New York City, where more African Americans are killed by abortion each year than born, might seem like an unlikely place for hope in the pro-life movement. Yet, the Sisters of Life, a 100-plus member strong order of Catholic religious sisters, bring just that to New Yorkers through their direct work with women experiencing unplanned pregnancies. Sisters of Life provide housing for pregnant women at their Houses of Respite throughout pregnancy and the postpartum period if needed, helping to cover rent or utility payments. They also provide post-abortive healing retreats. The Sisters work with some 1,000 women experiencing unplanned pregnancies each year, assisted by a volunteer network of over 5,000 from all across the country, called the Co-workers of Life.
Having experienced the uphill battle to end abortion with little result for years, then-Archbishop of New York Cardinal John O’Connor placed an ad in a local Catholic newspaper in 1991 that read simply: “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” Eight women answered that original call, and the Sisters have since expanded to serve in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Toronto, and most recently, on a college campus in Denver. The Sisters take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as well as a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.
The Sisters are unapologetically clear about the source of their strength for a life of service, as their website boldly proclaims: “You are an image of God: irreplaceable.” Cardinal O’Connor once said of their mission, “This is the charism of the Sisters of Life: to mother the mothers of the unborn; to mother the unborn; to mother all those who are frail, all of those who are vulnerable, all those who are ill, all of those who are in danger of being put to death, all those whose lives the world considers useless. Our Lord says to each Sister of Life, ‘Woman, behold your son. Behold your daughter.'”
To meet one of these Sisters is to involuntarily relax, to feel at once at home, even in the moment of meeting. In a 2018 article by the University of St. Thomas, Sister Zelie Maria Louis noted, “Each woman’s heart is maternal by nature. That isn’t something that gets shut off or suppressed when one enters the convent. In fact, it only grows! I have experienced spiritual motherhood as a radical availability. Whether I’m walking down the streets of New York City, at the airport, or anywhere in between, I belong to every person I meet because that person is deeply loved by my Spouse. And they, in a real and mysterious way, belong to me, and look to me to listen to them as only a mother can.”
Another Sister expanded on this concept of spiritual motherhood saying, “St. Therese says that ‘the loveliest masterpiece of the heart of God is the heart of a mother.’ It reveals the unfailing care and nurturing aspect of the heart of God. Spiritual maternity is also a share in the heart of Mary, who at the foot of the cross was entrusted with the souls of all mankind, not to be physically grown within her, but to be spiritually nurtured within her heart. This is not a light saying, but it is a stout-fibered reality.”
This big-hearted acceptance of each person into their hearts, a tangible experience of the love God has for each person, has won the Sisters of Life a devoted following. Fans even created a Facebook page Fans of the Sisters of Life to keep followers up to date on their activities. A quarterly newsletter called Imprint reminds the Sisters’ supporters of the love that God has for them, and that His love always leads to life. Tapping into that love, the Sisters have found, can bring out unimaginable good.
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