06880

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.)

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