Mother Agnes Mary Donovan and the best decision she ever made

Sisters of Life proclaim the sanctity of life

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by Lori Hadacek Chaplin

Five of the founding Sisters of Life. (L-R) Sr. Margaret Ruth Mary, Sr. Mary
Kolbe, Mother Agnes Mary, Sr. Josamarie Perpetua, and Sr. Lucy Marie

In the early 1990s, Cardinal John O’Connor changed the path of Mother Agnes Donovan’s life. When she heard the cardinal’s call to be a part of a new religious order that promoted the sanctity of life, she left behind a fulfilling career as a practicing psychologist and a professor at Columbia University to become one of the first Sisters of Life — something she calls “the best decision in my life.” In 1975, a visit to the Dachau concentration camp had a profound impact on Cardinal O’Connor. What he experienced at the Nazi death compound eventually inspired him to establish the Sisters of Life. This order would dedicate themselves to promoting the sacredness of every human life, protecting the most vulnerable (the unborn), and helping pregnant mothers in crisis. Cardinal O’Connor, archbishop of New York, recruited women for his new order by writing a letter titled “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life” for his weekly column in Catholic New York, a local newspaper. The letter was reprinted nationally, discernment retreats followed, and ultimately, in 1991, eight women became the founding nuns of the Sisters of Life.  Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, SV, who serves as the order’s superior general, was one of those first eight. “In an instant, my life was changed,” she told Catholic Digest. “I had a direction which I knew I must, and wanted, to follow — to leave everything and to live for God alone.”

The congregation of eight sisters has grown to 116 sisters, with 58 perpetually professed sisters, 39 junior professed sisters, 11 novices, and eight postulants. The community began in the Bronx in New York City and has expanded to Denver, Philadelphia, Washington, Toronto, and Connecticut. Catholic Digest spoke with Mother Agnes about who paved the way for her to enter the religious life, why the order is thriving, how the battle for life is the human heart, and more.


Q Were there inspirations or people that led you to the religious life?

A  Looking back, there was so much that prepared me to receive the grace of that call. I had parents who raised me and my siblings with a keen sense that our God is real. We were a family that lived each day with a conscious awareness that Jesus was aiding us, guiding us, protecting us, and loving us from moment to moment. I was also blessed to be taught in middle and high school by wonderfully intelligent and good religious women — the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul — who invited us into their hearts as spiritual mothers. Even as rambunctious teens, we knew we mattered to our teachers.  Later, when I was a young adult at university, a holy Jesuit priest taught me how to pray. Once prayer becomes a living reality as God has a chance with a person, one learns to hear in the depths of their heart the voice of Jesus Christ. All of these were pivotal gifts given by others that paved the way for grace in my life.


Q  When Cardinal O’Connor wrote his “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life” letter, what prompted you to answer his call to join the new order?

I knew that I had been called to live a contemplative life. As a young person coming of age, I, along with the nation, had experienced the passage of Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion. It was deeply disturbing and disheartening to know that the Supreme Court could make expendable the lives of a group of human persons — human persons whose worth was simply defined by their age. Death is never a solution to life’s difficulties. As the years unfolded, I became increasingly convicted that the issue of our day was a growing disregard for human life. In the person of Cardinal O’Connor, we were blessed to sit at the feet of an “apostle of Jesus Christ” gifted by God with the charism of life and chosen to raise up a new community. In encountering this charism, it became clear to me that I was being called by God to this community.


Were there inspirations or people that led you to the religious life?

Looking back, there was so much that prepared me to receive the grace of that call. I had parents who raised me and my siblings with a keen sense that our God is real. We were a family that lived each day with a conscious awareness that Jesus was aiding us, guiding us, protecting us, and loving us from moment to moment. I was also blessed to be taught in middle and high school by wonderfully intelligent and good religious women — the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul — who invited us into their hearts as spiritual mothers. Even as rambunctious teens, we knew we mattered to our teachers.  Later, when I was a young adult at university, a holy Jesuit priest taught me how to pray. Once prayer becomes a living reality as God has a chance with a person, one learns to hear in the depths of their heart the voice of Jesus Christ. All of these were pivotal gifts given by others that paved the way for grace in my life.


 Q After joining the Sisters of Life, were there any surprises?
 A The greatest surprise was — and continues to be — the evident work of God each year in the growth of the Sisters of Life, who now number 116 religious women serving from 11 convents and two apostolic centers in six dioceses. When we take a moment to sit back and see what God has done through our sisters and our services to vulnerable pregnant women, we are amazed to realize that a veritable “village” of nearly 10,000 mothers have been spared the tragedy of abortion. Their 10,000 children are living because the sisters and our co-workers [trained volunteers] were there to assist and support a woman to realize the deepest desires of her heart.

Religious life ultimately flows from the call of the Lord

How the Sisters of Life serve

The Sisters of Life offer crisis pregnancy assistance through counseling, housing, financial assistance, and maternity clothes. “The sisters and our co-workers walk with a woman through the months of her pregnancy, the time of the birth of her child, and for the months and years beyond. We truly become ‘family’ to many of the women we serve,” Mother Agnes Donovan, the order’s superior general, shared. The Sisters of Life also offer “Hope & Healing” post-abortion retreats for women suffering from the fallout of abortion. On weekends they hold “spiritual re-charging” retreats for women and men. The Sisters of Life also have an evangelization ministry, and they accept a limited number of speaking engagements.

 Q For those women considering a vocation to the religious life, what are some of the qualities a candidate must have to thrive with the Sisters of Life?

A Religious life ultimately flows from the call of the Lord. A religious vocation is not an achievement but a sheer gift of grace — it’s a particular choosing of the Lord for one to live his love in a unique way. We live in response to his choice of us. For anyone to thrive in any particular religious community, they must be called by the Lord Jesus to that community and charism. As Sisters of Life, we lay down our lives that others may live. We seek to become as vulnerable in love as Christ did in the womb, on the cross, and in the Eucharist. Our life flows from the sacraments of the Church, particularly the Holy Eucharist, from the joyful living of our vows [of poverty, chastity, obedience, and to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life], and from a vibrantly lived community life.  Our founder, John Cardinal O’Connor, would say: “There can be no Sisters of Life without joy.” We are full of joy because we’ve been filled with Jesus, the Lord of Life; he has captured our hearts. Our whole lives are spent that others may come to know his personal love for them and their own beauty and dignity. A Sister of Life must be a woman in love with Love Himself; she is called to be completely herself, unique and unrepeatable, fully alive in his love.


May women visit outside the scheduled vocation retreat weekends?
A Women who are discerning with our community engage in Spirit-led conversations with our vocations team who help women hear the Lord’s voice more clearly. A woman who is seriously discerning with our community typically makes a 10-day visit to immerse herself in our way of life and mission. She would also attend a Come and See weekend retreat, as well as a discernment retreat.


 Q Why do you think your order is thriving?

A Every vocation is a gift and mystery, a particular revelation of God’s love. In a world battered by darkness and death, the Holy Spirit is (as our founder would say) raising up a religious community of women to meet the needs of the day. He is inspiring women with a desire to lay down their lives as his brides so that the dignity of the human person might be safeguarded and celebrated. Every woman desires to do something great with her love. And I think the Holy Spirit is stirring hearts to this charism, for which we can only respond with joyful praise!


 Q Do you believe that we are winning the fight against abortion?
A 
The devil is certainly making a lot of noise in our culture. While we see many states progressing in the legal protection of the unborn, we see many [other] states regressing. It is easy to become discouraged. But we must remember: Death and sin are not the final words. History belongs to Jesus, and he is the final Word. He is about a mighty work in which we play a crucial role. The territory of the battle for life is the human heart. We win the battle from the inside out, starting with ourselves, one heart at a time. Sometimes we may feel insignificant or that our labor has been for nothing, but everything done in and with the Lord carries eternal consequences. He takes our prayer, our love, our faithfulness seriously and allows us to participate in the salvation of the world. We are called to engage the culture, to promote all that is true, good, and beautiful in advancing the kingdom of God. Ultimately, our trust rests in the Lord, who tells us in the Gospel of John, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Jesus is faithful and trustworthy. Our hope in him is an anchor that keeps us rooted amidst the changing tides of history. Jesus Christ has a plan for our lives, and he entrusts to each one of us a task repeatedly given only to the humble and the bold — to be the heralds of his name and bearer of his life to all who do not yet know him. So, while we must sorrow over what is taking place, we must [also] take courage. We must raise our heads because the true Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not nor ever will overcome it (see John 1:5). That is his promise to us.


TO LEARN MORE: Visit SistersOfLife.org


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