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Heaven in Hell’s Kitchen

Saving Manhattan, One Child at a Time

Eirlys Hine

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painting of Saint Francis praying in a field

Saint Francis, the Artist

In 1940, Laurence Housman mused on the poor man from Assisi.

Were all artists like him, our duty towards our neighbor would become a game. He played it so beautifully that the memory of how he played it is still with us – a possession for the meek upon the earth.

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It’s a sunny afternoon in late May. I’m standing on West 51st Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan, shifting an over-stuffed duffel bag from hand to hand. The bag contains all the worldly possessions of my good friend, Danisha, who fled from her apartment yesterday with only her baby and the clothes on her back.

Walking down the street, I fight off a sense of irritation. I know I am going to be late to a class I can’t afford to miss. The bag is heavy, I am somewhat lost, and it is going to take me at least half an hour to get to school after this. Impatiently, I walk down the sidewalk, looking out for the Sisters of Life Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent, where I am hoping to find Danisha. I’ve been told that this convent has sheltered hundreds of women since its founding, accompanying mothers through the birth of more than 150 babies. I am expecting something imposing and grand.

Instead, after ten minutes’ search, I set the bag down on the doorstep of an unassuming, homey building surrounded by trees and tended gardens. I ring the bell and try to look in a hurry.

Minutes pass. As I wait, I remind myself of what I’ve read about the sisters and their work. Founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O’Connor, the order’s mission is straightforward. In addition to the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Sisters of Life take a fourth vow promising to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life.

This fourth vow shapes the sisters’ sense of vocation. Sister Bethany Madonna, for example, joined the order at the age of twenty-five just because of it – she felt she was called very specifically to help vulnerable mothers-to-be. She is one of seventy-seven sisters in total, whose average age is thirty-five, far below what is usual for American Catholic orders. They live in and staff four convents in the United States and Canada that provide safe havens for women in a “crisis pregnancy” or seeking healing after an abortion.

While my friend was neither of these – her baby was nearly a year old and fiercely loved and wanted – she needed somewhere safe to go. “Of course she is welcome to stay with us,” the Sisters of Life had said when my pastor called them. It didn’t matter that Danisha’s case didn’t fit their mission exactly. They took her in then and there.

Today all I have to do is deliver Danisha’s belongings. When the door finally opens, I have a thirty-second excuse prepared explaining my errand and why I simply cannot be late to my class. The woman in the doorway dissolves my impatience with a beaming smile, and I forget my speech. We exchange greetings and then I am inside, following her down a narrow hallway until we come to a door with a simple, hand-written sign stuck onto it: “Welcome Danisha.”

In the room, I find my friend cradling her son, her eyes blurred with tears. I am at a loss for words and ashamed of my hurry. Dropping the bag, I give my friend a hug and search feebly for something encouraging to say. When I tell her finally that I have brought “all her stuff,” she manages a dramatic eye-roll.

After we run out of words, we sit on the bed and watch the baby laughing at the shadows on the wall. The fact that Danisha has taken refuge with the Sisters of Life along with her child makes her something of a special case for a convent used to sheltering women who are pressured to have an abortion. Forty-one percent of pregnancies in New York City end in abortion. The numbers are even higher among minority women. Yet while saying, “Abortion is wrong!” is necessary, it’s also too easy. As I watch Danisha with her baby I consider how few of us are willing to give active, concrete support to even one of the millions of women whose pregnancy creates a crisis for them.

The Sisters of Life provide practical and spiritual support to hundreds of these women. Mothers can stay at the convent for up to a year after the birth of their baby; they are able to develop personal relationships with the sisters, attend prayer services and mealtimes, and receive the food, clothing, and items necessary for raising a child. Most of the women come from abusive or impoverished backgrounds, and, like Danisha, lack a safe environment to return to. “One of the hardships and challenges of the mission,” says Sister Grace Dominic, “is witnessing the fear and distrust that can often overwhelm and deceive women.”

That afternoon, however, nothing on the face of the sisters who come through Danisha’s room, “just to say hello,” betrays discouragement. It’s rare that a person really looks radiant; the sisters do. “We are mindful of our complete dependence on God for everything in our lives,” is Sister Grace’s explanation. Donations provide everything they need to run the mission, including all items needed for the new babies. After all, didn’t Jesus promise that his Father would give good gifts to those who asked him? By embracing the poverty of the women they work with through their own vow of poverty, the sisters are able to identify with them in a way that many other nonprofits would simply be unable to do.

I can feel this solidarity as I sit with my friend and her baby in the sunlit room with the handwritten sign of welcome. I’m not glancing at the clock on the wall anymore. Why am I always so frantically racing from one thing to the next? What has Danisha taught me with her humility and her patience? What can I learn from the way these sisters have sacrificed their own wishes and dreams to help found a place here in Hell’s Kitchen, in the heart of Manhattan, where my friend can find solace and comfort?

Sister Loretta works in the Sisters of Life’s house in Manhattan. Sister Loretta works in the Sisters of Life’s house in Manhattan.
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