The number of those who knew Pierre Teilhard de Chardin personally becomes fewer each year, and in 2013 we lost one more.
We at the Teilhard de Chardin Project are grateful to David Mog of the NOVA community for introducing us to Sonja Donahue several years ago. David knew that Sonja had personally known Teilhard in her youth and he was also aware that we are working on a TV documentary on Teilhard. So he arranged for us to meet with Sonja, with the help of her daughter Victoria. Sonja welcomed us to her bedside in the assisted living facility where she had been living since she suffered a stroke some years before.
Sonja had difficulty speaking, but was eager to talk. She quickly verified what David had told us, that she had personally known Teilhard de Chardin in China in the early 1940s. She told us that she and her younger brother had been sent from Austria to China on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to live with their father, Edgar Taschdjian, after their mother died. She was 11 at the time. Her father taught biology at the Catholic University in Peking and had frequent academic dinner guests. His was a formal household and when a dinner guest arrived the children would be summoned to meet them in the drawing room and to have conversation for a little while before the children were dismissed and her father and his guests would retire to the dining room. One night a tall, dignified French priest came to dinner. His name was Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit, and their step-mother Claire worked as his secretary. They liked him and were pleased that their father asked him back on many other occasions. Of course at that time, Teilhard was known to Sonja and her brother simply as a scientist priest and a friend of their father and step-mother. It was only some years later that they came to realize that he was also a notable person.
Sonja told us she had two very strong memories of her experience with Teilhard. The first was of the conversations she and her brother had with him at their home. She did not remember what they talked about, but only that he asked a lot of questions and listened carefully to their answers. “He respected us,” she emphasized, “even though we were only teenagers.” The second memory was very sweet. She remembered that as the war wore down in 1945, she and her family were able to get passage on a ship to the United States sailing out of Tientsin. Teilhard accompanied them to the station to catch the train they would take to the port city. Just before they boarded Teilhard presented her with a large orange he had brought her for her journey, a rare treasure in war weary Peking.
Teilhard was, however, only a footnote in the life of this multi-faceted woman whose life ranged from that of a refugee to a cosmopolitan intellectual, living in seven countries on four continents before setting down roots with her husband Gil Donahue in Northern Virginia. Sonja became a certified Montessori teacher, and in her search for good religious education for her children connected with Robert Hovda, who introduced her to an intentional Catholic community in Washington. Outlawed by Archbishop O’Boyle, the group was subsequently welcomed in the Richmond diocese, and in 1968 formed the NOVA Community, which today describes itself as a “spirit-filled, Eucharist-centered, progressive Catholic community worshiping in Arlington, VA.”
NOVA honors Sonja today as a co-founder of their community and we remember her as a personal friend of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.