is an ever-growing work of healing for those who have felt estranged from God and from the church. Our experience has been that they are desperately waiting for an invitation to come home to the church, to be reconciled with God and to find forgiveness in their own hearts for themselveswhich is sometimes the hardest part. At these special retreat days the participants can meet and find support in one another and through the sacramental graces of reconciliation and the Eucharist.
In addition, every month we have what we call gatherings for "graduates" of our days of prayer and healing. These gatherings include days of prayer, support and the study of Scripture. Each month, the gathering addresses a specific issue directed to the lives of those who have suffered the effects of abortion, such as abandonment and betrayal, and the sense of separation from God. They also take time to look back at the experience of abortion itself, realizing that it’s a shared responsibilitythat others besides the woman participated in the final decision to have an abortion. With this realization comes an understanding that she cannot wholly blame herself. The sharing of their testimonies is part of the healing process, together with the awareness of the mercy, the tremendous tenderness of God who desires her healing. I often think that the women we have come to work with are the ones who will multiply our works and who will be the ultimate evangelizers of our societythose whose hearts God has captured.
The third aspect of the apostolic work is the operation and development of the Dr. Joseph R. Stanton Human Life Issues Library and Resource Center, which is located in the basement of the Bronx convent. It is both an archival repository and a research library for parents, teachers, religious educators and catechetical instructors. Materials in the center cover not just abortion, but eugenics, euthanasia and medical ethics.
What about vocations?
Vocations participate in the mystery of God. God has blessed us with vocationsnew though we are. Counting candidates, postulants, novices, those in first vows and those in perpetual vows, we currently are 47 in all. Most often women hear about us through word of mouth, even from far away. One of our sisters who was living in Colorado went into a church one day for Mass, and afterward told the priest she was thinking about religious life, but didn’t know how to proceed. He said, "Call the Sisters of Life." On the other hand, people involved in pro-life circles and groups, like Birthright, know about us too. About two-thirds of those who come and live with us for a timeas candidates and postulantsdo remain in our community. That’s a healthy number. As for those who don’t stay, they often leave with a new liberty, either that this particular way of life is not for them, or that they can put the whole idea of religious life to rest. It can be a freeing experience.
Already, awareness of what we are doing has spread to other parts of the country. His Eminence [Cardinal O’Connor] has told us that he has received dozens of letters from bishops requesting Sisters of Life to work in their dioceses. We have not done that to date, both because we are so new and because we feel we need to stay together in New York until we have a solid footing. Our future depends on whether God continues to send vocations, and we have no reason to feel that God will not.
How do you feel about your role as the first superior general of the order?
I am not truly the head of the communitycanonically speaking I am, but spiritually speaking it is our founder who leads the community in helping us to find those tangible ways of living that express the sacredness of life, and the ways in which we should work to advance the sense of the sacredness of human life in society. As for my role as superior general, I have never done anything so difficult, but delightfully difficult. It takes all of myself, and requires a total integration of heart and mind to lead and to summon the energies of women who wish to dedicate their lives to God. It has also been a tremendous challenge to become a religious at the same time one is leading a new community. All of the members of this community came into religious life without having been religious before.
Has your doctorate in psychology proved helpful?
Yes, especially for understanding the human mind and the human heart and the structures of healthy family life. Implicitly, it is also a help to me in the living out of community life and in helping others to live it. I never imagined that my background in psychology would be used in this way. Before entering, I had been teaching at Columbia University Teachers College in the child development department. I was happy and thought I would be there the rest of my life. But I always knew in my heart the distinction between a career and a vocation, and knew that I had not yet found my vocation.
In my 20’s and early 30’s, I could not have guessed that God would give me a vocation to religious life. I first became conscious of it while making an eight-day Ignatian retreat in 1990. God blessed the retreat with the grace of vocation, though I could not have named it as such at the time. I left that retreat certain that God wished to have my life. I went back to my teaching and research, knowing that in a year I would be in a convent. A priest gave me the names of three congregations, but warned me that my ageI was 39might be a barrier. I wrote to the three, but never received any encouragement. Within a week, though, I was present at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a Mass celebrated for a group of pro-lifers who had just ended a witness at Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. In his homily, His Eminence spoke of the contemplative-active community he was hoping to found the following summer. I contacted the chancery, one thing led to another, and that following summer I entered. As our founder often reminds us, "God raises up religious communities to meet the needs of the time." We live and believe that the founding and the charism of the Sisters of Life are an exceptional grace for our time.