During a visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp, the then Bishop-elect John J. O’Connor placed his hands inside the red brick crematoria oven and “felt the intermingled ashes of Jew and Christian, rabbi, priest and minister.” Struck to the heart, he proclaimed, “Good God, how could human beings do this to other human beings?” In that instant, he received a life-transforming grace and vowed to do all he could, from that moment forward, to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life, wherever it was most vulnerable.
Several years later, now John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York and the leading voice for life within the Church, he prayed to understand why the efforts of the pro-life cause were not gleaning the results expected. His eyes fell upon the passage from Scripture, “This kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer and fasting,” and another, life-transforming, grace was his. This time, though, the grace was not just a personal one, but one for the whole Church; it was the grace that gave birth to a new charism, a new religious community in the Church, the Sisters of Life.
After receiving hundreds of responses to his weekly newspaper column titled, “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life,” eight women entered the newly formed community on Foundation Day, June 1, 1991. Among those eight was Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, the first Superior General of the Sisters of Life.
Throughout the first years of Formation, the new community was greatly assisted by the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate, who provided our postulancy residence and first directors. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma provided our first novice director, Sr. (now Mother) Assumpta Long, O.P., and assistant novice director, Sr. Yvonne Mary Loucks, RSM. They remained with us for one year before Mother Agnes Mary was missioned as Superior General on August 22, 1993. The Little Sisters of the Poor and the Hawthorne Dominicans granted us the privilege of working in their apostolates before we had our own.
By February, 1994, the Sisters of Life had five temporary professed members, one convent, and were assisting pregnant women in crisis. At the end of that year, a second convent, Our Lady of New York, was opened. Soon pregnant women were living with the Sisters. 1996 saw both the beginning of our retreats for those who suffer abortion and the official opening of the Dr. Stanton Human Life Issues Library. Two years later, a third convent, Sacred Heart of Jesus was added, and by the following year, 1999, it was ready to receive pregnant women as full-time guests.
That was the same year our Founder, John Cardinal O’Connor, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. During his months of illness he preached the most powerful homily of his life as he gave witness to the Christian value of human suffering. On May 3, 2000, Cardinal O’Connor went home to God. His patrimony of seeing in each human person, regardless of poverty or wealth, sickness or health, level of intelligence or physical capacity, a precious and unique image of the Son of God, remains indelibly printed in the hearts of his spiritual daughters. How grateful we are to have had a great man of God as our Founder and father.
The Lord has continued to bless the community in the years following our Founder’s entry into Eternal Life. A fourth convent, and the first outside the bounds of New York City, St. Paul the Apostle, was opened in 2001. The following year, Edward Cardinal Egan, who succeeded Cardinal O’Connor as Archbishop of New York, requested the Sisters of Life to direct and staff the Archdiocesan Family Life/ Respect Life Office, a request we have happily accommodated since that time.
Thirteen years after Foundation, on our patronal feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, March 25, 2004, the Sisters of Life were officially approved as a Religious Institute of diocesan right within the Church. On this momentous occasion, the charism of Life given to Cardinal O’Connor years before was confirmed by the Church as an authentic, and unique, religious charism in and for the Church. Deo Gloria!
During that same Spring, our Entering Canaan mission for those suffering abortion had the joy of seeing its retreat manual published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for distribution throughout the United States. In the Fall of 2004, one of the first visions of our Founder for the Sisters of Life became a reality thanks to the generous support and collaboration of the Knights of Columbus: a life issues retreat center, Villa Maria Guadalupe, in Stamford, Connecticut.
In 2006, our Visitation Mission moved its mission to assist vulnerable pregnant women to the heart of Manhattan, with increased visibility and capacity to serve women in need. Just over a year later, in 2007, our first international foundation became a reality when we opened a convent outside Toronto, bringing our missions of evangelization and the Visitation to Canada.
From the earliest days of our foundation we have had the opportunity to evangelize on the sanctity of human life across the nation and beyond. In the summer of 2008, we had the privilege of sharing the beauty of God’s Truth during World Youth Day in Sydney at the Love & Life Site, a Catechetical Site co-sponsored by the Sisters of Life, the Knights of Columbus and John Paul II Institutes. As the Lord continues to bless our community, we eagerly await how He will continue to reveal this charism of Life “even to the ends of the earth.”