On the day when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its own 1973 ruling allowing abortion nationwide, a community of religious sisters dedicated to upholding the sacredness of all human life was gathered at its New York Motherhouse, about to witness some of their members renew their vows. The community, the Sisters of Life, profess the three traditional Catholic religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but also take a fourth: to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life.
“It was so precious a day, because it was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and it also happened to be June 24, [normally] the feast of St. John the Baptist, who leapt for joy in the womb of his mother. Most of us were together at the Motherhouse – about 100 in total,” said Sister Bethany Madonna, SV, superior of the Sisters’ Phoenix, Arizona, convent. “We found out at 10:15 a.m. that Roe v. Wade had been overturned, and the Mass began at 11 a.m., where 10 Sisters renewed their vows. … So when we heard, it was like a dream. There were tears and embraces. … The bishop who was with us for the renewal of vows took us into the chapel, and the Sisters began chanting the Te Deum, a song of praise in the Church reserved for solemnities. The Sisters were able to renew their vows just following the announcement. It was so beautiful.”
The community had been praying for this outcome since the Supreme Court decided to consider Dobbs v. Jackson, a case in which the state of Mississippi sought to ban abortions much earlier than Roe had allowed. The community also encouraged others to pray for the discernment and guidance of the justices considering the case. Part of their prayer was “for a new era of protection for the unborn,” Sister Bethany Madonna said.
And yet, the Sisters, like most people in the pro-life movement, don’t regard the Dobbs decision as the end of all pro-life struggles.
“We see it as a beginning, not an end, and we recognize that more women will find themselves in need, and we’re so eager to meet them and be able to receive them,” she said in an interview. “We’ve renewed our commitment to love and to be present to all women and to all those who find themselves pregnant and in a vulnerable or difficult position in their pregnancy, to uphold them, walk with them, provide for them.”
The community does that in a number of ways, but at the basis of everything they do is the Sisters’ life of prayer and communion with God.
“We exist to proclaim with our lives that every person is loved, unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable, necessary and worthy of being upheld and defended,” said Sister Bethany Madonna. “We have so many missions that articulate that.”
Those missions include evangelization retreats, and direct service to women who are pregnant and feel that they need to get an abortion. They recently released a 12-part video series and study guide, INTO LIFE: Love Changes Everything, which makes accessible their training on how to accompany a woman who is struggling with the question of abortion. The Sisters also have the Hope & Healing Mission for women who have experienced abortion and feel remorseful and are suffering from it. The Sisters receive them with love and walk with them on a journey of hope and healing through the mercy of Jesus, through spiritual accompaniment and retreats.
Respite and outreach
In New York, where the community was founded by Cardinal John J. O’Connor in 1991, the Sisters have dedicated an entire convent to serve as a place for expectant mothers to live. They call the place “a holy respite,” where the women are immersed in an environment of peace, familial warmth and support. In both New York and Toronto, the sisters host weekend retreats for women of all ages, teaching people how to pray and experience the life of Christ in the sacraments and his presence in the Eucharist.
In Denver and Phoenix, the Sisters conduct outreach on university campuses. “We accompany college students on their journey, meet one-on-one with the women, host programs and invite students into our prayers,” Sister Bethany Madonna explained. “We really want them at such a critical, crucial moment in their lives to experience their own belovedness, to know that they are deeply good and known by God and seen, and that He has a plan for their lives.”
“We evangelize by speaking about the sacredness and dignity of every life, the beauty of life, that no suffering, no sin, no pain is beyond the tender mercy of Jesus, and he can make everything new when we trust him,” she said.
Mission at the state level
Asked whether the Sisters’ mission might be changing now, in a country where legal abortion is no longer the “law of the land,” Sister Bethany Madonna said it would depend on where sisters live and work.
“In the state of Arizona, abortion was just dramatically limited,” she said. “It’s only permissible in the case of the life endangerment of the mother or severely compromised health. It is not legal in other circumstances. That is miraculous. But we do live by two states where it is legal, so women could drive to obtain an abortion.”
She thinks that for some Arizona women, having to go to another state – with added cost and inconvenience – might “buy time for her to pause, to reconsider.”
On the other hand, a state like New York is trying to make itself a destination for abortion, she said. “So our sisters in New York anticipate there may be an increase of women coming in from out of state.”
“We recognize that one of the main reasons a woman would choose an abortion is out of fear,” Sister Bethany Madonna said. “Often there’s just so much fear that drives the decision: ‘Can I do this – financially, emotionally, physically? What are people going to say? Fear of the father of the child, fear of parents, fear of losing scholarships, job opportunities or reputations. So what we say, quoting the first letter of St. John, is that perfect love casts out fear.
“So when we receive the women finding themselves pregnant and tempted by abortion, often with appointments already scheduled, we receive them in love, we listen to them, and we basically say ‘What was the dream? And what if it could still happen? What if this pregnancy doesn’t mean your life is over? And are you willing to let us walk with you and see how God wants to provide for you?’”
She said that God “always provides for the women in the most lavish, particular and creative ways we have seen.” The Sisters are assisted by Co-Workers of Life – men and women who volunteer their time, talents and treasures. She gave examples of Co-Workers finding jobs or housing for women who were tempted to abort.
She said that once women “experience that someone believes in them, once they begin receiving the material and emotional support, you see them almost like a flower begin to open up to receive. And they blossom in their maternity. So often they’ve been told ‘You can’t do this. You’re not able to do this. I won’t help you.’ But when they’re told ‘You’re trustworthy,’ ‘You can do this,’ ‘I believe in you, and I’m going to be with you. We’re going to walk this together,’ it’s night and day what that does to the heart of a woman and opening her up and allowing her to live her love. They heroically choose sacrificial love.”
As Dobbs has returned the question of protecting unborn life to the states, the fight over abortion will continue in courts and legislatures and in the public square. But for the Sisters who take the fourth vow, life goes on.