A pullout section inside this issue contains stories and photos as well as myriad short profiles of men and women religious serving in the Archdiocese of New York who are marking significant anniversaries of vowed religious life. For the first time, this year’s jubilarians include members of the Sisters of Life, who were founded here in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor. For his recruitment pitch, the cardinal used his well-read Catholic New York column as a help wanted ad.
“I would like to establish a brand new religious community of women. I would like as many of its members as possible to be lawyers or ‘paralegals,’ doctors or nurses. I want to call them Sisters of Life,” he wrote in that Nov. 2, 1989 column, which just might have been best read piece this newspaper ever produced.
To the three customary religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the cardinal added a fourth vow—to defend human life against abortion and “mercy killing.”
The Sisters of Life came together pretty much the way Cardinal O’Connor envisioned them. In the ensuing years, the community has become a paragon of virtue and truth, with missions here in New York, and in far-flung cities including Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Denver, Stamford, Conn., and Toronto, Ontario.
They’ve attracted young women from all over the globe. Surprisingly, though, just one Sister of Life entered from the Archdiocese of New York—Sister Lucy Marie, S.V., one of the community’s founding members. This August, though, the number doubled, as Sister Cora Caeli, S.V., made her first vows with the Sisters of Life. Colleen Dunn grew up right here in Dutchess County, where she was a member of St. Stanislaus parish in Pleasant Valley, as the youngest of four children of Deacon John and Nancy Dunn.
Sister Cora Caeli, 30, shared some reminiscences this week on the phone from St. Frances de Chantal Convent in the Bronx, where she assists Sister Agnus Dei, S.V., the postulant director, with eight postulants who are learning about religious life.
“It’s been beautiful to walk with the postulants and guide them on this journey,” said Sister Cora Caeli, who entered religious life in 2016.
A step or two back in her own journey, Sister Cora Caeli remembers exploring the same questions the postulants are. She completed graduate studies at the Institute of Pastoral Theology in the Diocese of Madison, Wis., in a program affiliated with Ave Maria University. She served as a counselor to Catholic youth at Camp Gray, also in Madison, during college summers and then as director for retreats, especially confirmation retreats. Questions “on the heart of the young people” she was assisting made her want to learn more about “Jesus and the Catholic Church,” she said.
One thing led to another, and then a “light bulb moment” occurred when Sister Cora Caeli realized she was not just learning about the Church, but also about “Someone.” That reality led her to other questions, such as: “Why not give my whole self to Jesus?”
The relationship was a lot deeper, but not altogether different than back in eighth grade when she first had an experience of “being known and loved by the Lord.” That came during her years with the CYO Teenage Federation retreats at Blair Lodge in Putnam Valley. She recalls that time as a “positive experience” that “really helped me grow and create a space to grow closer to Jesus, with other youths and young adults—a community among youths my own age.” As years passed, she became more involved with the federation, serving as secretary and pro-life chair in high school.
“The charism of life has always been in my heart,” she said. “My family helped to cultivate that gift of life.”
Her parents said that the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., had a “great effect” on their daughter. “It was meaningful for her to see so many young religious and seminarians,” her mother said.
Her mother and father said they were surprised when they found out their daughter was coming home from Wisconsin to attend a discernment retreat with the Sisters of Life. “We were surprised—and proud—she was coming back to the Archdiocese of New York. The Sisters’ charism is close to our heart,” Mrs. Dunn said.
Deacon Dunn added, “As parents, we look for our children to be happy in life. Nancy and I would often say to each other, ‘We’ve never seen her so happy.’”