As with other new employees at the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, Henrietta Gomes’ first day at work began uneventfully, as she met coworkers, received supplies including reporter’s notepads, and learned how to log on to her computer.
But her first day at work was Sept. 11, 2001, and that carefree day soon unraveled. The Standard’s administrative assistant alerted staff members that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. But soon it was apparent that what at first appeared to be a terrible accident was no accident.
A second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center’s other tower, and another had crashed into the Pentagon, followed later by a fourth passenger jet’s crash into a field in Pennsylvania.
Gomes was dispatched to cover a noon Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, located just blocks away. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then the archbishop of Washington, was the main celebrant at that Mass, which was quickly organized in light of that morning’s tragic events.
He began the Mass by noting, “Never before has the blessing, ‘Peace be with you’ seemed more significant. But peace be with you, the peace only the Lord can give.”
The new reporter interviewed people after the Mass, including a stunned law student from nearby Catholic University, who fought back tears as she said, “What’s most important during this time is to have faith and hope, and to trust that God will take care of us.”
Almost exactly 15 years later, the woman who began working for the Catholic Church on 9/11 offered an answer to that day marked by terror, fear and death.
On Aug. 6, 2016, Gomes knelt before the altar at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, Connecticut, and in a day marked by joy, hope and new life, she professed her perpetual vows as Sister Grace Dominic, one of six women pledging a lifetime commitment to serve as members of the Sisters of Life.
On that day, the new building and tower at the World Trade Center site rose dramatically above the New York City skyline, and in suburban Connecticut, Sister Grace Dominic said in a strong voice, marked by a slight tremor of emotion, that she vowed to live a life marked by poverty, chastity and obedience, “and to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life, and to persevere faithfully until death.”
The hundreds of people attending the Mass then joined the sisters at the order’s nearby Villa Maria Guadalupe retreat center, for a lunch. Family members and friends lined up to congratulate the Sisters of Life who had professed their final vows that day, including Sister Grace Dominic, a petite woman with a radiant smile.
The 36-year-old woman of Indian descent grew up in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.
Like many vocation journeys, hers had taken a circuitous route. The next day, in an email interview with Crux, she reflected on how the seeds for her vocation had been planted on one of the most sorrowful days in U.S. history, leading her on a path where she would find meaning for her life in Christ’s love, and would vow to make sharing that love with others her life’s work.
“I was shaken by the death of thousands of innocent lives,” Sister Grace Dominic said, remembering the events of 9/11. “Honestly, it was one of the first times I seriously considered my own mortality. I began to ask existential questions… Why am I here? What am I doing with my life?”
The future Sister of Life was especially moved by reports of the firefighters in New York, rushing into and up the stairs of the World Trade Center to save people.
“Watching the coverage of these heroic men shook me to the core,” she said. “They weren’t afraid to go into burning buildings to save the lives of those unknown to them. It was their mission and they probably knew they might not make it out alive, but they were undeterred.”
“I knew at that moment that I was meant to live that kind of heroic love,” she said. “A love for life – a love for protecting life, even at the cost of my own. I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I did know, however, that I wasn’t living that type of sacrificial love. My life was all about me. I knew I was being summoned to change.”
Sister Grace Dominic speaks of the events that day as a conversion experience for her. She had joined the Catholic Standard staff after earning a bachelor’s degree in communications from The Catholic University of America.
She said a key reason for her being able to “say ‘yes’ to Jesus,” was the inspiration she received from her older brother Harold, whose devout faith helped deepen her own faith. Harold, who is two years older than her and has muscular dystrophy, also offered her a witness to the dignity of life as they grew up together.
He sat in his wheelchair and watched from the basilica’s center aisle as his sister professed her final vows.
During the Mass, the parents of the sisters joined them in bringing up the offertory gifts, and Sister Grace Dominic walked up to the altar with her mom and dad, Dominica and Henry Gomes. The Sister of Life said her parents’ example of faith and charity also helped inspire her vocation.
Mr. Gomes is a retired employee of the Washington Hilton hotel.
The couple – Indian immigrants from the Calcutta neighborhood where Mother Teresa served – have been married for 41 years. The guests at the Mass included Mrs. Gomes’ aunt and Sister Grace Dominic’s great aunt, Sister Francesca, who was the ninth woman to join the Missionaries of Charity after Mother Teresa founded the order.
Another pivotal factor for Sister Grace Dominic’s vocation came in 2002, when she was assigned by the Catholic Standard to cover Pope John Paul II’s World Youth Day in Toronto. That experience, she said, “changed my life forever.”
“The witness of John Paul II, whose heroic suffering reminded me of my brother, and the witness of 800,000 young people on fire for their love of Jesus was powerful. I almost couldn’t believe what I saw,” she said.
“Then, the witness of hundreds of young and vibrant religious and priests amazed me,” she said. “I wanted to love Jesus with the same kind of reckless abandon. Is this what Jesus is calling me to, I thought? I had other plans, so I tried not to think about it. I didn’t feel like the ‘nun-type.’ But then John Paul II rocked my little world.”
Sister Grace Dominic said she was especially moved by the pope’s words at the closing Mass for that World Youth Day: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son, Jesus Christ…”
She worked as a reporter at the Catholic Standard for three years, then earned a master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. After a year and a half working as a reporter for the Arlington Catholic Herald in northern Virginia, she entered the Sisters of Life in 2008.
“Honestly, I fell in love with Jesus. However, it took me a while to admit it,” she said.
“I began to go to Adoration and hear a gentle, but persistent invitation. I was initially perturbed by it, but eventually, his persistence charmed me,” she said.
“I attended a ‘Come and See’ retreat with the Sisters of Life just to say that I gave it a shot. However, Jesus had other plans. That weekend, he swept me off my feet. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that He was calling me to belong to Him exclusively.”
The Sisters of Life, founded by New York Cardinal John O’Connor 25 years ago in 1991, live out their vow of protecting and enhancing the sacredness of human life by welcoming pregnant guests to live with them in one of their convents, and they also offer assistance to pregnant women and their children and provide retreats for women seeking hope and healing after abortion.
For three years, Sister Grace Dominic served at the order’s Visitation Mission in New York City, helping pregnant women in challenging situations choose life.
“It was an incredible gift to see the heroism of these beautiful women,” she said. “Once a woman believes she is loved and that she has a capacity to love in return, she can do anything. As Sisters of Life, we are picking up the broken pieces and trying to bring Jesus’ light and with it hope in love, hope in God.”
Sister Grace Dominic now serves as the vocations director for the Sisters of Life, who have 91 members, and expect to have about 15 postulants entering the order this fall. Speaking of that work, she said, “I am privileged to journey with heroic souls, who desire to follow the Lord and discern where He may be calling them to love.”
The Mass where the Sisters of Life made their final vows included a choir of the sisters and lay people singing Latin hymns like “Ave Maria” and “Salve Regina,” but the liturgy also included occasional sounds of babies crying and toddlers making spirited interjections, reflecting the sister’s heavenly aspirations and their earthly work.
At the luncheon afterward, the well-wishers greeting Sister Grace Dominic included a mother and her four-year-old twin daughters, who hugged the Sister of Life. Through their mother’s pregnancy, the sister had helped her and was by her side in the delivery room when the babies were born and served as the godmother for the twin girls at their baptisms.
In his post 9-11 song, “My City’s in Ruins,” Bruce Springsteen sang, “With these hands, I pray for the faith, Lord, We pray for your love, Lord…,” and he concludes with the chorus that repeats the words, “Come on rise up, Come on, rise up!”
Fifteen years after the terrorist attacks, a woman whose vocational journey began on a day of death and terror professed her final vows to serve and love as a Sister of Life in the New York City area.
When asked what was next for her, what her goals are, Sister Grace Dominic responded, “Jesus – and heaven and millions of other souls with me.”