Young Nuns: Meet Suffern’s Sisters of Life

A fairly new order of nuns have fun



From left: Sisters Brigid, Maris Stella, and Mariam Caritas take a moment to smile for the camera

Photograph by Michael Polito

If it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times: Catholicism is a stuffy old religion that is irrelevant in today’s modern culture. Yet according to the Pew Research Center, it’s not so irrelevant after all. Roughly 25 percent of American adults identify themselves as Catholics — the largest single tradition in the country, followed by those who are unaffiliated with any faith (16.1 percent) and Evangelical Baptists (10.6 percent). Indeed, there are so many Catholics in the Valley that two diocese are needed to fit them all. Of the 78 active parishes in our counties, those in Rockland, Orange, Ulster, Dutchess, and Putnam are part of the Archdiocese of New York, while parishes in Greene, Albany, Rensselaer, and Columbia belong to the Diocese of Albany.

An increasing number of 20-somethings are finding the Catholic faith an attractive one, which represents a shift from previous generations. “At one time, very often young people got so caught up in college and careers that other things went into the background, including religion,” says Bishop Dominick Lagonegro, Episcopal Vicar of the Northern Vicariates for the Archdiocese of New York, who resides in Newburgh. Traditionally, these individuals would return to the Church after they settled down and had kids, yet Bishop Lagonegro is now seeing more people returning before that stage of life. “Now I am seeing more and more young adults becoming very active in the Catholic Church. I think that number is growing because it’s an age group that has an interest in trying to make the world better.”

Believe it or not, a good number of those young Catholics are becoming priests and nuns. Case in point: the Sisters of Life, an order whose members have a median age of around 30. These aren’t the black-and-white clad stern old nuns of old. These Sisters wear blue and white habits and what seem like perpetual smiles. The order (whose Annunciation Motherhouse is located in Suffern) promotes human dignity, primarily by providing assistance to pregnant women.

“We tend to be getting younger these days,” says Sr. Mariam Caritas, who lives in the Suffern convent. “When we were first founded, the women who joined were more mature. For the past eight or 10 years, women have been entering either right out of college or shortly thereafter.”

The order itself is young, too: “We’ll be 23 in June,” says Sr. Mariam. (To put that in perspective, some religious orders, like the Carmelites, have existed since the 1200s.) The late Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York in the ’80s and ’90s, founded the community in 1991 after visiting the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. “He put his hand in the crematoria oven and thought, ‘How can human beings do this to other human beings?’ At that point he vowed to do everything he could to uphold the dignity of human life,” says Sr. Mariam. Starting with just eight women, the order now numbers close to 70 members, who come from literally all corners of the globe: There are several Canadians, a few from Europe, and many from Australia and New Zealand.

class

Some first year novices and postulants attend class (above) with Fr. Joseph W. Koterski, associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University Below, Fr. Koterski begins Mass for the Sisters in their chapel

mass

So who enters a convent these days? The answer to that is just about anyone. Each woman has a unique background: Sr. Mariam worked on a college campus, Sr. Grace Dominic had a career in journalism, and Sr. Maris Stella graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis and spent several years in the Navy. “It was actually while I was in the military stationed in Europe that I really grew in my faith,” she says of her decision process. “I saw the beauty and privilege of religious life there.”

Of course, it’s not always easy leaping into religious life. “When you enter, you have little sense of what it’s like; it’s an adjustment,” says Sr. Mariam. “Everything is so new. When I joined in 2005, it took me a little while to get over the big move from my home in central Illinois to New York.” Living with many people means encountering many personalities. “We all bring different experiences,” she continues. “Communal life is so important to us.”

She also uses another word that might not often be associated with convent life: fun. But the way she describes it, with a large smile and light in her eyes, it does sound fun. These women are far from confined within the walls of the convent. They frequently travel around the country, even internationally, to serve as speakers and recruiters for their order (among myriad other reasons). They sometimes can be spotted around the Valley and New York City — looking as if they stepped straight out of a Nuns Having Fun calendar — apple-picking, ice skating, putting on dinners to thank their supporters, and the like.

When a woman first joins the Sisters of Life, she spends one year as a postulant adjusting to religious communal living, and then two years as a novice. It is during the novitiate that she receives her habit. “I’ve been asked if I get tired of wearing the habit, but it’s a gift reminding me I’m not just for myself. I’m for the church; I’m for the world,” says Sr. Mariam. Once the novitiate years are complete, the woman professes her vows.

The novices live in the Annunciation Motherhouse, an expansive building that was donated to the community in 2012 and sits at the top of a large hill. (Said hill, the Sisters confided, was often used for sledding during this wild winter). A typical day starts and ends with prayer — about four hours total. “We’re a contemplative apostolic order, which means the works we do are truly fueled by prayer. It’s central to who we are,” Sr. Mariam explains. A novice also spends much time in class studying everything from Catholic doctrine to philosophy.

Aside from nine novices, 11 professed Sisters reside in Suffern, including Superior General Mother Agnes, in what is known as the generalate. “Those Sisters handle our finances and administrative stuff — some things we don’t want to do but are really glad someone does,” Sr. Mariam laughs.

Following the novice years, the women are sent to New York City, where they give material assistance and shelter to pregnant women. Sr. Grace Dominic says they see all ages and types — from teenagers to married women to successful professionals — and serve up to 800 each year. “When a woman comes to us, she can need a thousand different things, but mostly she just needs to know she’s not alone,” Sr. Grace says.

That camaraderie is what the Sisters do best, whether it’s providing a shoulder to cry on at a retreat for women who regret having an abortion, or simple encouragement for someone who doesn’t think she can raise her child on her own. Sr. Maris Stella recalls a single woman in her late 30s whose doctors were convinced her child would have Down syndrome and encouraged her to terminate her pregnancy. Against this advice, she decided to have the baby. “We just supported her decision and showed her it was possible. When the baby was born, she didn’t have Down syndrome,” Sr. Maris Stella says.

“That’s the bulk of our mission, to love every woman who comes to us,” says Sr. Grace. “Once she knows she is loved, she can make a decision of love for her child.”

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