“The Life and Example of Jean Donovan” (Dec. 2005)

Recently, we marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of four North American churchwomen, killed by U.S.-trained and funded death squads in El Salvador on December 2, 1980. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news. I was a senior at Duke University, with plans to enter the Jesuits the following year. I bent down to pick up the Durham Morning Herald, and was shocked by the headline: “Four Churchwomen Killed in El Salvador.” Their bodies had been found in a shallow, unmarked grave in a barren countryside not far from the San Salvador airport.
The deaths of these four women changed my life. They gave me–and thousands of church people around the country–new strength and courage to stand up against U.S. warmaking. Three of them were nuns–Sister Ita Ford, a Maryknoll nun who spent years in Chile; Sister Maura Clarke, a Maryknoll nun who spent years in Nicaragua; and Sister Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun from Cleveland who worked in El Salvador. The fourth woman, Jean Donovan, was not a nun. She had volunteered to go to El Salvador through a church mission program in Cleveland.
A few years after their deaths, I befriended Jean’s parents, Pat and Ray Donovan, and started organizing speaking events for them around the country. They were quite a pair: former Republicans and Reagan supporters who now urgently denounced U.S. militarism in Central America. They urged me to go to El Salvador, so in 1985, I went to live and work there in a church-run refugee camp, under the guidance of several Jesuits who were later assassinated in 1989.
At the end of that summer, I traveled into the remote countryside where the four women were killed, to pray at that lonely deserted place. At the time, a simple stone cross marked the spot, and a plaque read: “Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan gave their lives on December 2, 1980. Receive them Lord, into your kingdom.”
The three nuns were extraordinary, heroic women, and so was Jean Donovan. She was born on April 10, 1953, and grew up in upper-middle-class Westport, Connecticut. She attended Mary Washington College in Virginia, and spent a life-changing year in Ireland, where a charismatic priest committed to the Latin American poor challenged her not to waste her life pursuing money but rather, to give her life pursuing God and serving God’s poor. In late 1977, Jean quit her executive position at the Cleveland, Ohio, branch of Arthur Andersen, a national accounting firm, turned her back on First World USA, gave away her Harley Davidson, said goodbye to friends, and joined the Cleveland Diocese and Maryknoll Lay Mission program to serve in El Salvador.
She was assigned to work in the village of La Libertad, near the Pacific ocean. For the next few years, she served a parish, managed its budget, played with the children, and helped other church workers. But the brutal government’s war against the poor intensified. The streets were filled with soldiers, and dead bodies were left along the roads. Jean and the sisters began to pick up the bodies and bury them. Then they turned their attentions to supporting the distraught relatives who searched for their “disappeared” loved ones.
Jean and the rest of El Salvador found hope in the fearless homilies of Archbishop Oscar Romero. She wrote to a friend that his message was convincing her that prayer does make a difference. In gratitude, she baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies and delivered them to Archbishop Romero every Sunday afternoon after his morning Mass.
On March 24, 1980, Romero was shot while presiding at an evening Mass. Grieving deeply, Jean stood next to his coffin during the all-night wake. During the funeral Mass, the government threw bombs into the crowd of 30,000 mourners, killing 30. Although Jean was terrified, she told herself that if she was killed, she would go straight to God.
“I got your letter,” Jean wrote to a friend afterwards, “and I really appreciate the fact that you said you worry about me. It’s nice to know that people care and they’d like to tell me to come home, as you say. There are lots of times I feel like coming home. But I really do feel strongly that God has sent me here, and wants me to be here, and I’m going to try to do my best to live up to that.”
Jean stayed in touch with her Irish priest friend. “Things now are so much worse, it’s unbelievable,” she wrote him in May, 1980. “People are being killed daily. We just found out that three people from our area had been taken, tortured and hacked to death. Two were young men and one was an older man. The man had been in a government death squad, had a fight with them and quit. So that’s probably why they got him. We had done a mission out there recently and they were coming to the celebrations. Everything is really hitting so close now.” That summer, Jean’s two closest friends were assassinated after they took her to a movie and walked her home. Their violent deaths devastated her.
In September, Jean took a six-week vacation. First, she flew to Miami to see her parents, then to London to meet her boyfriend, then to Ireland for the wedding of a friend, then to Maryknoll in New York, then to Cleveland and Miami again.
A friend from Maryknoll later told Jean’s parents that she spent several hours in the Maryknoll chapel. She confessed her fear that she might be killed. “She went into the chapel,” Pat Donovan recalled, “and Jean was a great one for talking with God, and if she got answers, she’s the only one that heard them, but when she came out two hours later, the sister said that she was an entirely different woman. She was ready to go back. She had somehow reconciled herself to what was happening and what she was to do, and she had made her peace with whatever frightening thoughts she had. She was really the old Jeannie when we put her back on the plane, joking, laughing.”
Back in El Salvador, Jean started again to pick up the bodies, console the grieving, and lead the poor in prayer. “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low,” she wrote a friend. “The danger is extreme and they were right to leave.Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. 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 could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
A few weeks before her death, she wrote of her efforts and her spiritual journey. “The situation is bad and believe it or not, at times I’m actually helpful. I also was trying to deal with some close friends who had been killed the last week of August. We are still plugging along. Life continues with many interruptions. 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. I have a long way to go on that score. They can teach you so much with their patience and their wanting eyes. We are all so inadequate in our help. I am trying now more and more to deal with the social sin of the First World.”
Sometime that November, while riding her motorbike through the countryside, Jean noticed that a U.S. military helicopter was following her. When she later told the U.S. ambassador about it, he denied that U.S. helicopters were in El Salvador, and asked how she could tell. She told him that her father spent his life helping to build them, so she knew the name and model, much to the ambassador’s chagrin.
On the evening of December 2, Jean and Dorothy drove to the airport to meet Ita and Maura, who were returning from Managua. The four women were last seen alive driving from the airport down the main road. Two days later, their bodies were discovered in a makeshift grave about 15 miles away. They had been raped and shot at close range. Jean’s face was completely destroyed. She was twenty-seven years old.
Twenty five years later, El Salvador has become Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Colombia, indeed, the whole world. Not long ago, some Pentagon general announced that the United States was now using the same strategy it employed in El Salvador on Iraq. In El Salvador, we helped to kill some 75,000 people, including Archbishop Romero, the four churchwomen and the six Jesuits. We trained the death squads at the School of the Americas. We supported the torture and rape of thousands. We rewarded the generals, the junta, and the handful of millionaires who stole the nation’s resources. Instead of repenting of the evils it did in El Salvador–and so many other places–our government is now intent on turning the rest of the world into the killing fields of El Salvador. It cares little about the innocent lives lost in El Salvador, Iraq or anywhere else.
But I take heart in the life and example of Jean Donovan and the other churchwomen. They renounced First World greed and nationalism, entered the world of the marginalized and destitute, shared their powerlessness and pain, stood up in their defense and gave their lives in loving solidarity for them, just like Jesus.
In these dark times, Jean and the church women inspire us to stand up in solidarity with the victims of our government and its wars, regardless of the consequences to ourselves, and to give our lives so that some day, the killing will stop.