Sister Margaret Donovan, M.M.
Current Ministry Location-Maryknoll Sisters Center
Sister Peg is the second of nine children, born and raised in the Bronx, New York. She was baptized Margaret Mary in Our Lady of Refugee Parish. After graduating from Our Lady of Good Counsel Academy, White Plains, NY, and studying for a year at the College of Mt. St. Vincent, Bronx, NY, Sister Peg entered the Maryknoll Sisters in September 1956.
After making her First Vows in 1959, Sister Peg worked with the Maryknoll Society’s magazine, The Field Afar, now known as Maryknoll, for two years. She was then assigned by the Maryknoll Sisters to the important ministry of mission education and promotion across the United States. This she did for six years until she was asked to pursue studies in Community Service at Mary Rogers College, Maryknoll, NY. Completing her B.A. in that field in 1970, Sister Peg received her long-awaited overseas assignment to Tanzania, East Africa, where she would serve for 43 years.
Her first assignment in Tanzania was four months of language school. This prepared her for her responsibilities at the Nyegezi Social Training Center, Mwanza, where she served as Head of Community Development for Women and then Head of the Department of Rural Development Training. Her ministry also included teaching Sociology and Community Development.
In January 1976, the Catholic Diocese of Shinyanga asked Sister Peg to direct their Community Education for Development Program, where she served until being called to Congregational Leadership in 1983. Upon finishing her term in Leadership, Sister Peg pursued graduate studies which took her to the University of Hawaii, where she obtained her masters degree in International Public Health. Her thesis was entitled “Women as the Key to Health for All.”
Returning to Tanzania in January 1987, Sister Peg researched places where she could implement her thesis while serving as a consultant to Christian churches on training community based health care workers. In 1988, at the invitation of the Bishop of the Geita Diocese, Sister Peg and two other Maryknoll Sisters began Project VEMA, a village-based educational, developmental and health program. VEMA is a Kiswahili word meaning “complete well-being.” It is also an acronym for the Kiswahili words embodying education (Elimu), development (Maendeleo), and health (Afya).
Project VEMA was started in a small, isolated village called Kalebezo near Lake Victoria in the Sengerema District of Mwanza Region. The emphasis in this program was empowering women in the rural areas through awareness raising and training in basic health care. The Sisters began by conducting a health survey in the area. There was no health facility for over seven thousand people who lived in Kalebezo.
Sister Peg’s vision was to improve the health status of the family through training of women and young girls as health promoters. The local women were very receptive to the program of Health Awareness and Education which the Sisters established. Building on her experience, Sister Peg wrote two health manuals in the National language of Kiswahili, one of which became a best seller. “The Health Manual for Rural Women” included detailed and clearly illustrated text on health and nutrition and suitable procedures needed to achieve health improvement goals in rural African settings where medical facilities are limited. The second manual, which focused on first aid, included illustrations and instructions for providing immediate medical assistance in case of need. Each woman, on completion of the health course, received her own copy of the manual which she could use at home for reference.
Project VEMA integrates these elements into the lives of its participants in order to bring about the well-being of people living and working in the villages. This very successful program grew and Sister Peg saw the need for a center in the village to implement its many aspects. Land was requested from and given by the local village government; many of the villagers worked on the project from the beginning – breaking rocks, hauling water, clearing bushes and tree trunks, digging a well. Construction for a VEMA Vocation Training Center began in January 1997. Tanzanians, Maryknoll Sisters, Irish volunteers, Maryknoll Lay Missioners, Maryknoll Affiliates, have all contributed their time and services to the dream and success of the VEMA Project.
Through the generous assistance of family, friends and benefactors, the VEMA Center was completed in June, 1997 and enables the vision for education, development and health to be of service to many more people. Programs and classes provide job training in masonry and sewing for village youth, a kindergarten for over 130 children ages 3 to 6 and a health center for chronic problems, malnourished children and pregnant women and including home hospice program for people infected with HIV/AIDS
Sister Peg is a life member of the Association of Tanzania Public Health and has attended many conferences presenting papers on the work of Project VEMA. In 1997 she was invited to attend an international meeting in Durban, South Africa on “Global Strategies for the prevention of HIV Transmission of Mother and Child.”
In 2000, Sister Peg was named one of the first of eight “Wall of Fame” award winners by her high school, Academy of Our Lady of Good Counsel, White Plains, New York. This Award gives recognition to outstanding alumnae who possess the qualities of compassion, dedication, altruism, courage, wisdom and vision. Winning candidates have also achieved personal and professional success within service-oriented fields. This alumna translated a dream into reality.
Today, Sister Peg reflects with gratitude on what God has allowed her to accomplish. She seeks to use her present position as Director of the Maryknoll Mission Institute to inspire and equip others to fulfill the missionary dreams God has given to them for the service of all.