A memorial service in El Salvador to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the murder of four U.S. churchwomen, lay missioner Jean Donovan, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford (CNS photo/Jose Cabezas, Reuters)

I recently had occasion to visit the church I attended as a child, the Church of the Assumption in Westport, Connecticut. In the vestibule, I came across a bronze plaque dedicated to the memory of Jean Donovan, one of the four churchwomen murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1980 during that country’s vicious civil war. Right-wing death squads murdered tens of thousands. The bodies of the dead were often mutilated and left unburied in order to terrorize the country’s peasantry, who were demanding land reform and were thought to be sympathetic to left-wing insurgents.

I was familiar with the murders of the American churchwomen but unaware that Donovan grew up in Westport, and that I had in fact gone to high school with her. (My family moved from Westport to Ohio in the early 1970s.) Her brother Michael was in my class, and Jean was two years younger. I knew Michael vaguely. We were in the same First Communion and Confirmation classes at Assumption, and I remember him as a shy, studious, and rather proper fellow. I don’t remember anything about Jean, although I discovered there is a photograph of her and one of Michael on the same page in my high-school yearbook. The page explains the activities of the school’s Service Club, of which Michael was president and Jean evidently a member. She is wearing a cable-knit sweater, her blond hair cut short in a bob. She was on the basketball and field hockey teams. Michael ran cross-country and track. They were both good students. Westport is a long way, both literally and figuratively, from El Salvador.

The plaque quotes a letter Donovan wrote to a friend just two weeks before her death. She was just twenty-seven years old. “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 favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

The killers were sent to prison, at least for a time, but the more senior military officers who ordered the killings were never prosecuted.

Donovan was in El Salvador with a missionary team from the Diocese of Cleveland. Before that she had worked for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, after getting a master’s degree in economics from Case Western Reserve. Michael, who died ten years ago, was also an accountant. Their father was an executive at United Technologies, working at the nearby Sikorsky Aircraft plant, a supplier of helicopters for the military. This was at the height of the Vietnam War, and the Donovans were a steadfastly Republican family, Jean a Girl Scout leader and avid equestrian. How a young woman who grew up in a conservative family in a fashionable suburb ended up martyred while serving the poor in El Salvador is somewhat inexplicable. It is not a fate one readily associates with having been tutored for worldly achievement in a place like Westport.

Donovan’s story is well told by Ana Carrigan in Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan. Carrigan also made an award-winning film, Roses in December, about Donovan’s life and the Salvadoran civil war. The film features interviews with Michael Donovan and his parents, who, along with many of Jean’s friends, found her decision to give up a lucrative career to do missionary work barely comprehensible. Who could blame them? There is excruciating footage of Donovan’s body and the bodies of the three women religious who were raped and murdered alongside her—Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Maura Clarke—being pulled out of the shallow grave where they had been hastily buried. In the film, Donovan and Kazel are also shown standing vigil over Archbishop Óscar Romero’s casket earlier in 1980. Priests were routinely being assassinated. Ministering to the poor, a Gospel imperative, was seen as aiding the “subversives.” Appallingly, dozens of Salvadorans were gunned down by the military as they gathered outside San Salvador’s cathedral during Romero’s funeral.

 As Donovan wrote to her friend, the danger was extreme. The Carter administration was about to give way to the Reagan administration, which vowed to step up U.S. military aid to fight Communism in Latin America. In Roses in December and Salvador Witness, Carrigan does not pull her punches in assessing U.S. responsibility for right-wing violence during those tumultuous years, even as she acknowledges that the leftists were not innocent either. Especially galling were the attempts by officials in the Reagan administration to blame the churchwomen for their own deaths. Jean Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s UN ambassador, called the women “not just nuns” but “political activists.” Alexander Haig, Reagan’s secretary of state, suggested the women had run a roadblock and even fired on Salvadoran soldiers. No lie was too venial or absurd if it raised questions about the supposedly “subversive” nature of the missionaries’ work.

Robert White, who became a regular contributor to Commonweal and an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in Central America, was ambassador to El Salvador when Donovan and the others were killed. In fact, Donovan and Sr. Kazel had dinner and spent the night at the embassy the day before they were murdered. In Margaret O’Brien Steinfels’s profile of White (“Death & Lies in El Salvador,” October 26, 2001), he tells of how he and Donovan debated U.S. policy. Donovan was highly critical, while White, who had been appointed by Jimmy Carter, argued that the influence of the United States might still help to moderate the violence. In Roses in December, White is shown at the burial site as the women’s bodies are being disinterred. A gruesome scene. He vowed to expose the killers, and was subsequently instrumental in bringing six Salvadoran soldiers to justice for the murders. The killers were sent to prison, at least for a time, but the more senior military officers who ordered the killings were never prosecuted.1

There are hints in Carrigan’s book and film, as well as in White’s encounter with Donovan, that although she was engaging and extroverted, Donovan was also headstrong, uncertain, and insecure. She had virtually no experience in missionary work before embarking for El Salvador, one of the most dangerous places in the world for church workers at the time. Only weeks before she was killed, she unexpectedly backed away from a marriage that would have taken her away from El Salvador. She was obviously courageous, but also seemed to have a typical suburban-bred American’s sense of immunity. “They don’t shoot blonde, blue-eyed North Americans,” she assured a friend who tried desperately to get her not to return to El Salvador after a brief vacation in Ireland. Donovan seemed to be about the only person who did not fully realize the danger she had placed herself in, or perhaps she was simply in denial about it. Romero was shot while he was presiding at Mass. Clearly no one was safe. Her brother found Jean’s motivations and decisions baffling, as I do to a certain extent. “There was nothing out of the ordinary about our family,” Michael told Carrigan about the family’s entirely conventional suburban Catholicism. “We were not unusual in any way,” he said.

Carrigan describes the younger Jean as “competitive, traditional, and conformist.” A good description of most who grew up in a suburb like Westport, where we were largely protected from life’s harsher realities. Those are difficult blinders to shed, especially at twenty-seven. But if Donovan’s motivations remained tentative, even contradictory, her actions were finally unambiguous. She had found a calling that engaged both body and soul, and she wasn’t going to give that up, at least not quite yet. The Psalmist describes the wellspring of such longing: “He hides me in the shelter of his tent, / on a rock he sets me safe. / And now my head shall be raised / above my foes who surround me / and I shall offer within his tent/ a sacrifice of joy.”


1. Addendum: I should have been more precise when I wrote that the senior military officers who allegedly ordered the killings were never prosecuted. No senior military personnel were prosecuted specifically for the murders of the churchwomen. Two officers implicated in the killings, who were given safe haven in the United States in the late 1980s, were eventually found by U.S. immigration courts to have “assisted or otherwise participated in” covering up the killings and were deported in 2015 and 2016.  

Correction: This article originally stated that Sr. Ita Ford stood vigil with Jean Donovan over Archbishop Óscar Romero’s casket. In fact, it was Sr. Dorothy Kazel who stood vigil with Donovan.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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