Jean Donovan

COUNTRY: El Salvador

Jean Donovan was born on April 10, 1953. She was the younger of two children and raised in an upper middle class family in Westport, Connecticut. Her father, Raymond, was an executive engineer, and later chief of design, at the nearby Sikorsky Aircraft Division of the United Technologies, a large defense contractor for the U.S. and manufacturer of helicopters used in the Vietnam War. Jean was very close to her brother Michael and was deeply affected when he was struck with Hodgkin’s disease, from which he made a complete recovery. The experience of the disease and his courageous battle to conquer it left a strong impression on Jean and, as she said later, gave her a deeper sense of the preciousness of life.

Jean received a Master’s degree in business administration from Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio. She became interested in mission and the social commitments of the church in Latin America through contact with Fr. Michael Crowley, a former missionary in Peru, while studying in Ireland. While there she began her discernment of her call to mission, to a more radical following of the example of Jesus of Nazareth.

Upon graduation, she took a job as executive consultant for Arthur Andersen, a national accounting firm in Cleveland. She was on her way to a successful business career. While in Cleveland she began volunteering in the Cleveland Diocese Youth Ministry with the poor, she heard about the diocesan mission project in El Salvador. It was what she was looking for. Donovan quit her executive consulting job, said goodbye to friends, and joined the Diocese Mission Team in El Salvador. Jean attributed her decision to “a gut feeling,” and said “I want to get closer to Him, and that’s the only way I think I can.” The diocese sent her to Maryknoll Lay Missioners for her formation and from there she was sent to El Salvador.

The director of the mission program, Maryknoll Sister Mary Anne O’Donnell, described Jean as intelligent, loving and apostolic. Jean did her training at Maryknoll Lay Missioners with our Spring 1979 class and received her mission cross with them. Jean arrived in El Salvador in July 1979, a time when the repression was intensifying and the church had become a major target. She became Caritas coordinator for the diocesan mission program. In addition to keeping the books, she worked in La Libertad with Dorothy Kazel, distributing food for the poor and the refugees and carrying out family education programs. Her mother Patricia said of her work, “Jean took her commitment to the campesinos very seriously. She was strongly motivated by St. Francis of Assisi and by Archbishop Oscar Romero. She translated God’s teachings into clothing for the poor, feeding the hungry, and caring for the wounded refugees mainly children who had lost what little they had…” As for the people of La Libertad, they loved Jean Donovan and dubbed her, “St. Jean the Playful.”

After the assassination of Msgr. Romero, Jean and Dorothy were among those who took turns keeping vigil at his coffin. And they were present in the cathedral when the overflow crowd in the plaza attending his funeral on March 30, 1980, was attacked by security forces, resulting in a massacre of 44 dead and hundreds of wounded. The repression touched her in very personal ways. Friends were killed by death squads. She witnessed one such killing. In fact, Jean and Dorothy often used their very visible presence to accompany people in danger, or to get supplies into areas not accessible to others. They became a well-known sight, driving along the countryside in their mission van. As the violence engulfed the country, Jean felt the personal challenge of trying to cope, to understand what was happening. It tested her faith. “I think that the hardship one endures maybe is God’s way of taking you out into the desert and to prepare you to meet and love him more fully.” Jean’s mother Patricia said, “Things grew progressively worse in El Salvador after the United States election… Jean had told us that she feared there would be a bloodbath in El Salvador.”

In September Donovan took a six-week vacation, visiting her parents in Miami and her boyfriend in London. She also attended a wedding in Ireland and stopped at Maryknoll in New York, where, a friend later told Donovan’s parents, she spent several hours in the chapel. She confessed her fear that she might be killed. “When she came out [of the chapel],” Pat Donovan recalled, “the sister said that she was an entirely different woman. She was ready to go back. She had made her peace with whatever frightening thoughts she had.” After visiting Cleveland and Miami again, she returned to El Salvador to pick up the bodies, console the grieving, and lead the poor in prayer. “Life continues with many interruptions,” she wrote. “I don’t know how the poor survive. People in our positions really have to die to ourselves and our wealth to gain the spirituality of the poor and oppressed.”

In November, while riding her motor bike, Donovan noticed a U.S. military helicopter following her. The U.S. ambassador denied that U.S. helicopters were in El Salvador, but much to his chagrin, Donovan knew the name and model because her father spent his life helping to build them. Two weeks before she was murdered, with the bloodbath already begun, she wrote to a friend in Connecticut: “Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.” For the family of Jean Donovan, her death was an indescribable blow. When she had first told them she was going to El Salvador, they had to pull out a map to find out where it was. Now they had lost their only daughter in this tiny country that had become a major focus of U.S. foreign policy.

On December 2, 1980, Jean accompanied Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel to the airport in San Salvador, El Salvador, to pick up two Maryknoll Sisters, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, flying in from Nicaragua. As the four women left the airport, they were taken by soldiers, abused, killed and buried in shallow graves in a rural area about 15 miles away from the airport. Two days later their bodies were discovered. Donovan’s face was completely destroyed. She was 27 years old. These brutal murders of four missioner women martyrs shocked the world.

As Fr. John Dear says: “Jean Donovan was a modern-day martyr, losing her life while caring for the poor in the midst of El Salvador’s bloody civil war. Thirty years later, her memory continues to inspire.”

To learn more about Jean Donovan’s life click on the following links:

Articles and Books:

Documentaries, Films and Plays:

  • Donovan is the main subject of the 1982 documentary Roses in December, which also includes footage regarding Archbishop Romero and Sister Dorothy Kazel. at American Friends Service Committee lending library; accessed online December 9, 2006. This documentary won the Interfilm Award at the 1982 International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg.
  • Melissa Gilbert played Jean Donovan in a 1983 television movie, Choices of the Heart, which has been criticized for lacking clarity about the political context of the women’s killings. The movie won the 1984 Humanitas Prize in the 90-minute category. Helen Hunt, Martin Sheen, and Mike Farrell were among the cast members.
  • In Salvador, Oliver Stone’s 1986 film about an American reporter trying to cover the overall conflict, Cynthia Gibb portrays the Donovan-based character Cathy Moore and is shown in several scenes interacting with the main character. The film also depicts the rape and murder of the four women.
  • In March 1996, a one-woman play written by Lisa Wagner premiered in Kansas City and then went on a national tour which included a month in Chicago. Wagner had written an earlier work about Dorothy Day called Haunted by God. The 1996 play, written with her parents’ permission and with research in El Salvador among the people who knew Donovan, was called Points of Arrival. The narrative displays Donovan’s sunny personality in the context of her somber spiritual journey, with emphasis on the last months of her life. It was developed with support from the Joliet Franciscan Sisters (Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate) and Call to Action, a progressive Catholic group. September 1996; accessed online December 12, 2006.
  • Jean Donovan: A Martyr for Social Justice
  • Jean Donovan the movie