02 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (3): 2 December, Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan ... murdered and martyred 32 years ago on 2 December 1980 in El Salvador

Patrick Comerford

Advent is a time for reminding ourselves of the coming of Christ not just as a vulnerable child who takes on our flesh and our human tragedy at his incarnation. But our Gospel reading this morning (Luke 21: 25-36) reminds us too that Christ is coming again as King, challenging the kings and rulers of this world, and offering something very different to the despots and the dictators of this age.

Today [2 December 2012] is the First Sunday of Advent. But on this day [2 December v2012] I am reminded too of the four US women who were raped and brutally murdered in El Salvador 32 years ago this day, on 2 December 1980. When corpses littered the streets and the number of disappeared was rapidly escalating – when bishops, generals, and government officials demanded neutrality from the Church – these four women, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, had chosen to accompany a people made vulnerable by war and by repression.

These four women lived the virtue of solidarity, not neutrality. They believed poor people were living examples of God’s revelation in history – an opening where the God of hope and possibility was discovered in the midst of suffering and fear.

One of these women, Jean Donovan (1953-1980) – the only one of the four who was not a nun – came from an Irish family, and her time in Cork played a n incalculable role in her decision to become a lay missionary in El Salvador, where she was raped and murdered with her three colleagues by a military death squad.

Jean Donovan was born on 10 April 1953, the daughter of Patricia and Raymond Donovan, and grew up with her brother, Michael Donovan, in Westport, Connecticut. She attended Mary Washington College, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, now the University of Mary Washington.

When she was 20, she spent a year as an exchange student at University College Cork, and her faith was deepened through her contact at UCC with Father Michael Crowley, a Cork priest there who had worked as a missionary in Peru for 10 years and before that with poor Hispanic communities in the US.

She left Ireland in 1974, and when she finished a master’s degree in business at Case Western Reserve University she became a management consultant in the Cleveland office of Arthur Andersen, the large accounting firm.

During this time, Jean became engaged to a young doctor, Douglas Cable. But while she was as a volunteer with the Diocese of Cleveland Youth Ministry working with the poor, she decided to join the Diocesan Mission Project in El Salvador. She was completed the lay-missionary training course at Maryknoll in New York and travelled to El Salvador in July 1977.

Jean worked as a lay missionary alongside Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, in a parish in La Libertad, providing help to refugees from El Salvador’s civil war and for the poor. They provided shelter, food, transportation to medical care, and they buried the bodies of the dead left behind by the death squads.

Jean became a follower of Archbishop Óscar Romero, and often went to his Cathedral in San Salvador to hear him preach. She wrote to a friend that his message was convincing her that prayer makes 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.

After he was murdered while saying Mass on 24 March 1980, Jean and Dorothy stood beside his coffin during the night-long vigil before his funeral. During the funeral Mass, government militia threw bombs into the crowd of 30,000 mourners, killing 30 people. 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.”

Throughout this time, Jean stayed in touch with her friend Father Michael Crowley in Cork. “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, she took a six-week holiday. She first 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.

Back in El Salvador, she started again to pick up the bodies, console the grieving, and lead the poor in prayer. In the weeks that followed, Jean wrote a friend: “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. 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 favour the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

On the afternoon of 2 December 1980, Jean and Dorothy collected up two Maryknoll missionary sisters, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, at the airport after they had arrived from a Maryknoll conference in Managua, Nicaragua. They were under followed by a National Guardsman, who phoned his commander for orders. Acting on orders from their commander, five National Guard members changed into plainclothes and continued to stake out the airport.

The five members of the National Guard stopped the car they were driving after they left the airport. The three women sisters were taken to an isolated spot where they were beaten, raped, and murdered by the soldiers.

At about 10 p.m. that night, three hours after the four women had left the airport, local people saw the white van drive to an isolated spot and then heard machinegun fire followed by single shots. They saw five men flee the scene in the white van, with the lights on and the radio blaring. The van was found later that night, on fire at the side of the airport road.

The bodies of the four women were found early the next morning, Wednesday 3 December 1980. The local people who found their bodies were told by a local judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field. But four men who took part in the burial told their parish priest, and later that day news of the murders reached the local bishop and the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White.

The shallow grave was exhumed on Thursday 4 December, in front of 15 reporters, several missionaries, and the US ambassador. Jean Donovan’s body was the first to be removed.

The four El Salvador martyrs ... murdered 32 years ago

A Mass of the Resurrection was said by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas. On Saturday, 6 December, Jean’s body was flown back for burial to her parents in Sarasota, Florida. The US State Department later charged Patricia and Raymond Donovan $3,500 for the return of their daughter’s body.

When news of the murders broke in the US, public outrage forced the US government to put pressure on the El Salvador regime for an investigation. The earliest investigations were condemned as a whitewash. Eventually, the UN appointed a Truth Commission to investigate who gave the orders, who knew about it, and who covered it up.

Several low-level guardsmen were convicted, and two generals were sued by the women’s families in the US federal civil courts for their command responsibility at the time of the murders.

In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in El Salvador that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behaviour. Two of the men remain in prison and have petitioned for pardons. The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, General Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become the Minister of Defence in the government of José Napoleón Duarte.

Jean Donovan is the main subject of a 1982 documentary Roses in December, which won the Interfilm Award at the International Film Festival in Mannheim-Heidelberg in 1982. Her story has also been the subject of television movies and plays.

The Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship at Santa Clara University is designed to encourage and support students who want to deepen their understanding of social justice issues through a summer community-based learning experience. The Fellowship provides $1,500 in grant funding to recipients.

Jean’s friend and biographer Father John Dear said some years ago: “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.”

Jean Donovan’s death had a great impact on Christians in Ireland and the US, and on many people of all faiths. She lived in solidarity with the poor and died among those who were persecuted. Her life is an example of what one person can do to change the world. Like people who have been waiting in hope through long Advents of violence and repression, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan model for us the hopeful attitude that we also are invited to adopt in this season of Advent.

An icon of Jean Donovan by Father William McNichols


The Northumbria Community includes Jean Donovan in its calendar of saints and provides this prayer from ‘The Way of the Cross’ no. 5 in Celtic Daily Prayer:

Lord, you have taught us that we must bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. Sweet Jesus, like Simon of Cyrene, may we carry your cross. May we carry your cross. Amen.


Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25: 1-10; I Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow (3 December): Saint Francis Xavier

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

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