Sisters of Life: 30 years of saving babies in New York
WINDSOR TERRACE — Sister Virginia Joy, S.V., a native of Greenville, South Carolina, never thought she would find herself based in New York City. But as one of the Sisters of Life, she’s now living and working in what is widely known as the abortion capital of the U.S., saving babies and helping mothers pick up the pieces of their lives.
“Most of us are not from New York and would not have chosen to live here,” said Sister Virginia, who entered the Sisters of Life community in 2009. “In some ways, you can say, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe we’re here,’ and in other ways, you think, ‘This is exactly where we’re supposed to be.’ ”
Another young Sister of Life, Sister Gianna Maria, S.V., who entered in 2010 when she was in her early 20s, also feels she is where she belongs.
“It can be very striking to walk through Times Square or down Fifth Avenue and see the search for materialism, individualism, and hedonism. It’s all around,” she said. “But rather than being something that is scary, the Lord wants us to be planted so that hearts can know that they’re loved and hearts can be converted to the Lord.”
The Sisters of Life have been at work for 30 years in the Archdioceses of New York. The order was founded in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor (1920-2000) as a community of women religious who, along with the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, take a fourth vow — to protect the sacredness of life.
The story of how Cardinal O’Connor, the former Archbishop of New York, got the inspiration to start the religious order is itself inspirational.
At one point on a visit to Germany, he walked through the remains of a Nazi concentration camp in Dachau. As he placed his hand inside a crematorium where the Nazis burned their victims, he contemplated the tragedy of their lack of respect for human life. He said he recognized a lack of such respect in his own time and returned from that trip determined to start a religious community dedicated to promoting life.
Eight women entered the order on the day it was founded, June 1, 1991. Today, there are 116 member Sisters. In the summer of 2020, five women professed their first vows.
Sister Gianna, who is originally from Wilmington, Delaware, admits she had “beautiful plans for my life” that initially included a career as a nurse, but later felt God’s calling.
“He led me to the sisters, through various means, through another amazing community and praying with them, actually right around the time of Pentecost,” she said. “It was amazing to be open to the charism of life and the Sisters of Life were really placed in my heart,” she said.
The sisters adhere to their mission in a number of ways.
There is a crisis pregnancy center, the Visitation Center of the Sisters of Life, at St. Andrew’s Church in lower Manhattan, which helps more than 1,000 women a year.
“We have encountered in our mission vulnerable, pregnant women, those who might be feeling so alone in an unexpected pregnancy,” said Sister Gianna, who serves at the center. “We offer material support. We don’t offer them just diapers and a stroller, but love, so that they know that they’re not alone.”
When Sister Virginia stops to think about the countless babies that have been saved, it takes her breath away.
“We have this huge Mother’s Day gathering, and we literally bus women from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx,” she said. “We host them at our retreat house in Connecticut, with all their kids on an expansive ground and they can kind of just run around. We just look and marvel. How many of these lives wouldn’t be?”
The sisters also serve in the Respect for Life Office of the Archdiocese of New York, where Sister Virginia is the director.
Among other duties, the sisters host weekend retreats, helping women who have had abortions through the Hope and Healing program. Their mission also includes an evangelization program in which the sisters do public speaking engagements and a College Student Outreach where they offer advice and support to students at several campuses in Colorado.
“So many in our culture have forgotten that life is good and that they’re good. They might not know that their lives matter and that God loves them. The Sisters of Life really exist so that we can share that message that God loves them and that their life is beautiful,” Sister Virginia said.
She made the decision to live a religious life in her late 20s, but the seeds had been planted in her heart years earlier.
“I was born and raised in the South. I really didn’t think about it,” she said. “But as I grew in my faith and after college, I recognized that God has a plan for my life. And then it was work to kind of discover what this particular plan is for me.”
One memory from childhood stuck out. At a parish mission, she heard a woman talk about the emotional trauma she was experiencing after having an abortion.
“I was probably 11 years old,” Sister Virginia remembers. “It was life-changing for me to hear her recount what she went through.
“So that always has been with me but really it was after college when I felt like God was actually inviting me to religious life.”