As part of our initiative for the Year of Faith, Veritas is proud to present Profiles in Faith, a series of essays on the life and work of Christian men and women who lived their lives as ‘faith in action’. We encourage you to read the accounts, and to reflect on them over the course of the month. Additional biographical sources are also suggested, should you wish to find out more.
Profile Thirteen: Jean Donovan
Jean Donovan was born in Westport, Connecticut, in 1953 into an upper-middle-class family. After college, she worked as a management consultant in Cleveland and was engaged to a doctor. Though she felt a strong call to motherhood, she also felt that God was calling her to do mission work. As she herself said: ‘I sit there and talk to God and say, why are you doing this to me? Why can’t I just be your little suburban housewife?’
Jean responded to God’s calling and traveled to El Salvador in July 1977, where she worked as a lay missionary along with Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun.
The pair provided help to refugees of the Salvadoran civil war and to the poor. They provided shelter, food and transportation to medical-care centres, and buried the bodies of the dead left behind by death squads.
Jean admired and was encouraged by the zeal and work of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and she often went to the cathedral to hear him preach. Romero was eventually assassinated, on 24 March 1980, for standing up for the gospel and the poor against the government. Jean and Sister Kazel stood beside his coffin during the night-long vigil of his wake.
In December 1980 Jean and three sisters joined the more than seventy-five thousand people who were killed in the Salvadoran civil war. On the afternoon of 2 December, Donovan and Kazel, unaware that they were under surveillance by a National Guardsman, travelled to the airport in San Salvador to pick up two missionary sisters who were returning from a conference in New York. Acting on orders from their commander, five National Guard members changed into plain clothes and stopped the vehicle they were driving after they left the airport. Jean Donovan and the three sisters were taken to a relatively isolated spot, where the soldiers beat, raped and murdered them.
Early the next morning, local peasants found the bodies of the four women, and were told by local authorities to bury them in a common grave in a nearby field. Four of the local men did so; but they informed their parish priest, and the news reached the local bishop and the US Ambassador to El Salvador the same day. The shallow grave was opened the next day and the bodies exhumed. In the
weeks before she died, Jean Donovan wrote to 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 favour the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.
- What can you learn from Jean’s story?
- What do you think God is calling you to do in your world to build up his kingdom? How will you answer God’s call?
Previous Profiles in Faith: