Obituary: Sister Mary Dennis Donovan / Sister of St. Joseph since 1931

Sept. 5, 1915 - Jan. 20, 2014

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Herbert Hoover was president, Pius XI was pope and the Pirates were beating the Cardinals, 6-4, at Forbes Field behind future Hall of Famers Lloyd Waner and Pie Traynor.

It was Sept. 3, 1931, and Patricia Donovan of Aliquippa was formally entering religious life as a sister of St. Joseph of Baden, two days shy of her 16th birthday, taking the name Sister Mary Dennis.

Her vocation lasted for 83 years -- as a school teacher, principal, author, activist for racial and interfaith reconciliation, and avid political participant who proudly voted in every presidential campaign from the Roosevelt to the Obama eras. Generations before the "Nuns on the Bus," she was a national pioneer among Roman Catholic sisters in articulating how social justice is interwoven with the Christian faith.

Sister Mary Dennis Donovan died Monday at age 98 at the sisters' motherhouse. She was the fourth-longest-serving member in the order's history.

Colleagues, relatives and ex-students recalled a no-nonsense, intimidating, yet endearing, presence with boundless intellectual curiosity.

"She had such a sense of social justice, long before the rest of us had the kind of consciousness she did," said Sister Janet Mock, a fellow sister of St. Joseph and executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization for most American religious orders.

Sister Donovan co-authored a civics textbook used by Catholic high school students nationwide. "The Christian Citizen -- His Challenge," first published in 1948 and later revised, blended lessons about Christians' moral responsibility with more conventional topics about how bills become law.

The book was "laden with social responsibility, served up by my Aunt Pat," added her nephew, Tom Sweeney, who used that textbook in school.

She was born in Aliquippa, the oldest of eight children, three of whom died in childhood during a typhoid outbreak.

"I think because she grew up in a steel town and knew a lot about unions, just breathing it in the air, those values of a good working-class family were instilled in her early," Sister Mock said.

Sister Donovan taught in the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Greensburg and Altoona-Johnstown and served as principal at St. James School in Sewickley in 1952-58, St. Joseph High School in Natrona in 1961-68 and La Purissima School in Lompoc, Calif., in 1982-87.

Sister Donovan used to say of her students, "I'm not here to make them like me, I'm here to help them learn," recalled Sister Mock.

"But they did like her. They did love her," Sister Mock said.

One struggling student was so influenced by her encouragement that, decades later, he established a "Sister Mary Dennis Award" to honor the most improved eighth-grader at St. James.

She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education at Duquesne University, pursued further education at four other universities and was a visiting professor at three Catholic colleges.

Sister Donovan eagerly supported the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

She was on the vanguard when many nuns in the 1960s and 1970s exchanged traditional habits for street clothes and got involved in civil rights and anti-poverty causes. In 1971, Sister Donovan was among 47 nuns who founded Network, a national lobbying organization best known in recent years for sponsoring Nuns on the Bus -- traveling advocates for such causes as immigration reform and anti-poverty legislation.

Sister Donovan also directed Human Relations Education for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and was an education assistant in adult literacy at Penn State Beaver. She was active in Jewish-Christian dialogue, helped organize a course on Judaism for Catholic school teachers and was honored by the B'nai B'rith Women Greater Pittsburgh Council.

She also was a member of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and organized Project Understanding -- public discussions on race relations sponsored by the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Sisters of St. Joseph in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Right up to the end, she was reading "very dense, very thought-provoking books," Sister Mock said. "I never saw her read a novel."

She is survived by her sister, Jo Sweeney, formerly of Sewickley.

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.



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