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Jean Donovan (1953-1980)

Across the globe and here in the United States countless women and men have dedicated themselves to helping children; most of these wonderful people are not well known.  In honoring the sacrifice of an honored volunteer, Jean Donovan, we acknowledge the good done so selflessly by so many for the benefit of the children of our world.


Jean Donovan - a champion for the children

In 1977 Jean Donovan left her accountancy career in the US to become a humanitarian volunteer in the violent civil war in El Salvador.  She worked to help protect children.  As the violence intensified, Jean’s family and friends were concerned that her life was in danger but she felt that she could not leave the children.  Her decision to stay cost her life.

On December 2, 1980, Jean was one of four US women were raped and brutally murdered in El Salvador. Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel were nuns whom Jean had chosen to serve alongside in what was then one of the most dangerous countries in the world.  Jean Donovan grew up in Westport, Connecticut. After she finished masters’ studies in business she joined an accountancy firm in Cleveland, Ohio and began working with the poor.  Then Jean moved to El Salvador where she worked as a lay missionary alongside Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, in a parish in La Libertad, providing help to refugees from El Salvador’s civil war and for the poor. They provided shelter, food, transportation to medical care, and they buried the bodies of the dead left behind by the death squads.


Jean was deeply impressed by Archbishop Óscar Romero, and often went to the Cathedral in San Salvador to hear him preach. She wrote to a friend that his message was convincing her that prayer makes a difference. She baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies and delivered them to Archbishop Romero on Sunday afternoons after his morning Mass. After he was assassinated while saying Mass in the cathedral on 24 March 1980, Jean and Dorothy stood beside his coffin during the night-long vigil before his funeral.  During the funeral Mass, government militia threw bombs into the crowd of 30,000 mourners, killing 30 people. Although Jean was terrified, she told herself that if she was killed, she would go straight to God.


“I got your letter,” Jean wrote to a friend afterwards, “and I really appreciate the fact that you said you worry about me. It’s nice to know that people care and they’d like to tell me to come home, as you say. There are lots of times I feel like coming home. But I really do feel strongly that God has sent me here, and wants me to be here, and I’m going to try to do my best to live up to that.”


Throughout this time, Jean wrote to her friend Father Michael Crowley in Cork. “Things now are so much worse, it’s unbelievable,” she wrote in May 1980. “People are being killed daily. We just found out that three people from our area had been taken, tortured and hacked to death. Two were young men and one was an older man. The man had been in a government death squad, had a fight with them and quit. So that’s probably why they got him. We had done a mission out there recently and they were coming to the celebrations. Everything is really hitting so close now.”  That summer, Jean’s two closest friends were assassinated after they took her to a movie and walked her home. Their violent deaths devastated her.


In September, she took a six-week holiday. She first flew to Miami to see her parents, then traveled to London to meet her boyfriend, together they went to Ireland for the wedding of a friend, then Jean went to Maryknoll in New York, then to Cleveland and Miami again.  Back in El Salvador, she started again to pick up the bodies, console the grieving, and lead the poor in prayer.  In the weeks that followed, Jean wrote a friend: “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 loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”


On the afternoon of 2 December, 1980, Jean and Dorothy met two Maryknoll missionary sisters, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, at the airport.  Five members of the National Guard stopped the car they were driving after they left the airport.  The women were taken to an isolated spot where they were beaten, raped, and murdered by the soldiers.  At about 10 p.m. that night, three hours after the four women had left the airport, local people saw the white van drive to an isolated spot and then heard machinegun fire followed by single shots. They saw five men flee the scene in the white van, with the lights on and the radio blaring. The van was found later that night, on fire at the side of the airport road.


The bodies were found early the next morning, Wednesday 3 December 1980.  Local people who found their bodies were told by a local judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field.    Four men who took part in the burial told their parish priest, and later that day news of the murders reached the local bishop and the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White. The shallow grave was exhumed on Thursday 4 December, in front of 15 reporters, several missionaries, and the US ambassador.  Jean Donovan’s body was the first to be removed.



Jean shortly before her death in 1980

When news of the murders broke in the US, public outrage forced the US government to put pressure on the El Salvador regime for an investigation. The earliest investigations were condemned as a whitewash.  Eventually, the UN appointed a Truth Commission to investigate who gave the orders, who knew about it, and who covered it up.  


Several low-level guardsmen were convicted, and two generals were sued by the women’s families in the US federal civil courts for their command responsibility at the time of the murders.  In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in El Salvador that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behavior.


The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, General Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become the Minister of Defense in the government of José Napoleón Duarte. Then he emigrated to the United States.  After a 16-year legal battle, he was deported after immigration courts found that he had participated in torture and killings by troops under his command.  He is the highest-ranking foreign official to be deported under laws enacted in 2004 to prevent human rights violators from seeking haven in this country. The expulsion culminates persistent efforts by rights advocates to hold General Vides accountable for his role in the 1980 murders of Jean and her companions.

Jean Donovan is the main subject of a 1982 documentary Roses in December, which won the Interfilm Award at the International Film Festival in Mannheim-Heidelberg in 1982.  Her body is buried in Sarasota, Florida.

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