Few know true generosity and selflessness like Sister Donna Evans. From living under a military regime in Boliva to being with communists in Peru to helping the needy in New Mexico, Sister Donna has dedicated a total of 60 years to a religious life.
Sister Donna was born on November 15, 1936 at The Queen’s Medical Center. She lived in Puunui with her multicultural family with roots from an English sailor and Portuguese, Padawadame, Chinese and Hawaiian heritage. Not to be outdone by her culturally diverse family, Sister Donna herself has traveled to different states, countries, and experienced various cultures on her path to answer the call of people in need.
That desire to serve others happened by accident. On December 7, 1941, when Sister Donna was just five years old, she and her younger sisters were playing in their pajamas in their backyard when they looked up.
“We saw these pretty planes with polka dots under their wings. They were coming in waves. We ran upstairs and called mom. When she saw them, she knew what they were.”
Worried that the Japanese would invade the island, Sister Donna’s father sent Sister Donna and her mother and sisters to live in California for the duration of the war. At this young age, Sister Donna experienced being displaced for the first time, a lifestyle that she would later willingly choose as a missionary in Lima, Peru, and on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico.
Sister Donna eventually returned to Oahu, where she established deep roots in Hawaii and rekindled her love for the ocean.
At 14 years old, “I made a promise that I would teach children to respect the ocean,” she said. Since then, Sister Donna has graduated from St. Francis High School in 1955 and received a master’s degree in oceanography and physical sciences. Then, Sister Donna fulfilled her childhood promise when she became a science teacher at St. Francis High School. The following year, Sister Donna taught at St. Joseph’s grade school in Canton, New Jersey, where she stayed for eight years. In 1975, Sister Donna was called to the Franciscan Academy in Syracuse, New York, where she taught chemistry, physics, and physical sciences, for two years.
Even with a great love for the ocean and the mountains of Hawaii, Sister Donna welcomed the first opportunity to serve far away from home. After 22 years of teaching, Sister Donna’s life started to take a slightly different turn. “I got the missionary bug, but I think I had it all along,” she said.
So at 43 years old, Sister Donna utilized her teaching background by helping a language school in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This was her first introduction to living under a military regime. “After 7 o’clock you could get shot in the streets,” Sister Donna recalled. Despite the dangerous living conditions, she remained focused on helping the people as if it were the most natural thing to do.
From Bolivia, Sister Donna traveled with the mission to the Andes Mountains in Peru. In the mountains, Communists ruled the Pueblos by fear.
“The communists threatened to kill the priests who came up to the mountains to tend to the needs of the Pueblo people. So, the Bishop of Huacho to the Andes asked the nuns to go! And I volunteered and became a pastoral minister.
“Every month I would go up for a week or two to take up basic foods to the Pueblos. The communists were making their rounds up in the Andes and attacking the Pueblos. If they didn’t collaborate, the communists would harm their sheep and cattle. The people were distraught and in need. We hoped to reanimate them.
“Poverty, terrorism and political upheaval during those years wrecked the human spirit, yet I saw the valiant and resourceful nature of the suffering people of God. People kept trying to overcome their fears, and we tried to help them as best we could. It was one of the things that was wholesome. We could help one another in times of need.”
After spending 17 years in Peru, Sister Donna answered the call to help the people in New Mexico. She was in charge of the Northern area where the people had log houses and fires were frequent. She worked to provide supplies for those who lost everything to the fires. In addition, she would also carry out sacramental preparation, home visiting, and help the nursing homes.
After 12 years on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico in the Diocese of Gallup, Sister Donna returned to Lima, Peru, for two and a half years to help with after-school programs at a poor pueblo. She reflects on her time: “This is what I found as a missionary: God was there before us, and all we tried to do was come together. God is everywhere in the air we breathe; He’s forever present. I have especially come to appreciate how God is present with people in their struggle to survive.”
Sister Donna finally returned to Hawai’i where she continues to go the distance as an advocate for those in greatest need here in Hawaii. Sister Donna now serves those without homes through ministry at St Francis Healthcare System’s Our Lady of Kea`au in Waianae. Every Tuesday Sister Donna oversees the meal preparation and distribution to those who are homeless. She reflects on the plight of those who are without homes: “A St. Francis Healthcare System, we help people. On Tuesday, we sometimes we see the same people each week. A lot of them are elderly, and we have now more children. We’re seeing it firsthand. It’s like being back in Peru.
She remains hopeful and an outspoken activist: “Look at the plants and the animals — they were put in our care, right? We have to look at Hawaii. What’s happened to our island. I went away and now I see so many homeless people living on the street, shores, under bridges. Social sin is something we have to work on as a nation and as a local people.
“We have to bring hope and not just talk about it. We have to actively change the ways we care for others. We all have our role to play.”
After more than 60 years of life of ministry, she reflects on what has kept her passionate today:
“There is that spiritual communion. Every evening, I go on the porch and look out at the sea, watch the sun going down, and pray. We pray for everyone in the world, all creatures of our God and king, and the situations that people are in today.”
Attending the canonization of Sister Marianne Cope in Rome, Sister Donna reflects on Sister Marianne Cope: “Her spirit is very much alive in our Sisters and others we partner with here at St. Francis. For examples, the volunteers who give up their time to prepare the meals for Tuesday’s – they are giving me an example of what generosity is. I believe there are many ways to serve, and Sister Marianne Cope has been an inspiration to religious and laywomen alike – men included.”
For 60 years, Sister Donna has devoted to a religious life. Every call for help, she has graciously answered. Without hesitation Sister Donna has lived in dangerous situations to help the poor, all the while keeping her humor, spirit, and her optimism. When asked how to self-motivate others, Sister Donna replied, “if we could recognize what’s happening and what are values are—is that money is more important than people it seems.” We need to have hope and actively change, instead of caving to the despair of excuses of why we don’t help others.