Jean Donovan, Remembered

More than 3 decades after her brutal murder, Jean Donovan is back in the news.

The Westport native was 1 of 4 American churchwomen killed on December 2, 1980 by Salvadoran national guardsmen.

Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan

Jean — a junior high and Staples High School classmate of mine — was a lay missionary working in El Salvador, helping the poor.

She and 3 nuns were beaten, raped, shot in the head, then dumped by the roadside.

Now, the New York Times reports that 2 Salvadoran generals — defense ministers during the “blood-soaked” 1980s — may be deported.

The Times says:

They were allowed to settle there during the presidency of George Bush, who, like his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, considered them allies and bulwarks against a Moscow-backed leftist insurgency.

But administrations change, and so do government attitudes. Over the past two and a half years, immigration judges in Florida have ruled that the generals bore responsibility for assassinations and massacres, and deserve now to be “removed” — bureaucratese for deported. Both are appealing the decisions, so for now they are going nowhere. Given their ages, their cases may be, for all parties, a race against time.

Longtime Westporter John Suggs says that in progressive Catholic social justice networks, “Jean Donovan is considered a saint.”

A Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship at Santa Clara University — a Jesuit school — supports students interested in social justice, while in Los Angeles the Casa Jean Donovan Community Residence houses members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

A tribute to Jean Donovan  and fellow churchwomen, near the spot of their murder in El Salvador.

A tribute to Jean Donovan and fellow churchwomen, near the spot of their murder in El Salvador.

But, Suggs says, “in Westport she is all but forgotten.” The few who remember her, and mourn her passing each December, believe she has been forgotten by her town, her school and her parish. (There is a brief mention of her, he says, in the back vestibule of Assumption Church. And Staples graduate Cynthia Gibb played a character based on Jean in Oliver Stone’s “Salvador.”)

The New York Times has shed a new light on Jean Donovan’s murderers. Perhaps next month, she will not be mourned by so few.

(The New York Times story includes a fascinating 13-minute video.)

12 responses to “Jean Donovan, Remembered

  1. Nancy Powers Conklin

    Jean Donovan was in my class and I remember her from Long Lots and Staples. I am sure that she sang in George Weigle’s musical groups. I remember her as quiet and smart. I recall hearing about the massacre and knowing that she was killed during it. She has a special place in Heaven, of that I am sure! Rest in peace, Jean.

    • Nancy, Jean was class of ’71. I was in Miss Atkins’ Spanish class with Jean as well as English class (and possibly a couple of others). She was definitely a very bright and capable student and we were all stunned when we learned of her violent death back in 1980. Hopefully, a small measure of justice will be achieved now.

  2. I do remember her,Dan. I was friendly with her brother Dave. The video is deeply disturbing and should be seen by all. Thanks for the article.

  3. Wow, remember it clearly. Way before we moved to Westport so didn’t know the connection. On NPR this afternoon there was a sound-clip from the late (not great) Al Haig, Reagan’s chief of staff, who’s initial reaction was that they must have run a military road-block. Jeez

  4. Thank you for keeping Jean’s memory alive.

  5. In reply to John’s comment yes there is a plaque of Jean in our Church of the Assumption and we do remember her at Mass every year. She and the other nuns are certainly martyrs/saints.

  6. I clicked on the link to the NY Times story, and I had to stop watching the video. It is difficult to believe that women working with the poor would be targeted so violently. Atrocities such as these are still happening today all over the world. God Bless us all!

  7. She is not forgotten in many dioceses- certainly not in the Diocese of Tyler, where I work. Her legacy of social justice is revered and taught. I appreciate your efforts to make her story known to others that were born and raised in Westport; however, I do not appreciate the political inferences. Never have I heard the name of George Bush mentioned in the same sentence, even though I live and work in Texas. The political references in my opinion, are unnecessary and shameful

    • It’s a direct quote from the New York Times, Cindy.

      • But since when is the media, The News York Times in particular, looked upon as Scriptural? Also…

        Mr. Suggs, just to be clear, any Catholic Christian who perishes in defense of their faith is elevated to Sainthood by their blood of martyrdom; that’s not a progressive notion- that’s a doctrine of the Church. Plus, Jean’s plaque is actually located in the FRONT vestibule, near photos of our Pope, the Bishop, and our Lord, along with other displays of recognition to those who mean so much to our Parish Community…but definitely, we can do more to celebrate her life more fully.

  8. Thank you for keeping her memory alive, Dan. Nuns and Layworkers often do the heavy lifting in the social justice world, yet stay largely unheralded.

  9. I remember Jean, too. She was a beautiful person. Very kind. As Mr. Adler said, thank you, Dan, for keeping her memory alive.