From New York with love: a charism of life

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The Sisters of Life were founded in the archdiocese of New York in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor, who was determined to bring a culture of life and love to a city overwhelmed by societal ills. The cardinal could not have foreseen that the order he founded to bring Christ’s mercy to the streets of New York would one day celebrate its 25th anniversary during the Jubilee of Mercy.

“We are so excited about this Year of Mercy,” says Sr Therese Marie, one of four Sisters of Life who visited Sydney in December. “The Lord is just so generous with his mercy, with his love.”

It is more than seven years since Sr Therese Marie first visited Australia, as a novice for World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008.

“It was amazing,” she says.

“It was so well-organised, and you could see how much love and care the archdiocese had put into the preparations for it, hosting all the pilgrims.

“Our host families, everyone, was just so welcoming to us that we fell in love with Australia.”

Sr Mariam Caritas says it was “exciting to be with the people” during WYD08, “and to experience their excitement of the Holy Father coming to their country, and really desiring to engage them and challenge them to live the faith”.

“That was seven years ago, and I’ve been back since then, and to see the faith of the people growing since WYD – every time we come back it’s like the Church continues to grow and expand and explode.”

During their December visit, the Sisters took part in a packed schedule which included the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Adelaide, the iWitness conference, and a women’s retreat at the University of Notre Dame.

The Australian Catholic Youth Festival was a great example of “kids being able to live the faith together”, Sr Mariam Caritas says.

While they had lots of questions for the young faithful in attendance, the curiosity was mutual.

“I think some of them were in awe,” Sr Therese Marie says.

“They began to approach us … one young girl said to me, ‘I didn’t know you guys existed’ and I said, ‘Oh we’re real, you can touch us!’

“We were able to engage, and explain to them what the habit is, that we’re brides of Christ, that young people are still being called.”

The Sisters graciously fielded endless questions and comments about religious life, including from one young woman who said, ‘I thought it was something from the Middle Ages’.

“They read books or see holy cards of saints and to see a religious in front of them, I think, was a bit of a surprise,” Sr Therese Marie says.

“But they were totally respectful, and very interested in the life.”

After breaking down the myths, the Sisters gently turned conversations to vocations.

“We were able to talk to them about God’s plan for their life, that this wasn’t our idea necessarily, but it was a calling and an invitation that we said yes to,” she says.

“So what a great time, in their teens and entering university, to be posing that question to the Lord: ‘What did you make me for? What is my call to love?’

“They were very open and very receptive to that thought.”

For some, it was their first experience learning about the charism of the Sisters of Life.

“Our charism is to protect and enhance the sacredness of all human life from the moment of conception until natural death, so we actually take a fourth vow and vow to that,” Sr Therese Marie says.

Sr Mariam Caritas says it was “very beautiful” to see how the annual iWitness conference has grown.

“It’s always invigorating for us to see these young adults taking time out of their summer, spending an entire weekend of their summer, to really engage their faith, to learn more about the Lord, to grow in their faith, and to have fun with each other, and to allow the Lord to really work in their hearts.”

Sr Therese Marie agrees. “It was a fruit of WYD, it came from the heart of the young people that had been there and participated in WYD then wanted to continue to spread this message of life and love.”

The Sisters now number 95 in their community, including two Australian women and two from New Zealand.

Sr Therese Marie joined the Sisters of Life at the age of 26. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Sr Therese Marie joined the Sisters of Life at the age of 26. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“I think the Lord definitely desires for the charism of life to grow,” says Sr Mariam Caritas.

“And we see the beauty of that and recognise that this isn’t of us, this is certainly of the Lord.”

While some celebrations are yet to be finalised, a Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York with Cardinal Timothy Dolan will likely take place on 1 June, the anniversary of the order’s founding.

“I’m sure the cathedral will be packed with friends of the community; people we have met over the years and our family as well,” Sr Mariam Caritas says.

While the Sisters’ reputation as “the rollerblading nuns” doesn’t even scratch the surface of their ministry, “the Lord uses everything”, she says.

With two convents in Manhattan, “our Sisters there are certainly visible; they’re out and about”.

One hosts a month Holy Hour which draws people from across the city for prayer.

“It continues to grow because I think people truly desire to join us in prayer, to join us in the works that we do but particularly joining us to pray.

“There are things people see – the rollerblading – but I think the Lord uses that to draw them into a relationship with him.”

The two Manhattan convents fulfil different roles in their joint fight to protect life.

“On the east side of Manhattan we have our Visitation convent, and that is our mission to serve women who are vulnerable to abortion,” Sr Therese Marie says.

“Women will call us – women of all different ages, different backgrounds, different religions – but many of them say that now that they find themselves pregnant, those that they thought they could count on the most aren’t there for them.

“Because of that they feel that they have no other option, that they have no choice but to have an abortion.”

The Sisters first invite women to share their story, she says.

“Hearing her story we just want her to have hope again, to be able to dream. If we can help change her circumstances, we can help her give the gift of life.”

Instrumental in helping women change their circumstances is the band of volunteers known as the Co-Workers of Life.

“We have a team of volunteers who really believe women and children deserve better, and are willing to give up their time and talents,” says Sr Therese Marie.

These relationships start with phone calls and pizza, and flourish into lasting friendships.

So strong is the bond that many Co-Workers of Life support women through childbirth and are named godparents.

“They are a network of support along with the Sisters, letting her know that she can do this,” she says.

“We’ve seen it time and time again that a woman who knows she is loved can do anything.

“Oftentimes, when she does make that heroic choice for life and has the baby, those who weren’t supporting her, maybe they were putting pressure on her, a lot of times they turn around once the baby is born and come back into her life.

“That’s a beautiful mission.

With the assistance of the Co-Workers of Life, that mission serves 1000 women each year.

On the western side of Manhattan, the Sacred Heart Convent offers respite for pregnant women.

“That’s where we invite some of the women to live with us and to be our guests during and after pregnancy,” Sr Therese Marie says.

“She can just come in out of the rain and make a plan for herself and her child.”

The aim is simple, she says: “Just to love her.”

And women blossom.

“The beautiful part is that they live with the Eucharist, we have a little chapel there.”

As a contemplative-active order, the Sisters of Life spend almost half of each day in prayer.

“They see the Sisters in prayer and they ask us questions, and they want to know about Jesus.

“We see their faith really take off.”

Srs Therese Marie and Mariam Caritas were both raised in large families, and had grown up with dreams of careers, marriage and motherhood.

“I was born in New York, and never thought in a million years I would be a Sister,” Sr Therese Marie says.

“I thought I would be a mother – I’m one of five. It wasn’t until after I graduated college, I was working off Fifth Avenue in New York City, and I felt like I had arrived.

“I was doing everything my friends were doing, I had the right clothes and the right hair, making enough money.

“After a couple of weeks of this I just felt, ‘Is this it? Is this all that there is? There has to be something more.’”

Sr Therese Marie was raised Catholic so she followed her instincts and “went back to the Lord, went back to my first love, and Jesus was right there waiting for me”.

Through monthly spiritual direction with a priest she began to question her calling and where her life’s purpose.

“I had never thought about it,” she recalls.

“I thought that I had to figure it all out. I thought that my happiness and my future was all on me.

“He just helped me to see that God made me and He had a plan for my life.”

Sr Therese Marie says her thirst for happiness and desire to do something great with her life meant she was “totally open” to all possibilities including, for the first time, religious life.

“The Lord spoke to my heart and helped me realise that all the desires of my heart, to be a mother, to be a bride, to be a daughter, that those desires wouldn’t be taken away from me but would, in fact, be fulfilled by becoming a spouse of Christ and a mother to many.”

Despite growing up with the Sisters of Life in her own backyard, Sr Therese Marie first learnt of the order and its charism of life while overseas on a mission trip.

When she discovered the charism, “fireworks happened in my heart”.

“To have a charism that protects and upholds the dignity of human life just totally made sense, because I knew personally God’s love,” she says.

“I felt like he was saying to me, ‘Who is going to tell them? You know now, who is going to tell them?’”

Sr Therese entered the order at the age of 26 to mixed reactions from family and friends.

She had been working in a crisis pregnancy centre, so her colleagues and seminarian brother were very supportive.

“But some family members were stunned. They didn’t know people still did this.

“The blessing of being a Sister is that we really try to invite our families into our life; they come and visit every other month, we also go home once a year to them.

“For those who kind of sceptical at first, once they see us living the life and the joy it brings, they have a change of heart.

“So now everybody is on board, but it took a little while.”

As one of 12 children, Sr Mariam Caritas says she was convinced she would have a family and “rival the number of children my parents had”.

Growing up as one of 12 children, Sr Mariam Caritas thought she would one day be a wife and mother. The Lord had other plans, she says.
Growing up as one of 12 children, Sr Mariam Caritas thought she would one day be a wife and mother. The Lord had other plans, she says.

“But clearly the Lord had different plans,” she says.

“As Sister said, spiritual maternity is so incredible. And the Lord surprises us in the ways in which he allows us to live that out.”

That spiritual motherhood extends beyond the unborn they have vowed to protect, to the community at large.

“As a spouse of Christ you’re a mother to many, you’re a mother to all of his children,” Sr Therese Marie says.

“People see us in the street and they know who we are, and they know we are there for them.

“I’ll never forget walking down the street of Manhattan and there was an older lady, and she was looking down and she looked a little disoriented, but as soon as she saw me she said, ‘Oh Sister, there you are! I haven’t seen you in so long.’

“She knows us. She knows that we are there for her, that in a way we are her spiritual mother. Age doesn’t matter.”

In their blue and white habits, the Sisters are a familiar sight on the streets of New York.

“It’s beautiful to see these people approach us and really entrust to us all the desires of their hearts, all their prayers, their worries, their concerns,” says Sr Mariam Caritas.

“I think that’s the power of the Lord working through our consecration.

“Wearing the habit is certainly a public witness of that, so people will approach us in a way they would never approach other people.

“And we stand in awe.”

In establishing the Sisters of Life in 1991, John Cardinal O’Connor wanted to create a religious order with a strong community life.

“There were particular things that he wanted, and he wanted his Sisters to really emphasise in living religious life,” Sr Mariam Caritas says.

“In part he desired that to make reparation for the break-down of the family and the culture today.”

They modelled this community on the Little Sisters of the Poor, who “taught us how to be Sisters”, Sr Therese Marie says.

Twenty-five years later, the Sisters of Life place an emphasis on life in community in all that they do.

“All of our missions, all of our works, we do that as a family, and we sit down with each other three times a day for a meal; we commit to that for the sake of the family.”