Jean Donovan is one of Staples High School’s most famous alums.
And one of its least recognized.
Just 9 years after graduating with the Class of 1971, Donovan — a lay missionary helping poor people in El Salvador — was one of 4 American churchwomen killed by Salvadoran national guardsmen.
She and 3 nuns were beaten, raped, shot in the head, then dumped by the roadside.
The Catholic church is considering her for sainthood.
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’s a 1981 Staples grad — and lives here still.
Other films, and several books, portray her life and death.
A Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship at Santa Clara University supports students interested in social justice, while in Los Angeles the Casa Jean Donovan Community Residence houses members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
But until recently, the only memorial to Donovan was a framed photograph in Assumption Church. That’s where her memorial mass had been held, and where she attended elementary school.
The existing memorial to Jean Donovan — a story from the Assumption Church bulletin.
John Suggs — a longtime Westporter, and Assumption parishioner — has worked tirelessly to keep her memory alive here. He enlisted the help of Donovan’s ’71 classmates.
Father Tom Thorne was proud of the chance to house a plaque in the vestibule. A blessing and unveiling ceremony will be held soon.
Today’s Friday Flashback is different from most. There’s a reason.
(Photo courtesy of Ray and Patricia Donovan)
The 1969 photo shows Jean Donovan on her horse Apple, at Fiddle Horse Farm. The farm was located the west side of Bayberry Lane, midway between Long Lots Road and Cross Highway.
Sam and Bernice Friedson owned it, as well as the Tack Room — a horseback riding supply store on the Post Road, opposite the old post office.
So why is this today’s Friday Flashback? It’s the 36th anniversary of the beating, rape and murder of 4 lay missionaries, by Salvadoran military men. Donovan — a 1971 Staples High School graduate — was one of those women.
Growing up in Westport, there was little evidence she’d become an internationally known martyr. She had a fairly secular upbringing here. She was introduced to horseback riding when she was young, and spent some of her teenage years riding and working at Fiddle Horse Farm. It was one of several working horse farms in Westport.
To share memories of those farms — or of Jean Donovan — click “Comments” below.
It was the worst audition of Cynthia Gibb’s career.
Just a few years after graduating with Staples High School’s Class of 1981, the actress — already known for her “Search for Tomorrow” and “Fame” TV roles — was searching for a movie project.
Her agent found a part in “Salvador.” Written by Oliver Stone — who would direct it too, as his 1st major film — the story was based on real-life political struggles in El Salvador.
The casting director gave Gibb the wrong material. She and star James Woods were, she says, “literally not on the same page.” She went home sobbing, horrified at having done so badly.
Her agent convinced her to go back. She got the role — and learned a great lesson about recovering from bad experiences. Gibb uses that incident today, back home in Westport. A voice and dance coach, she tells students not to be flustered by a bad performance (or audition).
But there’s much more about Westport to this story.
Gibb’s “Salvador” role was based on the real-life Jean Donovan. She was one of 4 lay missionaries beaten, raped, and murdered in 1980 by Salvadoran military men.
Donovan was also a Westporter. She attended Westport schools, and graduated from Staples in 1971 — exactly 10 years before Gibb.
Gibb did plenty of research — in leftist publications, because there was little in the mainstream press — to understand Donovan’s character. But she had no idea they shared the same hometown until midway through filming in Mexico, when Stone learned that Gibb was from Westport.
That spurred her even more. She became fascinated with the woman whose story — unknown to many, even here — she was telling.
Gibb — who is not Catholic — dove into the kind of work the missionaries did. She learned Spanish, which Donovan had done before heading to El Salvador.
And Gibb read even more political writing. “I wanted to be as informed about US policy in Central America as Jean was,” Gibb says. “And I wanted to be as passionate about Third World countries.”
The film was released in 1986. In Los Angeles, Gibb honored Donovan and her fellow nuns, by volunteering for Central American organizations.
She was invited to El Salvador for 5 days. She met the handsome and charming right-wing military man in charge of death squads. She also saw dirt huts, and the church where an archbishop was gunned down.
“That film changed my life,” Gibb says. “I’d never been politically active before.”
Her career continued, mostly on TV. She married, had 3 children and divorced. Gradually, “Salvador” faded from her mind.
After she moved back to Westport, however, she met John Suggs. The RTM member has dedicated years to keeping Donovan’s memory alive. He says that in progressive Catholic social justice networks, “Jean Donovan is considered a saint.”
Suggs is particularly active this time of year. The anniversary of Donovan’s death is December 2.
Gibb will be thinking of Donovan too. Years after the movie was released, the actress spotted a small story in the New York Times. It described the declassification of documents relating Central America during the Reagan years. Sure enough, the US provided financial assistance to death squads that were responsible for the rape and murder of the 4 women, and others, during the Carter and Reagan administrations.
“There were horrific people doing horrific things, with our backing,” Gibb says.
“Jean Donovan and those women were there to help people. Her death was so useless.”
Perhaps now is the time for Donovan to be remembered in Westport. Suggs is raising $3,600 for a plaque honoring her, to be hung either at Staples or Town Hall. Click here to donate.
Gibb is helping.
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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 — 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.
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.
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