Jean Donovan: Not The Westport Girl Next Door

John F. Suggs is a longtime Westporter, regular “06880” reader and former Jesuit. He is also passionate about keeping Jean Donovan’s memory alive. John writes:

Jean Donovan

Forty years ago today, 4 U.S. churchwomen were kidnaped, tortured, raped and killed in a remote section of El Salvador. They were targeted for openly living with and caring for the poor in the midst of El Salvador’s bloody civil war.

According to a 1993 United Nations Security Council report, the women were ordered killed by the US-trained and funded Salvadorian military, which covered up their involvement in the murders and obstructed initial investigations.

Three of the churchwomen were Catholic nuns. The fourth — Jean Donovan — was a 27-year-old lay Catholic volunteer who grew up in Westport.

In many ways, Jean was like any other Westport kid. She marched in the annual Memorial Day parade with her Girl Scout toop, made her first communion at Assumption Church and her confirmation at St. Luke.

A member of the Staples High School class of 1971, she played on the basketball and field hockey teams. An accomplished equestrian at Westport’s Fiddle Horse Farm, Jean managed the tack room after school and supervised youngsters assigned to work in the stables.

Jean Donovan, at Fiddle Horse Farm. (Photo courtesy of Ray and Patricia Donovan)

She was the quintessential Westport girl next door.

Until she wasn’t.     

Only 6 years after graduating from Staples, after finishing grad school and starting as an account executive at Arthur Andersen, Jean put her career on hold to pursue something radically different.

She applied for a volunteer position with the Catholic Maryknoll Lay Mission. The program required a 2-year commitment living with and serving an impoverished community in El Salvador.

Accepted into the program, Jean quit her job, to begin training and coursework.

Today it is common for young Westporters to go on service or mission trips. Some expect a transformational experience. Others pad their resumes to help get into competitive colleges.

As parents, we sign permission slips and write checks, knowing that at least the trip gets our kids out of the Westport bubble. We hope their experiences in communities of poverty might have a beneficial impact on them — something lasting, beyond serving as a great subject for a college application essay.

I believe it was here that Jean began to differentiate herself from the quintessential Westport girl next door.

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

Jean had already been accepted into the right undergrad and graduate schools. She had completed her studies, and landed that important first professional job.

Jean had no need to make this 2-year service commitment to help advance her career. If anything, her decision derailed it — at least with Arthur Andersen.

So why did Jean do what she did?

Though I never had the pleasure of knowing Jean personally, I’ve worked hard over the years to help keep her memory alive in Westport. So I have given this question a lot of thought.

Based on all the information that I’ve gathered, I believe her decisions to not only quit her job and make this commitment, but also to stay in El Salvador as the violence escalated, were the result of her making a spiritual discernment.

This centuries-old decision-making process seeks to assist an individual in determining their best course of action. The person first becomes aware of the interior movements and deepest desires of their heart, then tests and evaluates its validity in alignment with God.

A tribute to Jean Donovan hangs outside Assumption Church. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Two weeks before Jean died, she wrote a friend in Connecticut about the final decisions and actions she was about to take, based on what I believe were the results of her spiritual discernment.

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.

Today let’s remember and honor this once quintessential Westport girl next door, whose discernment and subsequent action culminated in making the ultimate commitment to protect and care for the most vulnerable of all.

(Jean Donovan will be remembered this Sunday [December 6]. during the 11 a.m. mass at Assumption Church. Attendance is limited, due to COVID; click here to reserve a seat. The mass will be livestreamed.

(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.

(Her story was told in “Salvador.” Written by Oliver Stone — who directed it too, as his 1st major film — the character based on her life was played by Cynthia Gibb. Amazingly, she too is a Staples High graduate, exactly 10 years after Jean Donovan.)

24 responses to “Jean Donovan: Not The Westport Girl Next Door

  1. Jean is a saint ..
    I cry each time I read the account of her death ..
    We were field hockey teammates so we are connected forever ..
    Thank you Dan for her story.

  2. Interestingly, when Oliver Stone depicted this incident in his 1986 movie “Salvador,” one of the nuns was played by Westport’s own Cynthia Gibb.

  3. Nancie Rinaldi

    I was in college when this happened. I remember it vividly and to this day when I hear the words “El Salvatore” I immediately think of the killing of these women and the other horrors inflicted upon that country by their brutal government. I don’t think I could ever actually visit El Salvatore it’s etched in my mind as a place of horrendous human rights abuses.

    • John, I know you are very close to this story and again, thank you for keeping the truth alive.

  4. This is a beautiful tribute to Sister Jean Donovan. Westport Public Art COllections also has a beautiful large format (41 x 30 in) pastel portrait of Jean Donovan created in 1983 by Leona Pierce and Antonio Rudolfo Frasconi, married artists who made Norwalk home. It is inscribed: “Jean Donovan Murdered by members of El Salvador’s security forces in December 1980.” We do not know the history of it entering the collection, but we had it framed in 2013 and it is hanging in her honor at Staples High School.

  5. Dermot Meuchner

    Their brutal government was installed by the United States. Just as in Chile, the Washington bullets were used to oppress the people and prop up illegitimate regimes.

  6. Dermot Meuchner

    Their brutal government was installed by the United States. Just like Chile, Washington bullets were responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. So it goes.

  7. Laura Appelman

    Important, inspiring, heart-breaking story–beautifully told, Dan.

  8. Does anyone know where to find her younger brother David? I’ve often wanted to let him know that I think of him and his family.

    • David, Jean’s brother was actually a few years older than her and he, sadly, passed away many years ago. Her parents are both gone now as well. Like so many other Westport parents, they had retired and moved to Florida shortly after Jean finished Staples. Jean is buried near her parents in Florida.

      Her closest living relative is a nephew who also lives in Florida. I spoke to him several years ago and invited him to the unveiling of the Jean Donovan plaque that was created by a large group of us including many of her classmates and other community members back in 2017. Dan, a classmate of hers, was instrumental in making that happen. It was installed in the vestibule at Assumption Church where she had made her first communion. Here is the story Dan did on Jean and her plaque at that time.

  9. Catherine Romano

    Thanks for posting Dan, and thanks John for all you have done. We at Assumption will never forget Jean.

  10. Thank you for this. Was a classmate of Jean’s at Staples and in our very early years we were neighbors on Woodside Ave. Her house was two down from ours. Both Jeanie and Mike were lots of fun to be around. Then one day they moved across town and we always had a friendly hello for one another but that was it. Was living in the Midwest when this tragedy occurred. She was a deeply good person who helped so many. Was lucky to know her. Thanks again.

  11. Sr. Maureen Fleming

    We remember Jean at Saint Luke Church where she celebrated her Confirmation after she and her family moved ito Long Lots Road.
    Thank you for keeping her memory alive.

  12. I am in debt to my daughter-in-law, Carol Seiple, for this wonderful article. Carol and her family live in Westport. I personally know many of the people you refer to in this article. Jean’s life and ways always made my mind spin with wonderment and gratitude for her strong witness to the best in the world. You can see our work in: Every year we provide 25 upper grade scholarships to provide a bootstrap that youngsters can pull themselves from their poverty. I hope at some time to meet John and Paul.

  13. Though I’m quite familiar with Jean’s life story, this piece brought me to tears. Thank you, John and Dan, for all you’ve done to preserve the memory of this remarkable woman.

  14. Bruce Fernie - SHS 1970


  15. I remember this so vividly. We were not living in Westport at that time but remember prayers in our Church offered for the 3 Nuns and Jean. They died by the hands of institutional evil, while doing God’s work. Their love and goodness lives on. Thank you for reminding us.

  16. Martha Mogren

    I rode with Jeanne Donovan at fiddle horse farm.. she was always so nice to me! Felt so sad about what happened to her.. a very real tragedy..💔

  17. When Oliver made this film, and the public finally saw it, the US government vehemently denied the events in the script, in particular that the US-trained and funded death squads in El Salvador were responsible for the deaths of these four women, among other atrocities. It wasn’t until the statute of limitations ran out on the confidential documents that the public was allowed to learn the details of where their tax dollars went in the 80s. There was a tiny blurb, on the bottom of the page, deep in the NY Times, confirming that everything Oliver had depicted in the film was actually true. I still keep carry that clipping with me to this day. A few years later, during a cease-fire called by the OAS, I got to travel to El Salvador and meet the head of the death squads, Col. Ponse. He was US-educated at Harvard or Yale, handsome, charming…and for those reasons, terrifying. Oliver Stone often casts his films this way, with the bad-guy as the handsome one, and the good-guy looking like a gangster. Don’t always judge a book by its cover….

  18. Liz Doyle Boyd

    Thanks for keeping her memory alive. 40 years, it really seems like yesterday I read this tragic news. It was much longer though the memories of her from St. Luke’s…