‘Westport’s own Catholic martyr’: Remembering Jean Donovan 40 years later

WESTPORT — Despite the tragedy of her death 40 years ago, Jean Donovan remains an inspiration to the congregation of Assumption Church and beyond.

On Sunday the church shared its annual remembrance of Donovan, who was a member of the congregation decades ago.

“She’s a Westport kid and we’re humbled by the fact that she’s one of us,” said Bill Macnamara, grand knight of Westport’s Knights of Columbus Council 3688, which led a color guard in her honor at the beginning of Sunday’s service, which was also broadcast remotely.

She also belonged to St. Luke’s across town, where she was confirmed after her family moved while she was growing up.

“I never had the pleasure of knowing her, but we honor her,” Macnamara said. “This parish honors her every year because she received Holy Communion here. She went to Assumption grammar school. ... So it’s a big deal.”

Donovan, then 27, was raped and murdered on Dec. 2, 1980, along with three nuns — Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel. They were some of the first Americans killed in El Salvador’s civil war. Five members of the El Salvador National Guard were later convicted in the crimes. The women’s deaths resonated within religious and political communities and have been well-documented and depicted in many books and movies.

“We are here to celebrate the life and legacy of a great woman,” The Rev. Cyrus Bartolome said, keeping his own remarks about her brief but noting a scroll had been prepared by Cathy Romano, director of religious education, for congregants to take home to read about Donovan.

Since 2017, a large plaque has also adorned the vestibule inside the main doors of the sanctuary, recounting Donovan’s life and legacy.

“It’s powerful,” said Romano, who like Donovan is a Westport native.

“She had the Westport dream,” she said. “She had the college and she had the job, but she heard God speaking to her, saying ‘Help my people.’”

Donovan left her job as a management consultant with Arthur Anderson, just a few years before her death so she could do missionary work.

“We’re honoring a true martyr of the church,” said Deacon Bill Koniers, who spoke briefly of her to the congregation in relation to the second Sunday of Advent, which for the Catholic religion in part reflects on God’s plan for individuals.

“Jean consciously stepped away from a promising business career to serve the poor and downtrodden,” Koniers said.

It’s this aspect that seems to have resonated most with people and one of the reasons she is featured among the four women, said John F. Suggs, a Westport resident and former Jesuit who has worked to keep her memory alive.

“She’s easier to identify with than someone who makes a lifetime commitment as a sister,” he said.

Her dedication to the people there and staying despite her fears is also another touching detail for many. She wrote a letter to a friend in Connecticut just a couple weeks before she was killed, describing how the Peace Corps had left El Salvador due to the increased danger and how she had considered leaving too.

“I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity,” Donavan wrote. “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.”

These words now hang in the church on the plaque.

“She could have left,” Romano said. “She heard the uprising was getting bad, and she didn’t. She gave her life for her faith.”

Suggs said Donovan’s and the nuns’ deaths had a great impact on his life.

“I remember the day she passed vividly,” he said.

He didn’t know her personally, but news of their deaths stuck with him. He was 19 at the time and in college. A few years later he would start his training to become a Catholic priest.

“Their example and their commitment has resonated for me,” he said, adding especially Donovan’s. “She was unique among the four.”

Suggs has spent a lot of time researching Donovan’s life so that he can preserve her memory. He learned she would bake chocolate chip cookies for Archbishop Oscar Romero on Sundays and attended his funeral when he was assassinated not long before she was. He also learned about her life in Westport and how she used to work in a stable.

“She was clearly independent-minded,” he said. “Obviously, they all knew fear, but they knew how to overcome those fears.”

Donovan knew it was dangerous but thought she had some security when she volunteered because of her nationality, Suggs said.

“She would say she was safe because she’s a blond hair, blue-eyed American and no one would touch her because of the relationship between the Americans and El Salvadoran military,” he said.

That changed when President Jimmy Carter lost reelection, becoming a lame duck president before President Ronald Reagan took office. Attacks then began on the American missionaries in El Salvador, who the military viewed were there for political reasons, he said.

“It’s taken years and years for justice to be brought to this case,” he said.

The United Nations truth commission completed a report in the 1990s that examined the civil war in El Slavador, dedicating a section to what happened to the women. It also concluded that high-ranking officials not only knew about, but covered up, many of these crimes.

“When I got here in Westport, I was surprised that it was 20 years after her death and she was only really remembered in people’s hearts,” Suggs said.

He started writing pieces about her for local publications and worked with her classmates and community members to create a plaque honoring her memory. Once that work started, more people began to share their stories of Donovan.

She’s remembered in other parts of the country as well, with a community home and fellowship named for her at Santa Clara Univserity, a Jesuit school.

“This brave woman is Westport’s own Catholic martyr,” Koniers said. “She came from Westport. She lived here. She received her first Holy Communion here.”

“May her service to the poor continue to be an inspiration to all of us,” Konier told the congregation.

This story has been updated to correct that John Suggs was in college when he learned of Jean Donovan’s death and a few years later started training to become a Catholic priest.