Sisters of Life is a female Roman Catholic religious order, following the Augustinian rule, that was founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O'Connor, the late Archbishop of New York, after much prayer and a visit to the remains of the Dachau concentration camp. It is both a contemplatieve and active religious community. Besides taking the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the sisters take a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. The sisters live in community, centering their lives on the Eucharist. They have five convents in New York and a retreat house in Connecticut. Their work includes a pregnancy help Visitation Mission, a Holy Respite for pregnant women, the Stanton Library with pro-life resources, the Family Life/Respect Life office in the Archdiocese of New York, and retreat opportunities for youth, married couples, families, and Entering Canaan retreats for men and women suffering after abortion. The abbreviation S.V. stands for Sorores Vitae, Latin for Sisters of Life.
During a visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp, the then-Bishop 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 world; 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, who provided our first novice director in the person of Sr. Assumpta Long, OP; the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, who provided us our assistant novice director, Sr. Yvonne Mary Loucks, RSM, and instructed us in many things along the way. 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. For the next nine months 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. In honor of the tenth anniversary of Foundation, a group of local business leaders formed the Friends of the Sisters of Life to assist with the growing financial needs of the community. Each year they sponsor various fund-raising events in New York City.
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 by Cardinal Egan in a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. 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. We give glory to God for the gifts and graces He has bestowed on our small (but growing) community and on those we serve.