Sister Peggy McDonald, IHM, S.T.L., S.T.D.
One of the most engaging ways Sister Peggy McDonald, IHM, S.T.L., S.T.D., has found to teach theology is through the use of biography—a lively and accessible approach to a subject some might view as daunting or dull. But theology is anything but dry in Sister Peggy’s classroom, where she introduces students to the divine play of sacred study, and invites them to explore the deep, dazzling mystery of God. “I strive to demonstrate the integral connection between academic theology and spirituality,” said Sister. “I am always challenging myself, asking myself how I can contribute to the ongoing growth and development of my students in their own search for God, for meaning and purpose.”
Sister Peggy employs a variety of media and materials, but one of the texts she has found especially fruitful in her Introduction to Theology course is Eight Spiritual Heroes: Their Search for God by Brennan R. Hill. The book details the lives of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Teilhard de Chardin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Edith Stein, Daniel Berrigan and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, which offer students the opportunity to explore a variety of spiritual journeys.
One of the spiritual heroes that often resonates with students is Dorothy Day, one of the most remarkable Catholic lay women of the 20th century and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. As Sister explained, “In learning about Dorothy Day and her turbulent 20s, students see that these heroes are not perfect, that they made mistakes. But, along their journeys, they all felt the nudge of God’s grace in their lives and responded to it, each in their own individual way.”
Sister is especially attuned to the sensitivities of the seeker and how best to awaken and respond to those stirrings, what she calls those “yearnings of the soul.” She speaks with profound gratitude of the work she has been called to as a theologian and an educator. “I teach traditional-age students and adult learners, and I feel enriched by both of these experiences. It is an awesome privilege to invite students to reflect more deeply about God, themselves and the world around them.”
That spirit of gracious invitation is ever-present in Sister Peggy’s classroom, made incarnate through her welcoming words and presence, her tender attentiveness to her students as they encounter—some of them for the first time—unsettling or unfamiliar existential and theological issues. Discussion, conversation, the exchange of ideas and opinions, the sharing of experiences, the expressions of both doubt and faith are allowed to blossom and bear fruit under her gentle wisdom and guidance.
“I assure my students that wherever they are on their search, their life journey, whatever religious tradition they have grown up in—or perhaps none at all—they are always invited to think about spiritual realities and to be open to how these realities speak to them. Maybe they won’t speak to them right now, but, as their lives unfold, and they are confronted with new challenges, these reflections on God and things related to God, may take on a greater depth of meaning.”
Sister sees her role as “helping to open a window to the deeper, bigger questions of life. I feel their struggle. I feel their search, and I want them to feel supported in that search.”
Over the years, Sister Peggy has endeavored to continually “breathe new life into the curriculum for each course.” This blessed breathing space that Sister Peggy holds open for her students draws them into a safe and nourishing place to explore new spiritual terrain, both within and outside the classroom. In her teaching, Sister, too, remains vulnerable to the movements of grace, joining her students in their quest for meaning and truth, a fellow pilgrim on the road that leads into the mystery that beats at the very heart of life.
“I find myself growing and being stretched through their journeys and their various responses,” she said.
Though Sister Peggy speaks with utter humility, this soft-spoken and self-effacing scholar is an academic authority. A 1971 graduate of Immaculata with a B.A. in English, Sister earned a master’s in religious studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, PA, and a licentiate and doctorate in Sacred Theology-Systematics from The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. Her dissertation topic was Christian Life and Liberation: The Basis for a Christian Spirituality in the Thought of Gustavo Gutierrez.
Sister Peggy has been teaching at Immaculata since 1985, “a smorgasbord of courses” ranging from Foundations of Spiritual Freedom to Exploring the Gospels to Faith Alive: Catholic Beliefs and Practices, and she lectures and presents widely at workshops, conferences and seminars. In 2010, she taught a course titled “Hildegard of Bingen: Mystic and Prophet” for IU’s Summer Spirituality Days program. Last spring, she gave a presentation on St. Therese of Lisieux and Dorothy Day as “Models and Mentors for our Spiritual Journey” for the Adult Faith Formation Program at St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine in Delaware. For several years, Sister Peggy has been leading retreats on contemplative spirituality and deepening one’s awareness of God in everyday life, and she has published a number of articles and essays on spirituality. Most recently, Sister has been blogging for America magazine’s “In All Things,” having been invited to share her insights and expertise by well-known author and America editor Father James Martin, SJ.
“Father Martin had been a keynote speaker for our Spirituality Under the Dome program, and I got to talk to him when I drove him to the 30th Street station,” said Sister.
“Then he was our Commencement speaker last year and I sent him an email about how wonderful his address was. Shortly after that he sent me an email and asked if I would be interested in being a blogger for America magazine. I wondered at first if he was kidding, but he assured me he had given my name to the online editor. I felt very humbled. I said I would give it a try. I’m still trying it on for size.”
So far, Sister has blogged about St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Ignatius and Karl Rahner, the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious), and Dorothy Day. “I can’t do it as often as I would like,” she said, “but I am very grateful for the opportunity.”
If student evaluations are any indication, Sister Peggy’s students are grateful beyond measure for the opportunity to take her classes.
“The insights that Sister gives have strengthened my faith in God. I love going to class…” “Sister Peggy is such a great teacher. She is an angel on earth.”
“I really liked how Sister Peggy used DVDs, movies, YouTube videos and readings to reflect the teachings…also loved how she allowed the class to share their reflections…”
“It taught me about the real world and how to deal with problems. Practical application of the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
“Conversation was great and I enjoyed the teacher’s attitude and openness.”
“I loved the prayer in the beginning and the clear outline of expectations…Excellent class!”
Sister Peggy’s unwavering devotion is to God, to the integration of the call to contemplation and action in her own life, and to her students, whom she regards with the utmost respect and affection. Sister’s classes are always full and she works to know all of her students’ names and to remember them. She appreciates the uniqueness and worth of each one and strives to help them recognize their gifts and to see that they are called to use their gifts for the good of those around them, and for the broader global community.
“There is always that underlying desire to find ways to give them a love for the study of theology and to help them to see the significance of theology for human existence in today’s world, for their own spiritual journey, and for their ongoing search for God,” she said.
In a word, Sister Peggy says, “This is how I see my vocation. Truly, I am always standing on holy ground.”