Tufts University

Margaret A. Leonard

[ Biography | Honorary Degree ]

Commencement 2009

"I have learned to look at the world through the basement window, through the lives of people at the bottom." That is how Sister MARGARET A. LEONARD describes her nearly 25 years as executive director of Project Hope, the Boston nonprofit that has partnered with families as they move up and out of poverty. During that time, Project Hope has grown from an emergency shelter to a multi-service center with an array of educational and economic programs serving families in the North Dorchester/Roxbury neighborhoods.

Sister Margaret came to the bleak, crime-ridden neighborhood of North Dorchester in 1985 to assist a group of fellow nuns of the Little Sisters of the Assumption who had decided to share their convent space with eight homeless women and their children. "House Open, People Enter" became the motto, and Hope the acronym. Their goal soon shifted from merely housing the families to helping the women overcome the circumstances that had brought them to homelessness. Education and literacy and career-guidance programs gave the mothers new opportunities and helped preserve their self-esteem.

"When you work with the poor, you're their family," Sister Margaret told the Boston Globe in 2006. "You don't do it for them. You do it with them." Working with residents to reclaim their community, which was once marked by burned-out buildings and vacant lots, Project Hope helped start the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which brought more than 300 units of new housing to the neighborhood. Over the years, the project has opened a community garden, a day-care center, a food pantry and the One Family Scholar Program, which provides college scholarships to formerly homeless and low-income mothers. In 2006, the project opened a four-story service center—Roxbury's first environmentally friendly building—while the original convent continues to house a shelter and children's center.

A native of Everett and Chelsea, Sister Margaret entered the order of the Little Sisters of the Assumption in 1957. In 1964, she became one of the first female graduates of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., and later earned a master's degree in social work from Fordham University in New York. By 1974, she was named the U.S. Provincial for her order, while also working with LSA Family Services in East Harlem. She has long served on the boards of the Pine Street Inn, Homes for Families and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.

Sister Margaret has been honored for her achievements throughout her career. In 2008 she received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from her alma mater, Assumption College, for her lifelong commitment to improving society. She was selected to be a Barr Fellow in 2009, honoring her contributions as a gifted and experienced leader in the Boston area.

"We may think we understand how to organize a more just society, but we only know by experimenting and by evaluating the effects of our experiment," she explained in The World We Want (AltaMira Press) by Peter Karoff. "We need to ask all the time whether the civic forms are really working for the people who should benefit. We must always seek out new ways to organize communities to achieve justice, equity and love among people."

Tufts will award Sister Margaret an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree.

This story originally ran on May 17, 2009.