Pure gift. That is how Sister Mariae Agnus Dei, S.V., describes her call to religious life.
“It was more than winning the lottery. Everything else pales,” she says. “The graces that a woman receives to enter into religious life today are astounding, just astounding.”
She says her life is a love story with Jesus Christ at the heart of it.
“I had many dreams as a little girl, but I could have never dreamed of something as awesome as this,” she says. “My heart is in pieces for the gratitude that it feels.”
Sister Mariae Agnus Dei, who is originally from East Wilton and whose home parish is Saint Joseph in Farmington, was among eight Sisters of Life to profess their perpetual vows in August at the Basilica of Saint John the Evangelist in Stamford, Conn. The Sisters of Life is a contemplative / active community of women founded in the Archdiocese of New York in 1991. In addition to the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Sisters of Life are also consecrated under a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.
“The day of profession, it is a day of pure joy,” says Sister Mariae Agnus Dei. “The veil really thins out between heaven and earth. You feel like you’re in heaven for a couple of hours.”
Sister Mariae Agnus Dei, whose baptismal name is Rachel, is the seventh of eight children of Margaret Yates and the late Dr. William Yates. She has a twin sister, and one of her older sisters, Sister Mary Louise Concepta, S.V., is also a Sister of Life. About 100 years ago, the family also had two biological sisters who were religious sisters.
Sister Mariae Agnus Dei says one of the greatest gifts that her parents gave her was a sense of vocation.
“That God had a plan for my life and whatever it was, it was going to be awesome. My heart trusted that.”
She says her mother was a furnace of faith who sought to form in her the beauty and gift of Catholicism, while her father, who was not raised Catholic, found his way to the faith as an adult.
“He was always on the road, and I am grateful for that, actually, because faith is a journey. It’s not a one-stop shop. We are called to grow in it every day. Our faith is rich. The treasures of the Church are inexhaustible,” she says.
She discovered one of those treasures, Eucharistic adoration, when she attended a Steubenville East conference in the eighth grade and saw the Blessed Sacrament being carried in a procession.
“As they were processing Our Lord through the tent, my heart was just pierced with love, with this incredible, beautiful, tender, personal love. And I remember just beginning to cry because I knew it was God. I knew! It was an exceptional grace,” she says. “That was a defining moment for me because, all of a sudden, I became aware that there was something and someone greater. When your heart is touched like that, you want more.”
It led her to make different choices in her life and to be more intentional about friendships. When Bible study classes were offered, she wanted to attend.
“I wanted to know the God that touched my heart that night,” she says. “I’m not someone who would say I have visions or what not, but He really spoke to my heart and said live a life with love and compassion. I will never forget that. It was like I was missioned. I was drawn into something greater than myself.”
She chose to attend a Catholic college, Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she studied nursing.
“College was pretty epic in just immersing me in a community of faith with other young people, asking the deeper questions, opportunities to go to adoration and to develop a prayer life, absolutely huge, just the sacraments, Mass, being so available to me. It was my whole being expanding with the beauty and truth and coming to know of myself as gift and that it was only in self-gift that I would be fulfilled.”
Sister Mariae Agnus Dei says, for the first time in her life, she came to know women religious, who were present both on campus and in the surrounding community. She also saw several of her older friends enter religious life.
“What I witnessed is an incredible joy and the reality that God was enough. Jesus is enough,” she says. “They had entered into a deep and rich relationship of love with Him who is love itself, and that was real, and you could feel it, and you could see it in their eyes. Certainly, it gave me courage to say, whatever my call is in life, it’s God who is going to get me there.” She says she entered seriously into a life of prayer, and the more she encountered God, the more she wanted to.
“I think I just ended up falling in love, essentially,” she says. “It was just a rich and grace-filled time. College was tremendous.”
By the end of her sophomore year, she says she was open to a religious vocation but still unsure. She dated but always with the understanding that consecrated life was a possibility. She asked God to help her settle the question by the time she graduated, but that didn’t happen.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to figure out my vocation. Well, you don’t figure out a vocation. You allow the Lord to unfold it in His time, in His love, in His mercy, in His grace,” she says. “During these years, you’ve got joys and sorrows, heartaches, heartbreaks, the challenges, discernment. We’ve got to find a new word because it’s really calling you into this frontier of the heart, and it’s purifying and asking those deeper questions. What is God calling me to do in my life? And where am I called to love and to be loved with all that I am?”
She sought answers through prayer, adoration, daily Mass, meeting with her spiritual director, and the sacrament of reconciliation.
“It’s such a grace. We encounter the mercy of God, and it’s real, and it makes us new and strengthens us,” she says.
She stresses, however, that she continued to live a full life.
“You need leisure. You need friends and good, holy friendships. It’s all in developing that balance,” she says.
After graduation, she began working as a nurse in the intensive care unit of Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland. No longer immersed in a rich Catholic community, she says it felt a bit like being in a desert. Looking back, however, she sees it as a time when the charism of life grew within her.
“So many times, I was faced with bringing reverence and bringing the sense of the sacredness of the life in front of me in the face of pain, in the face of suffering, in the face of death. How do I walk with this person in the tremendous dignity that they possess through this time of tremendous vulnerability?”
She says it was during this time of feeling stretched and somewhat alone that she finally got the answer she had long been seeking. It was during a late night shift. She can pinpoint the moment.
“Something had moved, like there was a door that God was leading me to in my heart,” she says. “He was inviting me to open it. I remember getting off that night shift and just knowing that I had to call the vocations director.”
She says the vocations director for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., advised her to go before the Lord, be silent, and ask to know the deepest desires of her heart and, then, not be afraid of what she found. She walked to Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, knelt down, and knew where God was calling.
“I remember getting up to receive Communion, and I knew He was inviting me to receive Him in a new way. I just remember hearing His voice in my heart: ‘Consecrated life with the Sisters of Life. Will you come?’ And again, this beautiful invitation, not a command, not a demand but an invitation to love and be loved,” she says. “The Lord is so good. The Lord is so reverent. I could look back at all the days of my life and see how He had so mercifully moved through each and every day and in my heart and helped me to prepare for that moment of invitation. Every molecule in me was free to say yes. I remember. It was just this wholehearted yes. I was thrilled!”
She called her older sister, Sister Mary Louise Concepta, who was already in formation with the Sisters of Life.
“I just burst into tears, and I was like, ‘Sister, I think I have a vocation.’ And she’s like, ‘Yes, that’s great.’ And it was like, ‘Do you want to know where? The Sisters of Life!’ She couldn’t believe it.”
Sister Mariae Agnus Dei stresses, however, that while her older sister was a positive influence, her vocation is her own.
“I knew the Sisters of Life through my older sister, but grace is what pulled me in,” she says. “When the invitation came to consecrated life, to the Sisters of Life, I was like, ‘Duh, of course that’s it.’ But, in God’s wisdom, for my own freedom, He unfolded that in a different way, so I entered four years after she did.”
Sister Mariae Agnus Dei became a postulant in 2007. For nine months, she lived, prayed, and worked with the sisters while continuing to discern. She then entered the novitiate, receiving the habit. She chose Mariae Agnus Dei as her religious name because Agnus Dei means Lamb of God and her baptismal name, Rachel, also means lamb. Mariae means to be of Mary.
“She was such a vital model for me as I grew in my faith, and I knew that relationship would be vital as I followed the Lord in this vocation. And yet, also, to be a Lamb of God,” she explains.
After two years, Sisters of Life make their first profession, which is followed by at least five additional years of formation and discernment. Sister Mariae Agnus Dei says, while there are challenges along the way, that time of preparation is an immense gift.
“Those eight years prior to final profession, you grow in tremendous ways in self-knowledge, in your interior life, in really growing in receiving God’s love in order to enter more fully into your own self-gift through poverty, and chastity, and obedience, and our own special, fourth vow to protect the sacredness of human life,” she says.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, celebrated the Mass of profession, joined by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio; Bishop Peter Byrne of New York; and dozens of priests. Fellow Sisters of Life, family, friends, and coworkers filled the cathedral.
“This is absolutely, outrageously unbelievable,” says Sister Mary Louise Concepta. “Seeing her make her profession was definitely the most incredible gift for me.”
The Sisters of Life operate a retreat center, serve as Respect Life coordinators for the Archdiocese of New York, evangelize, and assist and accompany pregnant women in crisis, including living side-by-side with them at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent in Manhattan.
“So often, a woman finds herself not in ideal circumstances, so we’re blessed just to be able to surround her with a village of the practical and spiritual and emotional support she needs to bring that gift of life into life,” says Sister Mariae Agnus Dei, whose ministry is at the convent.
As a contemplative / active community, the sisters’ days combine prayer and service. Their contemplative life includes praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the rosary, daily Mass, periods of meditation, and a Eucharistic holy hour.
“Everything we do flows from our prayer and the relationship we have with the Lord,” says Sister Mariae Angus Dei. “We see a lot of darkness, and we see a lot of pain, so it’s important that we’re rooted in prayer.”
While days can be exhausting, and Sister Mariae Agnus Dei says she often goes to bed emptied, she says she also couldn’t feel more fulfilled.
“I could have never expected how awesome it would be,” she says. “It gets better every day. It really does.”