It’s been nearly 30 years since her abortion. She’s since repented, married, and had children. But “Amy” still feels the echoes of that act in her life, and four or five years ago, it was really getting to her.
“I’d gone to counseling, but it was never addressed as the deep problem it was,” she said in a recent interview. “One day, I was just not being rational. I felt my friends didn’t want to be friends with me.”
“My husband said to me, ‘You need post-abortive counseling.’”
Though she lived in the south, Amy heard about the New York-based Sisters of Life and the work they do with post-abortive women. At some of their convents and other locations in the New York metropolitan area, they host days of recollection and retreats as part of an effort toward healing and reconciliation. It’s a ministry they’ve been involved in for more than a dozen years.
One of the locations they use for such retreats is Villa Maria Guadalupe, a retreat house they opened in Stamford, Connecticut five years ago, around the time Amy was reaching out for help.
Villa Maria Guadalupe’s retreats are not limited to sessions for post-abortive women. The house is alive with functions for people in the pro-life movement, for young adults and for women discerning vocations. But as a retreat house dedicated to advancing the sanctity of human life, it is unique.
The house’s mission statement says that “Villa Maria Guadalupe promises to play a unique and integral role as the spiritual foundation of the Culture of Life.”
“We hope to provide a flavor in every retreat of building up a culture of life,” said Sister Dorothy Guadalupe, superior of Villa Maria Guadalupe. “It may not be obvious to those on the retreat, but in the manner in which we offer the retreat, the Culture of Life will be built up in a variety of ways.”
“Our role is to bring them to Christ, throw them in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and allow him to work on their hearts,” she said.
CARDINAL O’CONNOR ’S VISION
The Sisters of Life have been in existence since Cardinal John O’Connor started the group in the early 1990s. A giant in the pro-life movement himself, the archbishop of New York had an inspiration to found a religious community for the purpose of praying for and promoting the sanctity of human life.
This month, the sisters celebrate five years since becoming a religious institute of diocesan right.
Part of Cardinal O’Connor’s vision was that the sisters would run a retreat house to advance the cause of respect for human life. That vision finally came to reality four years after his death in 2000.
The retreat house and its spacious grounds in Stamford, Connecticut, less than an hour’s drive outside of New York City, are owned by the Knights of Columbus, whose world headquarters are less than an hour to the northeast in New Haven. The Knights, who have long been committed to the pro-life cause, bought the complex from the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. It was once a private estate, and for years, the Bernardines ran a retreat house there known as Villa Maria. Adding the name Guadalupe was a natural: Our Lady of Guadalupe is patroness of the pro-life cause.
After much refurbishing, the 40-room retreat house was dedicated in October 2004, and Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said it would be a “haven of refuge, solace, and consolation; a sanctuary for spiritual growth, understanding, and strength.” He called it a “spiritual home for the people of life and for life.”
Anderson predicted Villa Maria Guadalupe would become an “international center for all those seeking to be inspired by the culture of life and love: for women facing crisis pregnancies and those whose pregnancies have ended in tragic circumstances; for couples contemplating marriage; for young adults seeking an authentic understanding of sexuality, chastity, and love; for married couples; for priests and religious, and for all those seeking to deepen their commitment to the service of life and to its defense.”
The sisters offer three types of retreats: those that promote the theology of the body, retreats for those active in the pro-life movement, and retreats for women.
Individuals who are simply seeking spiritual nourishment can come, whether they are active in pro-life work or not, and often they don’t realize that it’s a specifically pro-life retreat house,
Sister Dorothy Guadalupe said. Groups such as parish pro-life societies, campus ministries, and young adult groups also have come here for retreats. Sister Dorothy Guadalupe believes that women are particularly challenged in a highly secularized society to live out the gospel of life, and that the Sisters of Life, as women, can reach out better to them. Recent retreats included one for young single women called “Living the Confidence of the Saints.” Another was for married couples, another for married women raising children.
THEOLOGY OF THE BODY
The twice-yearly theology of the body retreats are meant to help people integrate the language of theology of the body into their lives. “It moves it from head knowledge to heart knowledge,” said Sister Dorothy Guadalupe.
“Respect for life begins in the openness to life in the conjugal union,” said Father Walter Schu, who has led the last two such retreats. Father Schu, a member of the Legionaries of Christ, is author of The Splendor of Love, a book about Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.
He noted that, in addition to helping retreatants understand how the theology of the body applies to their lives, one of those retreats also seemed to help them express pro-life ideas. Toward the end of the retreat, participants entered into a discussion “where you could tell it gave them a new language to express the inner conviction they had,” he said. “One of their worries was being able to convince others of their message. So it has an apostolic dimension.”
Somewhat similar are retreats for people active in the pro-life cause. “One of Cardinal O’Connor’s visions for the Sisters of Life retreat center was for those active in the movement who are prone to burnout, to come and be renewed in Christ so they can take Christ to those they serve,” said Sister Dorothy Guadalupe. “One of those retreats consists of reflections on [Pope John Paul II’s encyclical,] The Gospel of Life, ‘Gazing on the Face of Christ’—to be able to see Christ in everyone.” That retreat will be held this month, March 13-15, and will be led by Fordham philosophy professor Father Joseph Koterski, SJ.
“Pro-life work is difficult work, with little affirmation. It’s like spitting into the wind these days,” said Judith Anderson, co-director of the Hudson Valley Coalition for Life in New York and a coordinator of her parish Respect Life Society. She attended an overnight retreat for respect life coordinators in April 2008. She said news of the retreat house’s opening struck her and other pro-lifers as a “chance to remind ourselves of the reason we do the work.”
And she was not disappointed. “Being with the sisters is remarkably joyful,” she said. “When you pray and work with them, you can’t help being touched by joy—theirs and God’s.”
LIFTING A BURDEN
But perhaps the most poignant program the sisters host is Entering Canaan, a ministry of healing for postabortive women. It includes days of prayer followed by monthly gatherings and “hope and healing weekend retreats.” They are not all held at Villa Maria Guadalupe, and the sisters are conscious of the need for discretion. If Villa Maria Guadalupe becomes known as a place where post-abortive women go, naturally, after a while, some people, post abortive or not, will be reluctant to be seen going there.
Amy attended several of the daylong events before going for a full weekend. She said that after the first day of recollection she was “able to grieve for my daughter.” On a second day retreat, she took a friend, another post-abortive woman.
Because some of her children still do not know about the abortion she once had, Amy asked that her real name not be used.
With Entering Canaan, the sisters offer an “accompaniment” to post-abortive women, said Sister Dorothy Guadalupe, “as they walk toward healing.” Amy describes it as a process of “peeling away layers…. You realize you do have to go deeper.”
She had been weighed down with guilt. Even though she had confessed her abortion sacramentally several times, she “felt all the evil of the world was embodied in [her].”
But several things happened at Villa Maria Guadalupe. In confession, the priest leading the retreat told her about a saint whose vision of Christ convinced her that once a priest grants absolution a sin is truly forgotten. And during a service in the chapel, she and other women gazed on a crucifix surrounded by rocks. Retreat leaders instructed them to take one. “It represents your burden,” they said. “Take it everywhere until you’re ready to give up your burden.”
Having just listened to the gospel about the woman caught in adultery, Amy picked up a sharp-edged rock and thought, “This would be a great stoning rock.”
Not only did she feel a shame similar to that felt by the woman in the gospel passage, she had quite a bit of anger inside herself as well. “I wanted to stone others,” she said. It was around the time of last fall’s elections, and a lot of people were talking about Barack Obama’s pro-abortion views. Amy used to work for the Democratic Party, many of whose members are strongly pro-abortion. “I had anger about politicians who legalized abortion,” Amy recalled. “If it weren’t legal I wouldn’t have done it.”
Amy realized what a burden she was carrying around. But she also had a keen sense of how she could let that rock go. And it was staring her in the face. From the time she entered the chapel until the time she left the retreat, the image of the Divine Mercy was displayed prominently near the altar.
“The Divine Mercy really hits me,” she said. “I attribute my general healing to that. Somehow the knowledge that he’s forgiven me…”
She credits the Sisters of Life for reminding her of that. “They made it evident about God’s mercy…. By the end of the retreat, I was able to get rid of my self-hate. I left the retreat feeling so much lighter.”
“Christ is the only one who can heal,” said Sister Marija Joseph, who coordinates the Entering Canaan ministry. She sees part of the sisters’ mission on the retreats as being there to uphold retreatants and “give them hope, that there are people out there praying for them and that they’re not alone.”
If mercy is the message, the sisters strive to be the best bearers of that message, according to retreatants.
“We try to help them realize that God can forgive,” said Sister Dorothy Guadalupe.
But that can be done through the genuine caring that all the retreatants interviewed spoke about. That includes care for their comfort and nourishment— spiritual as well as physical. “Being able to be in their presence is such a blessing,” said Agnes Lukaszewicz, a young woman who has been on discernment retreats and silent retreats at Villa Maria Guadalupe. She said that the care with which the sisters do even the simplest of things, such as pouring a cup of tea for someone, conveys great love.
“We take care that it’s a very peaceful and beautiful place,” said Sister Dorothy Guadalupe, who oversees nine sisters who live in the near-centuryold house. “The meals are simple but nourishing.”
Sister Marija Joseph tells the story of a woman who was so moved by the sisters’ generosity of spirit that she later told them: “When I got there, a sister opened the door for me and greeted me so warmly that I felt God saying, ‘I love you.’ I got to my room and found towels folded so neatly that I felt like God was saying, ‘I love you.’ And when I entered the dining room I found such a nice meal prepared for us that it made me feel like God was saying ‘I love you.’ I came to understand that if God loves me so much, he must be able to forgive me, and I can forgive myself for what I’ve done.”
Says Amy, “The retreat center is a safe place where women can go and fully look at themselves and express out loud their self-loathing and all the other negative feelings they have, and I think it is only then that they can start on the path to recovery. You cannot accept mercy until you face and name what you need mercy for. The Sisters of Life have this hallowed place where we are safe to be so utterly vulnerable.”
That’s only part of the contribution to the pro-life movement that the Sisters of Life and Villa Maria Guadalupe make, said Father Schu. “Offering direct help to women in crisis pregnancies and providing guidance to help them make the right decision,” he said, and “having a retreat center to help people live God’s will more deeply is an important aspect of what the retreat center can bring about.”