Powerhouse of Prayer
Sister Mary Grace of the Sisters of Life, superior of the new Villa Maria Guadalupe international pro-life retreat center, is happy to take visitors on a tour of the 88-year-old facility in suburban Stamford, Conn., about 30 miles from the New Haven home of the Knights of Columbus. Walking through Villa Maria Guadalupe, Sister Mary Grace points out how the previous owners, the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters, had cared so lovingly for it for the more than 50 years they ran a retreat center, school and convent there.
The 1996 graduate of the K of C-supported Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., also speculates about how the Sisters of Life will put their own unique stamp on the place.
"Villa Maria Guadalupe will be a vibrant place," she says, walking down a hallway flanked on each side by tidy guest rooms. Passing through several large freshly painted rooms, through dining halls and a basement meeting room, and past outdoor Stations of the Cross, Sister Mary Grace talks enthusiastically about Villa Maria Guadalupe's potential.
There will be days of recollection and retreats where those on the front lines of the pro-life movement can come and "be renewed and refreshed," she says. A retreat for priests in spring 2005 is the first scheduled activity at Villa Maria Guadalupe.
Villa Maria Guadalupe will also be a place where women in crisis pregnancies will be welcomed and cared for by the five resident Sisters of Life, all in their 20s and 30s. "They’ll receive our full attention," Sister Mary Grace says. "Our whole approach is to enter into a real relationship with the moms."
Beyond that, Sister Mary Grace sees young families, engaged couples, priests and religious, and most certainly Knights of Columbus and their families coming to Villa Maria Guadalupe simply to pray with the Sisters of Life.
"The eucharistic Lord will be the center of Villa Maria Guadalupe," says Sister Mary Grace.
That was apparent at the Oct. 20 Mass of dedication which officially opened Villa Maria Guadalupe. Celebrated by Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport in the center's chapel, the Mass brought together nearly 200 friends and supporters of the new Knights of Columbus venture.
The Knights purchased the property from the Bernardine Franciscans in July 2004. Delegates to the 122nd annual Supreme Council meeting in Dallas in August ratified the decision by the Order's Board of Directors to acquire the property and collaborate with the Sisters of Life on the retreat center.
In his homily, Bishop Lori described Villa Maria Guadalupe as a "powerhouse of prayer for the cause of life." It will be a house of prayer and fasting where the Sisters of Life and their guests will always be on the alert for Christ, whether he "comes in the guise of the unborn" or "in the person of a weary pro-life worker," he said.
Knights of Columbus chaplains, counselors to women who have had abortions and pro-life volunteers, among others, "will be given encouragement, rest and fresh spiritual energy" at Villa Maria Guadalupe, Bishop Lori said.
Supreme Chaplain Bishop Thomas V. Daily concelebrated the dedication Mass. Priests from the Bridgeport Diocese and the Dominican Priory of St. Mary’s in New Haven also took part.
Setting out the mission of Villa Maria Guadalupe, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson described it as "a center for all those seeking to be inspired by the culture of life and love: of women facing crisis pregnancies and whose pregnancies have ended in tragedy; of couples contemplating marriage; of young adults seeking an authentic understanding of sexuality and love; of married couples; of priests and religious, and of all those seeking to deepen their commitment to the service of life and of its defense."
Prior to a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Anderson welcomed the Sisters of Life to Villa Maria Guadalupe by calling them "a sign of hope in the effort to build a new culture of life."
"There are no greater colleagues in this effort than the Sisters of Life, who are exclusively devoted to the protection and enhancement of the sanctity of human life," he said.
The idea for a pro-life retreat center staffed by the Sisters of Life dates back to the 1991 founding of the religious order by Cardinal John O'Connor of New York. In fact, said Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the 47-member religious community, a retreat center is the only apostolate Cardinal O'Connor spoke of directly when he was helping to establish the order.
"What makes me most excited about Villa Maria Guadalupe is that it is truly the fulfillment of the vision of our founder," said Mother Agnes. "In our view it is truly the Knights of Columbus who are the instruments of God in a work that he gave inception to in the heart of our founder. The Knights have brought this to a reality through their own responsiveness to God’s Holy Spirit."
One of the main meeting rooms at Villa Maria Guadalupe is dedicated to Cardinal O'Connor, who died in 2000. Another is dedicated to the Knights of Columbus and its founder, the Servant of God Father Michael J. McGivney.
Why it took from 1991 to 2004 for Villa Maria Guadalupe to become a reality is known only by God, Mother Agnes said. It is the first facility the Sisters have opened outside the Archdiocese of New York. They have three convents in New York City and one in Yonkers, N.Y.
"We're established now," said Mother Agnes of the young community she leads. At the direction of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York established the Sisters of Life as a religious institute of diocesan right on March 25, 2004, the feast of the Annunciation.
Though the Sisters of Life don’t actively seek out new postulants through advertising or at diocesan vocations fairs, young women are attracted to the contemplative-active religious community. Many of the postulants and Sisters have attended World Youth Day with Pope John Paul II and are responding to his call to young people to serve the Lord generously.
"The Holy Father is the vocation director," said Sister Mary Grace, who was one of the estimated 5 million people who attended World Youth Day in Manila in 1995.
Mother Agnes believes parents must be as open to a vocation of a daughter or son as the one being called. "Pray to have an openness of heart," she said. "Pray for a greater reverence of the person God has called that young man or woman to be."
Mother Agnes received her call to the convent when she was 39 and teaching developmental psychology at Columbia University in New York. Sister Mary Grace said she resisted Cardinal O'Connor’s requests for her to pursue a religious calling for several years. Finally, she admitted, "I contacted him and said, 'You’re right.' When he saw me next, he said, 'What took you so long?'"
"If we live deeply and faithfully our vocation, we believe God will help us to flourish," Mother Agnes said.
Every apostolate the Sisters of Life undertake is the fruit of their intense prayer life. "What we have seen as our community has developed is that the works aren’t even the ones that we would expect or plan to do," said Mother Agnes. "They are the works that seem to be raised up by God in the midst of our prayer and that we carry out. Villa Maria Guadalupe is an example of that. Another example is our retreat program for women who have had an abortion, called 'Entering Canaan: Hope and Healing.'"
The Sisters of Life also run a telephone ministry for women in crisis pregnancies and a research library. Their "holy respite" safehouse provides support for pregnant women being pressured to have an abortion.
The primary work of the Sisters of Life, though, is prayer. Com- munity members participate in daily Mass, chant the Liturgy of the Hours, take part in a communal holy hour and rosary before the Blessed Sacrament, and engage in periods of meditation and spiritual reading.
Sister Mary Grace said that anyone who stays with the Sisters at Villa Maria Guadalupe will be invited to pray with them. "Everything we do is sacramentally based," she said. "We hope that our retreatants will be able to pray with us the Divine Office."
"With young people, especially those discerning a vocation, we have found a readiness for prayer," said Mother Agnes. "When we speak of the contemplative-active character of our community, we have found that all our works are fruitful when they emerge from our prayer and are an expression of it."
"Cardinal O'Connor always said that the retreat center would be a place where those who are so active could come in, as he would say, 'out of the rain.' He saw what has become Villa Maria Guadalupe as a place to come out of the rain, to rest awhile and be recreated and nourished by immersing oneself in the prayer life of the Sisters," said Mother Agnes.
"We don’t pray and then work. We pray and from our prayer our work emerges," she said.
p>The newest work for the Sisters of Life is Villa Maria Guadalupe. They are thankful first of all to God for answered prayers, to Cardinal O'Connor for his vision and to the Knights of Columbus for making that vision a reality.
"It's hard for us to believe that this has truly come to be," Mother Agnes said. "The more we’re here, the more it sinks in."
"I was first introduced to the Knights of Columbus at the John Paul II Institute," said Sister Mary Grace. "We're so grateful to God that the Knights have asked us to collaborate with them in this work. We make a good team. The different gifts that we bring to this endeavor complement each other very well."
"I want to extend an invitation to every Knight of Columbus and family to come to Villa Maria Guadalupe," said Mother Agnes. "Come on a retreat. Give us a call. The door is open."
Tim S. Hickey is editor of Columbia.