As legend has it, when New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor visited the Dachau concentration camp in the mid-1980s, he was horrified by the massive evil that the site represented. Eager to do something tangible to counter Nazi hatred, he might have launched an all-out campaign against racism and homophobia or intervened to protect those who continue to be exterminated by genocide.
But he didn’t. Instead, he petitioned the Vatican to establish a new religious order to oppose abortion.
Called Sisters of Life, the 19-year-old New York City-based group is described on its website as “a contemplative and active religious community.” Under the leadership of Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, a middle-aged woman with a Ph.D. in psychology, the group is one of only a handful of Catholic communities to be growing. Indeed, what began in 1991 as a fellowship of eight women is now a group of 64. What’s more, 10 postulants between the ages of 21 and 35 entered the convent in August, taking the first steps in the more than seven-year process of becoming a nun. The Sisters have also moved north, establishing a five-nun convent in Scarborough, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.
Unlike other orders in which members take vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, Sisters of Life take a fourth: “working to enhance the sacredness of human life.” This last vow is what sets the Sisters apart, making them the world’s only religious order to make opposition to abortion their sole raison d’être. Secondly, they adhere to old-school values, wearing the habit, spending at least half of each day in prayer, and fasting regularly. One day a week, and one Sunday a month, is spent in silent devotion. They also engage in activism, participating in 40 Days for Life protests in front of local clinics. Stepping Out of the Boat, an Archdiocesan blog written by Edward Mechmann, further reports that the Sisters have traveled to Albany, “bringing Jesus to the [state] capital, to the Senate chamber, and to the people they encounter.” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Sisters take in a small number of pregnant women, folks their website describes as being “at high risk for abortion.” A January 2010 article posted on AmericanCatholic.org reports that in its first 18 years, 150 women and babies were hosted.
Guests, the website continues, are required to work or go to school by day, but share an evening meal with the Sisters before they deliver their babies and for up to six months afterwards. During their stay they receive counseling and social service assistance through the Catholic Home Bureau and are barred from watching TV, listening to the radio, or using the Internet.
“Prayer forms the walls of our home,” Sister Agnes Mary Donovan told an interviewer from America Magazine. “The goal of our work is evangelization…We provide the spiritual setting and support throughout the pregnancy. Our emphasis is on the spiritual side.”
While Sisters of Life denied my request for a face-to-face meeting or telephone interview—“It wouldn’t be the best thing for us to speak with you since you’re from a pro-choice site,” Sister Bridget told me—it doesn’t take much probing to conclude that the group is anomalous. As a time when the Church is facing mounting debts–$2 billion in reparations have already been paid to those abused by priestly pedophiles and there are many more claims to be settled—and Diocesan officials, particularly in the northeastern United States, are closing scores of churches, hospitals, and schools, the Sisters of Life seem to be continually expanding their real estate holdings.
The irony of this discordant reality is particularly blatant at their Sacred Heart of Jesus convent on Manhattan’s West 51 Street. The convent—which has a fenced in garden full of plants, trees and sculptures of the Madonna–is literally across the street from the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s Midtown Hospital, a 73-year-old health center that closed in 2007. The 250-bed facility is one of six Catholic medical centers in Gotham to be closed in recent years. The largest, St. Vincent’s Downtown, was founded in 1849, had 3000 employees, and provided care to approximately 263,000 outpatients and 62,000 emergency room patients each year. In addition, the hospital delivered an annual crop of between 1800 and 2000 babies before being padlocked last April.
This, of course, begs the question: Why are the Sisters of Life–with two convents in Manhattan; a Stamford, Connecticut retreat house where they conduct workshops for those “who have experienced the suffering of abortion and the joy of healing in Christ;” and three additional convents in Yonkers, the Bronx, and Canada—given the means to expand when other Catholic institutions serving far larger constituencies are left to wither and die?
One can’t help wonder what crosses the Sisters’ minds when they pass the doors of St. Vincent’s and see the dog-eared signs covering the now-bolted doors: “No trespassing. No loitering. No sleeping. No panhandling.” Are the lives of the facility’s former patients—most of them low-income men, women, and children who relied on the hospital for both emergency care and the treatment of chronic conditions—less important than the fetal life that they purport to nurture in the convent across the street? Do the Sisters of Life see the incongruity? Do they care?