On Mother’s Day, the Sisters of Life held a celebration for about 75 mothers and 150 children at their retreat house, Villa Guadalupe, in Stamford, Connecticut. Although it had rained all day Saturday and the forecast for Sunday was not good, there was no way this event could be postponed.
The Sisters of Life is a Roman Catholic religious order started by the late John Cardinal O’Connor in 1991. In addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the nuns make a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. An important way they do this is by counseling and helping women with unplanned pregnancies, many of whom live with the Sisters in one of their convents before and after their babies are born. Several of the women who joined us for Mother’s Day have been friends of the Sisters for years. Their children are growing up and some of the boys are now taller than I am.
Most of the mothers and children came up to Stamford on buses provided by a friend of the Sisters. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize some of the drivers, all middle-aged African American men who volunteer for this assignment, year after year. The buses are all first-class, late models with bathrooms—a blessing when travelling with children.
I was assigned to accompany a bus from the Bronx, which meant getting up to 149th Street and the Grand Concourse by 9 a.m. sharp. When I arrived, two Sisters were already there, standing alongside two buses and a small van. Other buses had been deployed to Brooklyn and Queens. Also ready and eager were volunteers—like me—who the Sisters call their co-workers. These included Bob and Dave, two brothers who once prepared a terrific Chinese feast for the volunteers; Roseanna, who is from Argentina; Jean, who travels the world for the fashion industry; and another young woman whose name I’ve lost. The street was crowded with folks carrying flowers and balloons. It was Mother’s Day after all, and in the Bronx they celebrate it.
Roseanna and I made sure that every mother checked in with the Sisters, then loaded her equipment into the storage area under the bus. It is always amazing how easily those elaborate strollers fold up. There were also enormous bags because these women had packed for the day.
We left the Bronx at 10:30. Roseanna and I were co-captains of our bus. It was easy duty. Someone had brought a DVD of an animated movie, Alpha and Omega, which played on the overhead monitors, but most of these kids preferred to play games on their tablets.
About an hour later, we arrived at Villa Guadalupe, a rambling former farmhouse situated on the highest hill in Stamford. Sisters and co-workers greeted us with enthusiasm and helped us unload all that equipment. Most of the children ran across the green lawn, happy to be out of the bus, happy to be free. Some grabbed waiting soccer balls and started kicking them around. There were chairs set up all over the lawn where the mothers were encouraged to sit and relax. For some of us it was a chance to reconnect with women we have helped over the years.
For me it was a chance to sit with my friend Lina. I met Lina (not her real name) through the Sisters more than eight years ago. Lina is a big, stocky young woman who was working nights as a security guard in the Bronx when the Sisters, who have a 9:30 p.m. curfew, asked if she could stay with me. Lina’s baby was the product of a rape and was expected to be born with health problems. Because of circumstances beyond our control, what was supposed to be a few nights with me stretched out to a couple of months. Lina was finally able to go to a beautiful home for unwed mothers in Texas. She gave birth to a boy, and chose to have him adopted by a wonderful family in Utah. (It’s an open adoption, and a whole other story.) Lina returned to New York and now has a healthy daughter who will be seven years old this Thanksgiving. The little girl spent most of Mother’s Day playing soccer. I see them both about once a month, but it’s never in as beautiful a setting as Villa Guadalupe.
Through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to serve an amazing array of pregnant women. Among them were a highly paid paralegal who had become pregnant at forty and considered it a miracle; a graduate student from an academic family; a simple young woman who assured me she came from “country people”; a beautiful MBA from Norway who is trying to make it as a producer in the hip hop world; and a girl barely out of high school, who had never spent a night away from her mother until she revealed she was pregnant and her heartbroken mother threw her out. (The break did not last, and they reconciled after her son was born.) Every woman at Villa Guadalupe had her own story; what they all shared was their decision to choose life.
One of the great things about Mother’s Day at Villa Guadalupe is that mothers can relax and know their children are safe wherever they wander. A face-painting station was set up on the lawn and, new this year, a petting zoo with a pair of baby goats, a couple of guinea pigs and bunnies, and two of the most gorgeous chickens I’ve ever seen. The children were able to enter the pen a few at a time to cuddle and play with the animals. Inside the house a large crafts room was set up in what is usually the refectory.
Before lunch was served, Sister Amata introduced Fr. Rob Ketcham, who gave a blessing and led us in grace. Many of the women the Sisters help are not Catholic, but everyone appreciates a blessing. Then it was on to lunch, prepared by co-workers and served buffet style under a canopy in the driveway—hamburgers and hot dogs with all the trimmings, and a dessert bar loaded with cakes and cookies.
There is always a religious component to these days, although it is strictly voluntary. The chapel was opened at one-thirty and a brief Adoration began at two. All were welcome. The chapel, which seats about 200, was packed. Small children were encouraged to sit on the floor in front of the altar, which saved them from being bored.
Most of the retreats at Villa Guadalupe are marked by a lot of silence. I’m sure there was more noise that day than the building gets all year. But when Fr. Rob addressed us, everyone grew silent. He is a tall, young, bearded priest (ordained in 2008), the chaplain at St. John the Baptist High School on Long Island, and he possesses the great gift of being able to subdue a lively group without ever raising his voice. He lets them come to him, you might say. As you can imagine, it’s not easy to get a priest on a Sunday, but the Sisters managed to line up two for the Mother’s Day picnic.
Fr. Rob celebrated the Mass, assisted by 12-year-old Daniel, the son of a co-worker, and Fr. Ed Leahy, a Benedictine priest who delivered the homily. And what a homily it was! Fr. Ed spoke about how we often experience chaos in our lives, but said we should remember God created us out of chaos. He said the Lord has provided angels in our lives in the form of the Sisters. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he told us, because there is a place for us in God’s house, no matter what has happened in our lives. Then he really caught fire, assuring us that “you’ve got a special place in God’s house.” The crowd was totally with him, uttering loud amens and applauding. Ordinarily I am not a fan of this kind of participation, but in this case it was all so totally authentic and joyful that I was just grateful to be a part of it.
Fr. Ed, who has the bearing of an austere retired military man, has spent his entire career working with boys at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. “You may know someone,” he told us, “who is “dead” [in spirit], someone in your family, your building, your block.” But, he went on, “the Lord will do the work through you.” And “just as your child thanks you for giving him or her life, we can thank God for the people who accompany us.” Then he repeated most of what he had just said in Spanish.
Everyone was invited to the altar, Catholics to receive Communion, non-Catholics to receive a blessing. Around this time, there was a cloudburst outside and rain poured briefly on those who had elected to keep playing ball. Inside, it was inspiring to see even some of the bus drivers join in the line to receive Communion or a blessing.
After Mass, the women were asked to remain for a special gift. Father Rob and the Sisters handed out shiny red bags containing a beautiful string bracelet with an anchor clasp and a Miraculous Medal, designed and made by the Sisters.
By four o’clock the rain had stopped, the sun was back out and so were we. It was time for the dinner buffet—fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, salads, and an amazing ice cream bar. At that point everyone was so subdued we didn’t mind it when a second cloudburst drove us into the refectory to finish our meal.
Fortunately the shower was brief, and we headed outside for the last event, crowning a statue of the Blessed Mother. Each child was given a white rose and encouraged to lay it at Our Lady’s feet.
Then it was time to start loading up the buses again. The Sisters handed each of the departing mothers a red rose. We headed back to Bronx, and once there scattered quickly. As I made a last search of the bus, picking up trash and discarded juice boxes, I noticed that no one had left her rose behind.