With pro-life passion, UST alums join NY religious order

| Bridget Ryder | October 7, 2015 | 1 Comment

Four women from Minnesota have recently entered the Sisters of Life religious order in New York. From left are Caroline Stiles, Paula Thelen, Sister Magnificat Rose and Elizabeth Schmitt. Courtesy Sisters of Life

Four Minnesotans are among the young women preparing to dedicate themselves to the pro-life cause as Sisters of Life, a religious community based in New York City focused on helping women in crisis pregnancies and promoting a culture of life.

In September, Caroline Stiles, 22, of Sacred Heart in Owatonna; Paula Thelen, 25, of St. Peter in North St. Paul; and Elizabeth Schmitt, 23, of St. Mark in
St. Paul, became postulants in the community. Fellow Minnesotan Sister Magnificat Rose, baptismal name Jillian Wayland, of Divine Mercy in Faribault, is in her second year of the novitiate with the community.

All four women graduated from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where they also crossed paths in their studies and dormitories.

After three years of formation, these women, along with six others postulants and 18 novices, hope to take not only the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but also a fourth vow particular to the Sisters of Life — to protect and enhance the dignity of the human person and human life. Thelen called their pro-life work “prayer and fasting and accompanying women.”

Feeling called to religious life, each of the sisters-in-the-making left the Midwest for the Bronx with a desire to serve the most vulnerable in society and promote cultural change.

Thelen had heard of the Sisters of Life while in college, but at the beginning of her vocational discernment she didn’t think the community was for her.

“I looked at orders that did things that I had more experience in, [such as] caring for the elderly and teaching, until someone explained to me the difference between a charism and an apostolate,” she said. “Looking back, I realized I always desired to serve the vulnerable.”

Her three years of teaching school after graduation also taught her the importance of the family. She found most of the behavioral problems of the children in her classroom linked to a breakdown in their families.

“If we can put the family back together, everything else will follow,” she said.

Stiles, too, sees a connection between pro-life issues, the family and cultural trends such as the widespread use of contraception.

“I think ever since contraception and the loss of the understanding of the beauty of the love between a man and woman, the dignity of life has really gone down,” said Stiles, whose brother, Father James Stiles, was ordained in May for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The family is the most sacred unit of culture, so we need to protect it.”

For Schmitt, the decision to enter the Sisters of Life meant a switch in her approach to the pro-life cause. She had felt called to work in the pro-life movement since she was in high school, when she started a pro-life club and became a Birthright ambassador. In college she interned with Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, but the Sisters of Life helped her to see beyond the political battle.

“With the sisters, it just clicked,” Schmitt said. “It made sense because there’s only so much you can do in politics. [Abortion] is a devil, and a senator can’t cut it down,” she said.

A change in her idea of mission led Sister Magnificat Rose to join the community. With her long-standing devotion to Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, she had often dreamed of doing missionary work in a foreign country. Then she met the Sisters of Life while serving with West St. Paul-based NET Ministries.

“I was reading about Mother Teresa speaking about the unborn and realized we have some of the poorest of the poor here in this country with the unprotected unborn,” she said. “I wanted to protect life and remind people of the joy to be alive and live in the Lord. When I met the sisters, it became real — they were joyful, real, young women.”

Sister Magnificat Rose entered in September 2013 and expects to make her first profession of vows in the summer or fall of 2016.

Sisters of Life was started in 1989 by Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York from 1984-2000. In his previous assignment as archbishop of the military archdiocese, he visited the remains of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. As he reflected on the terrible loss of life from the Holocaust, he thought, too, of all the unborn lives lost through abortion. He knew he had to do something. Inspiration struck him years later while reading the passage in the Gospel of Mathew when the disciples complain to Jesus that they could not cast out a certain demon. “This kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer and fasting,” Jesus replied.

“He realized he needed a religious order to pray and fast for the pro-life cause,” Sister Magnificat Rose explained.

He [Cardinal O’Connor] then outlined his vision for a new religious community in his column in the archdiocesan newspaper. He titled it, “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.”

Women responded, and the cardinal found the eight women who became the first Sisters of Life in 1991. The community now numbers 93 women working and praying in eight convents. Their apostolates in Manhattan, the Bronx, Connecticut, Toronto and Denver include offering spiritual and practical assistance to pregnant women; retreats for youth, men and women; evangelization activities; and serving in the Family Life/Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of New York.

For more information about the Sisters of Life, visit SistersOfLife.org.  

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Category: Year of Consecrated Life