Augustinians of Villanova: Father Peter Donohue

(Left to Right) University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., Ph.D. with Olivia Sabalaskey, staff writer, in front of a souvenir he obtained from Japan while studying Kabuki Theatre.

“People often say that they were called by God to do something,” University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., Ph.D. said. “I don’t know if I ever necessarily heard God’s voice, but I heard God speak through other people. They recognized that I had abilities that sometimes I didn’t recognize myself. They trusted that I had the talent to do certain jobs that I would never have even thought of.”

This week, Fr. Peter offers great insight into not only his life as an Augustinian at the University, but also as Villanova’s 32nd President. 

While many people feel called by God to pursue a certain vocation, Fr. Peter felt called by God to become an Augustinian through friends, colleagues, mentors and family members.

Born in Bronx, New York, Fr. Peter grew up in a devout Catholic family, due to his participation in weekly Sunday Mass as an altar boy. At five years old, Fr. Peter moved to Detroit, Michigan with his family where his father worked for what was then the New York Central Railroad. 

In high school, Fr. Peter was very involved in extracurricular activities. Given his passion for theatre, Fr. Peter acted in numerous plays and musicals throughout his high school experience. He was also elected and served as his class’s President all four years of high school. Looking back, Fr. Peter views his high school presidency as a sign from God to pursue a vocation that involves teaching and advocating for a body of people in academic life. 

Fr. Peter recalls his admiration of the Dominican Nuns’ work at his grade school and high school. The Sisters also helped Fr. Peter discover the Order of St. Augustine.

“In the late 1960s, the Dominican nuns led a very mysterious lifestyle,” Fr. Peter said. “Their lifestyle kind of intrigued me, being the theatrical person that I am, and so I just started exploring religious life.”

Fr. Peter spoke with the Dominican Sisters at school about his interest in becoming a priest, and they recommended that he not join the Dominican Order because they were “a serious bunch, and you’re not serious at all,” Fr. Peter recalls them telling him.

Later on, after doing much research on religious life and the various orders in the Catholic Church, Fr. Peter saw an advertisement for the Order of St. Augustine in a newspaper. Immediately interested, he contacted them, explaining his interest in joining. The Vocation Director responded, thrilled to hear Fr. Peter’s excitement, and soon Fr. Peter was sent to study at Villanova University at the age of 18. 

Although Fr. Peter was delighted to start this new chapter of his life, he hardly knew anyone at Villanova. Determined to connect with the thriving community on Campus, he became very involved in extracurricular activities, particularly in theatre. 

In 1975, Fr. Peter earned a B.A. in Theatre and Communication Arts from Villanova, and was ordained an Augustinian priest in 1979. 

“My life took a whole new trajectory when I became an Augustinian,” Fr. Peter said. “I had always wanted to be a high school teacher, and I wanted to direct plays too. I think that passion goes back to my high school days and how the Sisters really inspired me with their dedication to teaching.”

After being ordained, Fr. Peter was sent on his first assignment by the Augustinians to an all boys high school in Washington D.C. During his time teaching at the high school, Fr. Peter directed plays and obtained his Master’s degree in Theatre right across the street from the Catholic University of America. 

Four years later, the Augustinians requested his service as the Vocation Director for the Order of St. Augustine. Fr. Peter moved back to Villanova because the headquarters for the office remain on campus. 

“Being the Vocation Director was a very challenging job,” Fr. Peter said. “It was an interesting four years that I am very grateful for.”

After four years as the Vocation Director, Fr. Peter happened to run into his undergraduate Theatre professor on campus one day. After a brief conversation, the professor asked Fr. Peter if he would be interested in trying out for Villanova’s summer play, “The Playboy of the Western World.”  Fr. Peter had been eager to perform for a while, so he said yes almost instantly, longing to return to his favorite place: the stage.

Upon conclusion of the play, those working in the Theatre Department realized Fr. Peter’s dedication and passion, hoping he would work there to inspire future students. The Augustinian Provincial approved Fr. Peter’s new position as Production Manager as suggested by the Theatre Department. After three years of helping create magnificent plays, Fr. Peter presumed that he would return to teaching high school given his lack of a Ph.D., but Villanova’s Theatre Department had other plans for him.

“They called me in, said that I did a great job as the Production Manager, and encouraged me to go for a Ph.D.,” Fr. Peter said. “Honestly, I didn’t want to, but they really wanted me to. So, I applied to a Ph.D. program.”

While Fr. Peter studied and taught theatre at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to obtain his Ph.D., he was inspired by his coworker, a Japanese Kabuki actor, to write his dissertation on Kabuki Theatre’s influence on Western Theatre and travel to Japan to immerse himself in Kabuki. Fr. Peter reminisced on his travels to Japan often given the large amount of souvenirs that adorn his office. 

After completing his studies at the University of Illinois, Fr. Peter was elected Chair of the Villanova Theatre Department in 1992. He taught, directed and ran the Department for 14 years until Villanova University’s 31st President, Rev. Edmund J. Dobbin, O.S.A., announced that he was stepping down after 18 years. Many of Fr. Peter’s colleagues, mentors and friends suggested that he put his name in the group of six competitive candidates. Doubtful that he would be elected given the prestigious candidates, Fr. Peter was stunned and honored to have been chosen.

“The ultimate role of a President is to look to the future, enhance the vision of this school and entice people to fulfill that mission,” Fr. Peter said. “Pre-pandemic, I traveled a lot, so the job requires frequent attendance at fundraisers, receptions and at various associations, organizations, and academic societies.”

However, Fr. Peter’s favorite part of the job involves meeting and working with Villanova alumni because he is able to reminisce with them about their wonderful experiences as students on campus.

“I look at the job as though I am the face of Villanova in many respects, but the heart, soul and the mind of Villanova are the people that are here,” Fr. Peter said. “They create what Villanova is about.”

When asked what he enjoys most about being an Augustinian at Villanova, Fr. Peter confirmed his love for the community spirit on Campus. Some of his best friends are Augustinians given that they cook, clean, eat and pray together every day. However, he is inspired by those who are not Augustinian Friars but are Augustinians in spirit: students, faculty and staff that believe in the mission of Villanova and have embraced the spirit of community in their lives. 

“It not only supports me in what I’m doing in my role as the President, but it inspires me to be a better person,” Fr. Peter said. “We inspire each other.” 

Given Fr. Peter’s passion for and his love of the spirit of community on Campus, he thrives when able to interact with students, getting to know them not only as a collective whole, but on an individual level as well. Fr. Peter hopes for his fellow Augustinians, students, faculty and staff to get to know him a bit better too. 

Fr. Peter shared some fun facts about himself that he feels not too many people may know of. For example, when he was younger, he frequently took tap and Irish step dancing lessons. Also, Fr. Peter’s favorite theatrical production is “Hamilton.”

As the Fall Semester comes to an end, Fr. Peter not only wishes Villanova students good luck on their final exams but also a very merry Christmas and Holiday season.