By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
SAN BERNARDINO – Sister Georgeanne Marie Donovan, who was elected to a seven-year term as Superior General of the Marist Missionary Sisters in September, always knew she wanted to enter religious life. The idea was there when she was growing up in Holy Family Parish in Manayunk, the third child of the six children of John and Regina Donovan. The conviction became stronger during her years at John W. Hallahan High School, but she didn’t know just which congregation she would enter. Somewhere in the Archdiocese, she thought, because she truly didn’t want to be far away from home.
That all changed when a friend asked her to accompany her to visit to another friend in formation with the Marist Missionary Sisters, who are not, and never have been, missioned to Philadelphia. She immediately fell in love with their charism, and in 1968, the year after her Hallahan graduation, she entered their American novitiate in Bedford, Mass.
“I believe every congregation has a charism and just like flowers that look different and smell different, each congregation is different,” she said. “That charism is already in the person, and when they meet it resonates in them.”
The Marist Missionaries, an international congregation, traces back to 1845 and mission work performed by a French lay woman, Marie François Perreton, in Oceania. She was soon joined by 10 companions. Although they were considered a third order, they lived under the rules of women religious, and were ultimately recognized officially as a congregation by the Vatican in 1931.
Sister Georgeanne was professed in 1970 and immediately missioned to a leprosarium in Spanish Town, Jamaica, where she taught children and worked in a laboratory. This was followed by pastoral service in Montego Bay and as the diocesan coordinator of liturgy, while continuing her studies at the Catholic seminary and at the University of the West Indies.
“I thought I would be in Jamaica one year. I spent 24 wonderful years, there,” she said.
Sister Georgeanne was then recalled to Bedford for service on the Marists’ provincial council, and then as provincial. In 2006, while on sabbatical and engaged in biblical studies in Jerusalem, she was invited by Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernardino, Calif., to serve as chancellor for that diocese.
Now with her election, she will leave San Bernardino for Rome, as the leader of a congregation of more than 500 religious in 29 countries.
At its peak she estimates there were 800 Marist Missionary Sisters worldwide. Sister Georgeanne believes this change in numbers is natural, because formerly almost anyone who wanted to be a missionary had to enter a religious order or congregation. Now there are many opportunities for lay mission work.
“Everybody is called to holiness; we are all missionaries through baptism. The religious life is not meant for everyone,” she said.
“But I believe there are vocations. Young people are searching, they are looking for spirituality,” she said. “Our work is just as necessary as it was in 1845.”