The Power of This Place
On Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2014, the Knights of Columbus Supreme Officers, led by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, joined the Sisters of Life and guests to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Villa Maria Guadalupe, the Order’s retreat center in Stamford, Conn. The celebration began with Mass celebrated by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport and continued with lunch, providing time for fellowship and reflection on the decade-long partnership between the sisters and the Knights.
“This is a sacred place where people can come and deepen their love for the Lord,” Bishop Caggiano said in his homily. “In the great task for all of us to be faithful, I am very grateful that Villa Maria Guadalupe is here. I am grateful for the Knights of Columbus and your dedication to this holy place. And sisters, I am grateful for your witness here: your service, your ministry, your generosity.”
Several current and past chaplains of the Sisters of Life concelebrated the Mass, after which the Knights and guests joined the sisters for a group picture in front of the retreat center.
The nearly 100-year-old facility, which includes a chapel, refectory, convent and 50 guest rooms, previously served as a convent for the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. The Order purchased it in July 2004, and the building was renamed Villa Maria Guadalupe in October 2004 after area Knights renovated the facility’s interior and exterior.
At the anniversary celebration, Mother Agnes Mary, superior general of the Sisters of Life, shared how she had first learned of the Order’s idea to open a retreat center. In early 2004, she received a phone call from Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori, then-bishop of Bridgeport, and immediately recalled the words of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, founder of the Sisters of Life. Speaking to the sisters in July 1998, seven years after establishing the community with the special charism to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life, Cardinal O’Connor said that he dreamed of opening a pro-life retreat center that would be “a place of peace, a place of tranquility, a place of light and refreshment, a place of love.” Building a culture of love, he added, requires “the conversion of souls, the conversion of hearts.”
Cardinal O’Connor died in 2000 and never saw this retreat center become a reality. But after receiving that phone call from Bishop Lori in 2004, Mother Agnes Mary was delighted to learn that the Holy Spirit had the same idea in mind.
“This apostolate that had been the vision of the cardinal was coming to birth without our ever having done a thing, and I think without the participants realizing what they were doing,” she said.
Nine sisters currently reside at Villa Maria Guadalupe, including Sister Mary Karen, who has served as the local superior for six years. The sisters serve some 1,600 retreatants each year, including men and women involved with the pro-life movement; pregnant women, single mothers and those wounded by abortion; and others, including priests, religious, married couples and young adults.
The sisters also host a number of other events at Villa Maria each year, such as the annual Fiesta Guadalupe marking the Dec. 12 feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of life, and an annual Mother’s Day celebration.
“Villa Maria Guadalupe is a house of healing a special place of grace for thousands of people who have come,” said Sister Mary Karen. “Almost every weekend, someone walks through the front doors and says, ‘I’ve never been here before, but I feel like I just came home.’”
Following lunch at the anniversary celebration, the sisters presented a video of people telling about the graces they received at Villa Maria Guadalupe and expressing their gratitude to the Knights of Columbus.
“We had to show you some of the things that we experience and that demonstrate the power of this place,” said Mother Agnes. She then presented a handmade card to Supreme Knight Anderson, illustrated by one of the sisters, and said that the community would pray a novena of Masses for the intentions of the Knights of Columbus.
In his own brief remarks, Anderson noted that Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, about the necessity of “a heart that sees where love is needed and acts accordingly” (cf. 30).
“I can think of no better description of a Sister of Life,” the supreme knight said. “It really is the job, the mission, the vocation of followers of Jesus to make clear to the world whose image is in the face of the child. And that’s really what you do, and you do it joyfully. And you give everyone in the Church, especially the Knights of Columbus, great hope and great encouragement.”
Finally, the supreme knight presented Mother Agnes with a special gift to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the retreat center: a gold chalice, featuring an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The dedication of Villa Maria Guadalupe in 2004 marked the first expansion of the Sisters of Life outside of the Archdiocese of New York. Since that time, the community has grown to more than 80 members and has extended its mission internationally, opening a convent in Toronto in 2007.