New York, N.Y. — On a drizzly gray morning in early May, the bright kitchen at Visitation Mission on Manhattan's East Side was filled with the sound of laughter and the inviting aromas of fresh-cut vegetables and baking cookies as postulants and novices of the Sisters of Life prepared food for themselves and their anticipated guests.
Visitation is the nerve center for the Sisters of Life's material, emotional and spiritual outreach to pregnant women in crisis. The sisters help more than 900 women at the former convent each year, said Sister Magdalene, the congregation's local superior.
The serious work of fulfilling the order's vow to "protect and enhance the sacredness of human life" in all its complicated contemporary circumstances is leavened by a joyful attitude nourished through communal prayer throughout the day.
The Sisters of Life is a contemplative and active religious community founded in 1991 by the late Cardinal John J. O'Connor. The original group of eight women has grown to more than 90, and includes 30 postulants and novices in a two-year formation program.
"At the heart of our charism is a focus on the sacredness of all human life and a profound sense of reverence for every human person," said Sister Mary Elizabeth, the order's vicar general.
"Cardinal O'Connor often said every person reveals one facet of God that no one else will, and the loss of even one human life is incomparable," she said.
"One of the reasons for the joy in the community is we believe each person has some beautiful, unique goodness and we have the joy of discovering that in them and reflecting it back so she has the experience of her own dignity, goodness and strength," Sister Mary Elizabeth said. "That person becomes a gift to us in our recognizing her for who she is. She reveals to us the splendor and beauty of God."
Pregnant women hear about Visitation Mission from friends, former clients, parish priests, pregnancy care centers and other religious orders. The Sisters of Life do not advertise.
On a typical day, Sister Magdalene said, members of the order respond to phone messages, emails and texts, conduct three or four intake interviews with pregnant women, and make scores of supportive phone calls from quiet cubicles on the mission's upper floors.
"Almost all of us are on the phones all day. We really believe each woman is sent to us by God to guide her. He has an amazing plan for them and we're supposed to be the instruments to bring them home to God," Sister Magdalene said.
In the calls and interviews the sisters try to create an atmosphere to let women "empty their bucket, describe their hopes and dreams and move from a place of chaos to inner peace," she said.
Self-motivated women who need a home and can live with other people may be offered one of seven spots at the congregation's Holy Respite, a residence across town at Sacred Heart Convent on West 51st Street. Pregnant women and new mothers are welcome to stay at Holy Respite until their babies are a year old. They are encouraged to rest, bond with their children, and continue their education or work as they prepare to move on.
Sister Catherine, the local superior at Holy Respite, said the order has hosted 140 women since the doors opened 17 years ago. The refrigerator in the communal kitchen is covered with photos of children whose mothers return to visit. One of the earliest infant guests returned as a volunteer to serve her confirmation community service hours.
Strollers line the hallway and happy gurgles punctuate the buzz in the community room. Guests prepare their own breakfast and lunch, but eat dinner with one another and the sisters. They are invited, but not required, to join the sisters in communal prayer, which include Mass, Holy Hour, rosary and vespers.
While a most of the women who seek help are Catholic, many are not. The congregation welcomes women of all faiths and none.
At Holy Respite, Rohini Brijlall, who was raised in the Hindu tradition, said her belief in God is supported by "all the little miracles that were placed on my journey." As her son, Zakarya, watched from his perch on Sister Catherine's lap, Rohini described how relatives dropped her off at an abortion clinic for a procedure she did not want to undergo. When she returned home pregnant, she was no longer welcome.
She lived with the Missionaries of Charity and commuted to work as an IT specialist for Goodwill while the baby's father enrolled in a training program for electricians and lived at home. The day after she relocated to Holy Respite, she went into early labor. The sisters drove her to the hospital and stayed with her for the birth of her son.
Rohini said she drew strength from the Divine Mercy image one of the sisters gave her and is considering baptism into the Catholic faith. Zakarya's father visits every day. His parents, who initially discounted the relationship, are now supportive and the couple sees marriage in the future.
For Claudia Gutierrez and her daughter Esther, Holy Respite is "a blessing from God. I asked for a place to live for my baby and me. God knew I would need help," she said.
Gutierrez knew the Sisters of Life had a retreat center in Stamford, Connecticut, but had never visited. A religious sister put her in touch with the congregation and when she had to move from a relative's home late in her pregnancy, she came to Holy Respite. Esther was hospitalized for more than two months after birth with palate and jaw issues, now corrected. The sisters were supportive and also hosted Claudia's mother who came from the Dominican Republic for their first reunion in 12 years.
"The Sisters of Life is the best thing that happened to me," she said. "I'm more secure and have more peace in my heart."