I’ve known Denise Wusinich, of Newtown Square, since she sat in the desk next to me in high school English class at Archbishop Prendergast over four decades ago. Then — and now — she’s a fun-loving, vibrant, really nice person, with a heart of gold — plus, she makes me laugh every time that I see her because she has an incredible sense of humor.
That being said, I was scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed a few weeks ago, and I came across her post seeking diapers, wipes, baby clothes and all kinds of other donations for the Sisters of Life and their mission.
Five Sisters of Life recently came down from their motherhouse in New York at the invitation of Archbishop Charles Chaput and moved into St. Malachy Parish in North Philadelphia. Since the very beginning of their community, the Sisters of Life have reached out with practical assistance and spiritual and emotional support to pregnant women in crisis. The Visitation Mission is a mission of love, in person and by phone, to vulnerable, pregnant women. By providing the emotional and practical resources a woman needs, the Sisters hope to allow her the opportunity to respond with courage and dignity to one of life’s most difficult moments. So far, the Sisters have helped hundreds of women through their pregnancies and in the months following the babies’ births.
When they arrived in August, the five Sisters of Life stayed with the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne in North Philadelphia. The Sisters used the first few months after arriving to visit pregnancy centers, maternity homes and other women-based ministries in the tri-state area, to build relationships and view the good works that are already being done in the city so that they could assess the needs for more service and get to know the area’s resources. The Sisters moved into their own place in the convent of St. Malachy’s on North 11th Street in October. Archbishop Chaput visited last Monday, Dec. 4, to bless the convent and celebrate Mass for the Sisters, welcoming them to the archdiocese.
I immediately keyed into Denise’s Facebook post because I was aware of a Delaware County connection to the Sisters of Life. About 10 years ago, Mary Ward Donegan, a member of St. Madeline Parish in Ridley Park, invited the Sisters of Life down from New York to speak about their pro-life ministry to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. I can remember listening to the Sisters speak and being impressed by the absolute joy and solid faith of these young women who gave up successful professional careers to follow God in their vocation.
The Sisters of Life is a contemplative-active religious community founded in 1991 by the late archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor — a native Philadelphian who also happens to be Mary Ward Donegan’s brother. Cardinal O’Connor, a graduate of West Catholic, taught at the former St. James High School in Chester for six years.
In November 1998, Cardinal O’Connor wrote a column for Catholic New York titled “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” After hundreds of letters in response, in 1991, eight women entered what became the Sisters of Life. Inspired by Cardinal O’Connor’s prayer — “Lord, show us how you want us to love these women” — they heard the call and answered it. They strive to love each person as Christ does and receive each person as his mother, Mary, would. From that small initial “yes,” the order has grown and now includes three homes in New York; another in the Bronx; a retreat house in Connecticut; places in Toronto, Canada, and Denver, Colo.; and a house of studies and prayer just outside Washington, D.C. Currently, there are over 100 sisters in the community.
I immediately messaged Denise to ask about her connection to the Sisters. Her husband, Marty Wusinich, Media’s chief of police, has a cousin in the religious order, Sister Mary Elizabeth, S.V., she told me.
“We call her ‘Sister Sheila’ because Sheila was his cousin’s name before she entered the convent,” Denise explained.
After arriving at St. Malachy’s, Sister Mary asked her cousin Marty to come up to St. Malachy’s to assess the security of the new convent. Denise accompanied Marty on the visit, and when she met the Sisters and saw their need, she made her own vow to herself.
“I can’t explain how I felt when I met the Sisters for the first time,” Denise told me. “It turned a corner for me in my own faith. I felt closer to God, just by being in the presence of these beautiful, joyful Sisters. I thought, I just want to help and do something for them and their mission. I felt good and uplifted, just by being around them.”
Denise asked the Sisters for a wish list and put out a call on Facebook for the items. Last week was the third trip that Denise was making up to St. Malachy’s and her second trip bringing a car filled with a multitude of donations that she received from her very generous friends, relatives and acquaintances. She was driving up to St. Malachy’s this time, accompanied by her good friend of 37 years, Maureen McEvoy, of West Chester, who went on trip No. 2 with Denise and is equally enamored by the spirit and selfless works of the good Sisters. Also along on trip No. 3 was Barbara Bacchia, of Media, who has been friends with Denise since their now grownup kids were classmates at Nativity BVM School in Media. Barbara is a longtime generous and active volunteer at the Mother’s Home in Darby, so she was bringing along surplus donations from Mother’s Home that the Sisters could use in their ministry. I asked Denise if I could tag along as the fourth passenger to visit with the Sisters.
On the drive up there, Denise talked about what she dubbed her “Sisters of Life Summer Project,” which morphed into a fall project and then into an ongoing non-seasonal project.
“I started this project to get items to help the Sisters and make them feel better,” Denise said as she drove. “But what happened was doing this made me feel better. I will keep getting stuff and bringing it up to help them as long as I can. These women are absolute angels. They are the sweetest women you will ever meet. They are grateful for the smallest gestures. They are so pure and so beautiful and they are changing lives through hope, love and support. To me, that’s what the Catholic Church is all about — loving God in this purest way.”
“They are so joyful and so full of happiness,” Maureen interjected.
“In my next life, I think I want to be a Sister of Life,” joked the mother of six. “The Sisters are really amazing.”
Denise went on to tell us how the Sisters all left lucrative careers and family life to do God’s work and live among God’s people.
“They take a vow of poverty,” Denise explained. “They have one flip phone that they use between five Sisters — can you imagine?”
She said the Sisters share an aged car and a van which were given to them.
“When they took a recent trip to Baltimore, they used a map for directions,” Denise said, stressing their simplistic lifestyle. “When was the last time you heard of someone using a map instead of GPS? Someone gave them a gift card to Acme, and you would have thought it was a shopping spree to Nordstrom’s. They are so grateful for the smallest things. And most of these things aren’t even for them — they are for them to help others.”
When we pulled into the parking lot of St. Malachy’s, we were greeted by the Sisters, wearing flowing white veils, navy blue habits and ear-to-ear smiles. As Denise laughed and chatted with the Sisters, now good friends of hers, everyone grabbed armfuls of the donations that Denise, Maureen and Barbara had collected and started carrying them from the car to the inside of the convent.
Sister Monica Faustina, S.V., Sister Angelina Marie, S.V., Sister Mercy Marie, S.V., and Sister Anastasia Chiara Luce, S.V., were unable to stay and visit because they all had prior commitments, but Sister Grace Dominic, S.V., the local superior, led us into the living room of the convent, where we sat comfortably and casually while we chatted.
Sister Grace told us that the Holy Spirit has been at work since the Sisters arrived. The City of Brotherly Love has welcomed them graciously, with a generous outpouring of love and support.
“It seems as soon as we realize that we need something, God answers our prayer and provides it,” Sister Grace smiled.
She pointed out the pretty white furniture on which we were sitting and told us that a local furniture store was throwing it out.
“Can you believe they were going to discard this?” she asked incredulously.
From cleaning supplies to convent renovations, donations have generously came through word of mouth, from loving and caring people in the Philadelphia area. She told us that the Sisters needed shelving on which to place the donations of baby clothes and items that they’re collecting. Someone told someone who told someone about the need, and before they knew it, they were traveling to the former Don Guanella Village campus in Springfield last Wednesday to pick up the shelving. She said that they will need ongoing donations of baby and maternity items, especially diapers, wipes and formula, as well as volunteers and handyman help, but she has faith and hope that God will continue to provide through his good people. She said they are discovering needs as they go along, and they especially appreciate everyone’s prayers. They are now looking for office furniture.
“That’s the way it’s been all long,” Sister Grace stated. “The Holy Spirit works through us and makes it all happen. This is particularly poignant for our community being embraced in our founding father’s hometown where the chrism of life was essentially born in his heart and given to the world. So this isn’t like being in any city. Philadelphia is very special of us.”
Sister Grace, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., shared with us the story of her own vocation to religious life and how, after working some years as a journalist for Catholic Press, she has found true happiness through her life as a Sister and her intense love of God. The Sisters of Life take a fourth vow to protect the sacredness of human life, in addition to their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Sister Grace said a huge part of the Sisters’ day is spent in prayer. Daily prayer is an integral part of their mission. The sisters spend four hours each day in common prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Office of Readings along with daily Mass and a holy hour at midday. They spend one full day a week and one Sunday a month in prayer and silence with extended hours of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
“Our first mission is prayer. Everything else flows from that. We pray that the world is doused in this chrism of life so that each person comes to know their worth and dignity and that they are an unrepeatable icon of the living God, that they were willed into existence for love. Once we realize that, we can love another,” said Sister Grace.
Each sister wears a medal with the phrase “And nothing would again be casual or small” from Father John Duffy’s annunciation poem, “I Sing of a Maiden.” The sisters live knowing that every act of service and every act of love to others is love for Christ.
“Put simply, we want to befriend pregnant women in crisis or need and give them the support that they need to realize this baby is a gift from God,” Sister Grace explained. “Often, everyone who has been in their lives has failed them. We want them to know that the Sisters will love them and take care of them, no matter what. As consecrated women, we bring a different kind of gift to them. Just knowing they have a friend to walk their journey with them can be life changing for them. Sometimes, their first real encounter with God is through us. When you’re giving love, you’re giving the Lord.”
Before leaving, Denise asked if we could make a quick stop in the Sisters’ chapel in the convent to pray.
When we were riding home after our inspiring and beautiful afternoon with the Sisters, Denise’s wheels were already turning, thinking of more ways to help the Sisters. She said that she would put out another Facebook post seeking office furniture, gift cards, baby clothes and equipment, volunteers and the other items that Sister Grace talked to us about needing. She was already mentally preparing the start of her next collection of donations for trip No. 4.
Denise then turned to us and said, “I think one of the biggest reasons why the Sisters are so special to us is because we are women and we are moms, so we totally get their mission and what they’re all about.”
I sat there quietly for a few minutes, thinking about that. I also thought about what Sister said before we left.
“We’re here because the Lord wants us to be here,” Sister Grace said quietly. “So He provides for us.”
I now fully understood how Denise turned that corner that she was telling us about on the ride up to St. Malachy’s.
Welcome to Philadelphia, Sisters, and God bless!
For more information on the Sisters of Life, visit SistersofLife.org. For more information on the Sisters’ Philadelphia mission, to donate, to help, to volunteer or find out how to get involved in the mission, call 267-831-3100, email email@example.com or search “Sisters of Life at St. Malachy Philly Mission Project” on Facebook.