Hope for the Pro-Life Generation: Mother Assumpta interviews Mother Agnes Donovan of The Sisters of Life

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Mother Agnes Mary Donovan of the Sisters of Life shares the foundation story of her order, propelled by Cardinal O’Connor, and gives an in-depth look at the good work she and her sisters do to help women and men across the country, especially young mothers looking for a way to bear and raise their children rather than aborting.

Mother Assumpta: 

We are so blessed today to have Mother Agnes Donovan of the Sisters of Life with us. If we ever needed her community, we need it today. I’m so glad she is with us so she can fill us in on a lot of information that all of us are very interested in. 

Mother Agnes Donovan: 

It’s truly a blessing to be here with you. I would never have thought that this would happen. 

Mother Assumpta:

Tell us a little bit about your family. Family is so important today. 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

Graces flow through the generations. One of the wondrous parts that I reflect upon more lately is my mother and the reality of her own healing. She was a woman who suffered in her late teens and through her 20s with tuberculosis to the point where she was terminally ill. She visited Fr. Solanus Casey and received a healing, and within months she was engaged to be married to my father who she had dated years prior to the illness. I look at the mystery of that, that I exist and my seven siblings by God’s grace. We are an Irish family of faith. You can imagine what my mother’s background is. There was a great devotion in her heart to the Lord and in my father, so we were raised at a time when there was coherence in the culture and in communities, so being raised in a farming community of Irish farmers, it was all one piece: the Church and life and families. It was a great stable foundation and introduction to the integration of faith in life, for which I’m grateful. 

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Mother Assumpta:

I think that families are suffering so much today, and I see that route in the faith. How did you get into the particular education that you got into coming from a farming background? 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

My parents were both educators, although my father’s family had been farmers, but after the war they left active farming because small farms were not a realistic way to move forward, and I think it was native to them. They loved teaching, so I was intrigued by it, but I was also intrigued by psychology, so I decided to study psychology and worked in that field in the schools with young children, looking mostly at developmental issues and family issues and helping them adjust their learning styles to become successful. 

Mother Assumpta:

What colleges are you teaching at?

Mother Agnes Donovan:

I did teach at William and Mary, and before I entered religious life, I was teaching at Teachers College at Columbia in Miranda City. 

Mother Assumpta:

I remember when Cardinal O’Connor put an ad in the paper “help wanted,” and I can remember a help wanted for the pro-life community, and I can’t remember whether I actually wrote him, but I thought about it. Did you respond immediately to that call for help?

Mother Agnes Donovan: 

I didn’t actually, but the sisters in my group did. They responded specifically to that ad. I had just moved to New York and wasn’t yet getting the Catholic paper. He wrote in October. I often went to St. Patrick’s because he was an outrageously effective preacher. One day, I was there when he spoke of the fact that he was founding a contemplatively active Apostolic community, and I had recently received a Grace that was transformative in my life, which was a recognition of a call to religious consecration. When I heard that, I thought, “Oh my goodness, I need to ask what this is all about. What is he up to?” One thing led to another. 

Mother Assumpta:

It is unbelievable how the Providence of God works in individuals and that you would have answered this call. It’s fascinating to me. How did this come about? These women responded to him.

Mother Agnes Donovan:

We have to go back a bit in his life. You will remember the story of the grace of the charism of life. He was in the military for 27 years, assigned largely to the NATO nations in Europe, and he was on retreat in Germany at the Carmel on the perimeter of the concentration camp in Dachau. He told the story of how he was praying that day walking about the camp and walked toward the crematorium and through them, and he speaks of a mystical experience where he placed his hands, and you can tell that they’re moving beyond the physical reality of movement to something spiritual. He said he placed his hands in the semicircular red brick ovens, and he said, “I could feel the intermingled ashes of man and woman, of child, of priests and Rabbi,” and went on and on, and he said, “My soul cried out to God: good God, how could man do this to man?” It was then that he would claim that a plea was impressed upon his soul, and it was as if a call to defend the dignity of the human person with the rest of his life. He would then quote Scripture and say, “A light shone in the darkness, which could not overcome it.” 

Mother Assumpta:

It was a powerful grace that he happened to be in that particular spot at that particular time, and I was thinking even when he founded the Sisters of Life, who would ever know that our culture has gone this far, and I think that he began it at the right time, and God has certainly blessed it. Have you seen the growth and the Camaro from the beginning? 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

There were eight of us at the beginning, five of whom are still with the community and you arrived and were a critical part of our beginning. You arrived on the Queenship of Mary in 1992. How wonderful it was. We had you for a full year with Sister Yvonne Mary. For a year you were our formater, drawing us into the greatest and the deepest traditions of religious life and leading us to understand their beauty and forming us as novices, teaching us all those classes on the documents of the Second Vatican Council and working yourself so closely with Cardinal O’Connor to faithfully interpret his vision for the community. It was a wondrous year of formation. 

Mother Assumpta:

It was one of the greatest years of my life. It was so healthy. I remember being concerned about this, and I don’t know if I ever said anything to you or not, but it was so beautiful. I was always concerned because the Sisters of Life were so special to him. I know that whenever we went to the cathedral, you always had the first pew. There were wonderful sisters there in the diocese, and you are special, but you always make sure you go out to the other religious because he loved them too, but this was his creation, and he had a special love for you. I’m sure that he probably thinks that this was one of the greatest things he did as Archbishop. I realized this, and I thought there’s something wonderful going on here. 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

It tells you something about him that he would think that this was the greatest thing, because even in his lifetime we were still very small and fledgling, yet he was unswerving in his dedication, loyalty, and hope for this, which tells you that he was operating with a spiritual vision, that he believed God was going to do this. It wasn’t of his making. He believed he was called forth to do it and if this is of God, it will endure. If it wasn’t, that was all right. 

Mother Assumpta:

I remember my first week we met, and he believed at that time. I think he changed a little that the community was governed by the group, so y’all were expressing all kinds of ideas. I thought, “Oh no, they don’t know anything about religious life,” but it was so beautiful how the Holy Spirit works through all that. I would tell him if I didn’t agree with him. He was wonderful because he had a humility, yet he was very strong. We didn’t mind expressing our opinions. I must say with all of you there, I will never forget you were wonderful. I was amazed because y’all had designed your habit and picked up a lot of things you have done, and I just wanted to do what I could. 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

You gave us something that we could not have given ourselves. You loved religious life and valued the traditions and the disciplines that led to the full flowering of one’s religious consecration. Without that we would have fallen apart. You came and saw what was going on. It wasn’t bad, but it was unknowing, and slowly and very gently but firmly, you drew us to say, no this is how we should do it. We should be up at this hour to pray and the beauty of discipline that allows for the individual flourishing of the sister, for the flourishing of the apostolate, and for the purposefulness with which we live life. 

Mother Assumpta: 

He showed how good your sisters were. I remember being very ratified because I thought, “They don’t want me to come in and see.” Look how it’s grown. The list of convents where you are is amazing. What are we doing? 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

We’re in about eleven convents now, and a good number of them in the New York metropolitan area. We’re also in Toronto. That was our first distant foundation, and then in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Denver. We will be opening a new convent in the near future too. We’ve never had explosive growth, but God has blessed us with steady growth, and it’s clear to us that He wants this because He sends us beautiful young women, as I see in your community, who desire Holiness and who desire to come out of the culture, which is often damaging to the human person. Having found Jesus and the truth of the human person in the Gospel, they desire greatly to bring that message to their own peers who are suffering. 

Mother Assumpta:

Vocations are marvelous, and I found that all of the young women called to your community had such a love for life. I remember even when I was there, I had a love for life, but I didn’t have the charism, and I told the Cardinal that I can’t do anything about your charism of what you’re going to do, and it was beautiful to see how God calls these women to a particular Community. They were also pro-life and in it. 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

It began with evangelization. We were doing a mission of evangelization bringing the message of God’s great gift of life and the dignity and sacredness of the human person, and as we brought that gift, what became obvious was it’s so easily forgot these days, and so then we are at the service of those who have been touched by the irreverence of the culture. We serve young, vulnerable, pregnant women, around a thousand a year in Toronto and Philadelphia and mainly in New York who come to us, who are frightened out of their minds with this turn of events, who desire some alternative other than the death of their child, and who are looking to see what is possible. It’s beautiful to accompany these women and then with a cadre of thousands of co-workers, we actually provide for all of their needs so that they can make a realistic choice to bring this child to birth because these women are often confronted with the thought “either my life’s over or this child’s life is over,” and it doesn’t have to be that way, and they become beautiful witnesses to that. We also have in women gathered round us who had suffered abortion and came to us and said, “We see you helping young pregnant women. Would you help us?” and with their help and collaboration out of that grew a powerful Mission of Hope and Healing to women suffering after abortion. Over these retreats and weekends and by way of our accompaniment, you witness the Paschal mystery. You move from Good Friday to the Resurrection of the Redemption and the Redemption of their relationship with God. They often feel so grieved and shamed by this, and to see them born into the life of Grace is unbelievably beautiful to all of us. 

Mother Assumpta: 

How long after birth do you allow the women to stay?

Mother Agnes Donovan:

 Some live with us and will usually accompany their stay with us in our convents for six to ten months until they’re well on their feet and have found what they need to order the beginnings of their lives together as a little family, and then they’ll stay with us for years. They come back to our Christmas parties now with mascara, the ones who were first born, and they’re delightful. They’ll tell us that they remember living here. It’s not possible. They were 6 months old when they moved out, but their mothers have kept alive the love that they experienced. 

Mother Assumpta:

Do you do any ministry with men? 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

We do. Obviously, when we’re working with a young woman who’s pregnant, we’re often working with the father of that child, and we have wonderful co-workers who are men who will mentor and walk with that young father, hopefully with the intention of bringing him to a greater awareness of his own fatherhood. We also serve on campus as a part of our evangelization. We’re on a number of campuses in the Colorado area doing a college evangelization mission to students, and it is beautiful. We will often serve men and women in our programs of prayer, just our accompaniment, our presence, and our retreats for young men and women and pilgrimages because they have priests on campus but often do not have religious. We have a special call to the young women on those campuses.

Mother Assumpta:

Do you find that when you minister to the men that it’s succeeded that they get back together or not? For instance, the women, if they live with you for 10 months, they’ve got to go out and get a job as they’re single moms. Do people help them find a job or housing?

Mother Agnes Donovan:

Definitely. All of that is what we’re helping them put together, the whole of their life before they take the next step so that they have a place. They have reliable and safe childcare. They have work for themselves so that they’re able to provide for their children. We have a lot of co-workers who assist us in all these ways. It struck us one day that with the vow of poverty that we couldn’t provide for these women, but it caused us to call forth the faithful people of God whose Faith desired to be animated, who wished to work on behalf of life. Now because of our needs, they have ways that are consistent for them. They love to accompany a woman to a doctor’s appointment. These young men are so wonderful moving a woman from this apartment to that apartment or whatever is needed there. 

Mother Assumpta:

I love it. When you read the history of the Church, I think of Teresa of Avila or anyone that founded, it’s always been these terrifically people that helped financially, and we’re in the same position, and they have this great love for the faith. Many now, as far as we’re concerned, have a great love that they received a good Catholic education and they want religious. There are so many people now that are pro-life, and I’m sure they feel it a great honor to do anything they can for you. Do you see an improvement in the culture of pro-life? You get good reports now. 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

My take is that if you look at the media, things are desperately bad. That’s obvious. I would say that culturally broadly speaking, we are in a descending trajectory unraveling some of the most basic foundations of our culture and our faith. A family of Faith don’t seem to exist. At the same time, and this is where my hope springs from, I see a tremendous number of young people who search for things that will sustain their lives and are, as St. Paul said to the Athenians, searching and looking by way of unknown gods, and when presented with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there is a power there, and a conversion that often happens and that they will live the faith more fervently than their parents who had it more nominally. I have great hope for them. 

Mother Assumpta:

I think there’s great hope in the young people. What you do on campuses for the young people, and then what we in education do to help the young.

Mother Agnes Donovan:

Strengthen them in their native sense within their heart that this is right, even though the culture is telling them it’s wrong. I don’t think we’ll ever make the news, but at some point, I think the groundswell will have a meaningful critical mass that could possibly change the trajectory, or the other possibility is that it gets bad enough that there is a certain kind of yuck factor. We don’t want to live like this. This is not who we are. 

Mother Assumpta:

I’m right with you on that. I think when is this going to crash? You don’t think our culture could get worse, and it gets worse, but there’s great hope because God is greater than any of this. 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

I often love reflecting on Tolkien’s notion of the eucatastrophe. He spoke of the Resurrection as a eucatastrophe. Good Friday had been lived by the most faithful of His disciples, and they had no or little reason to remember after all the horror what He had said that He would rise again, and there it was on Easter Sunday. I expect that at some point in our lifetimes, hopefully, or maybe it’s going to be for the next generation, there will be that moment of redemption and Resurrection within our great nation and our people and a restoration of the great dignity of ourselves as persons.

Mother Assumpta:

We live in a wonderful country when you think about it, so let’s be happy. Let’s rejoice in the good things that the Lord [has given] and get out there and rejoice in the cross, and we too will have a resurrection. Mother, I can’t thank you enough for what your sisters are doing. You are very dear to my heart. 

Mother Agnes Donovan:

You are to ours as well. We always feel that when we come to visit you we’ve come home to see our cousins. It was like going home. 


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