In celebration of Arbor Day 2015, Sister Donna Zwigart helps children from Mount Alvernia Day Care and Learning Center plant a tree on the Mount Alvernia campus.
Under God’s guiding hand, her love of nature, special love for the poor, and admiration of the Franciscan sisters led Sister Donna to become a Sister of St. Francis herself. Since then, she has spent decades working with the poor and caring for the environment.
A degree in biology earned at Carlow College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, gave Sister Donna an even deeper appreciation of the complexity of living things. From observing a flower to gazing at the sky, she marvels at the magnificence of God’s creation. “When I look at a flower and see all of its intricacies, I say ‘there has to be a mastermind who created this,’” she says. “In the evening I love to go outside and look up and see the beautiful stars and planets.”
At this stage of her journey, and with Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” giving more attention to the Catholic Church’s role in caring for the environment, Sister Donna is devoting more time to her passion: caring for Mother Earth.
She sees “Laudato Si’” as a source of hope. In clear, passionate language aimed at the entire global population, Pope Francis lays out the scope of the problem of climate change and the urgent need to address it.
The encyclical’s subtitle, “On Care for Our Common Home,” reflects the human place within the ecological entirety of this planet, not separate from it. “In the web of life everything is connected,” says Sister Donna. “Every living thing has a right to exist in the best way it can exist, whether it is a human being, a frog or the air,” she says.
She begins by caring for creation right in her own backyard. At the sisters’ Mount Alvernia campus, Sister Donna plants trees on a regular basis and recently welcomed a hive of honey bees. In 2014, she was instrumental in working with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to create two bioswales to prevent disastrous flooding in the low lying town of Millvale.
On a larger scale, she urges policymakers to act morally. Embracing her responsibility to advocate – to influence, shape and direct – Sister Donna says she is fulfilling the congregation’s mission of serving with justice and compassion, giving special attention to those who are poor and vulnerable.
As a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, Sister Donna testified at three Clean Power Plan marathon hearings hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency in Pittsburgh last fall. She warned federal environmental regulators that climate change and air pollution are adversely affecting public health, especially that of low-income communities. “Climate change is real and we need to do all that is possible to preserve our planet for all creation and for generations to come,” she said.
She also serves on the board of directors of numerous local, regional and national organizations including Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, a community of faith responding to climate change as a moral issue.
She likens the climate change movement to other rights movements. “The movement to end slavery or to secure women’s right to vote took many years and a lot of hard work by many people,” she explains. “Restoring our planet from the effects of climate change is a similar thing.”
A new World Bank report shows that climate change is an acute threat to low-income communities across the world and could push more than 100 million people back into poverty over the next 15 years. “We will need to act fast, because as climate impacts increase, so will the difficulty and cost of eradicating poverty,” said John Roome, senior director for climate change at the World Bank Group.
Sister Donna takes very seriously this report and Pope Francis’ encyclical. “We have a mandate to do everything we can to preserve the earth,” she says.
While “Laudato Si’” minces no words in pointing out how humans have failed to protect the environment, it ends on a hopeful note, with the belief that humans together can make positive change. “Our own actions can help,” says Sister Donna. “Although they may seem small, it is important to remember all things start small and grow into something big,” says Sister Donna.