Jean Donovan

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Jean Donovan
Jean Donovan.jpg
Born (1953-04-10)April 10, 1953
Died December 2, 1980(1980-12-02) (aged 27)
El Salvador
Cause of death Murdered by military
Resting place Florida, United States
Nationality United States
Known for Catholic martyr of El Salvador
Religion Roman Catholic

Jean Donovan (April 10, 1953 – December 2, 1980) was an American lay missionary who was raped and murdered along with three Religious Sisters in El Salvador by a military death squad while volunteering to do charity work during the civil war there.

Early life[edit]

Jean Donovan was born to Patricia and Raymond Donovan, who raised her in an upper middle-class home in Westport, Connecticut. She had an older brother, Michael.[1] She attended Mary Washington College in Virginia (now the University of Mary Washington),[2] and spent a year as an exchange student in Ireland at University College Cork, deepening her Roman Catholic faith through her contact with a priest there who had been a missionary in Peru.[1]

Upon the completion of her master's degree in business from Case Western Reserve University,[1] she accepted a position as a management consultant for the Cleveland branch of the nationwide accounting firm, Arthur Andersen.[2]

Donovan was engaged to a young physician, Douglas Cable, and felt a strong call to motherhood as well as her call to do mission work: "...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?' [1]

While volunteering in the Cleveland Diocese Youth Ministry with the poor, she decided to join the Diocesan Mission Project in El Salvador. She was accepted into and completed the lay-missionary training course at Maryknoll in New York State.

Donovan traveled to El Salvador in July 1977, where she worked as a lay missioner in La Libertad, along with Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun. The pair worked in the parish of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in La Libertad, providing help to refugees of the Salvadoran Civil War and the poor. They provided shelter, food, transportation to medical care, and they buried the bodies of the dead left behind by the death squads.[2]

Donovan was a follower of Archbishop Óscar Romero, and often went to his cathedral, the Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador, to hear him preach. After his assassination on March 24, 1980, about eight months before their own murders, she and Sister Dorothy Kazel stood beside his coffin during the night-long vigil of his wake.[1][2]

In the weeks before she died, Donovan wrote a friend:[2][3]

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.


In the afternoon of December 2, Donovan and Dorothy Kazel picked up two Maryknoll missionary sisters, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, from the airport after the pair arrived from attending a Maryknoll conference in Managua, Nicaragua. They were under surveillance by a National Guardsman at the time, who phoned his commander for orders. Acting on orders from their commander, five National Guard members changed into plain clothes and continued to stake out the airport.

The five members of the National Guard of El Salvador, out of uniform, stopped the vehicle they were driving after they left the airport in San Salvador. Donovan and the three sisters were taken to a relatively isolated spot where they were beaten, raped, and murdered by the soldiers.[4]

At about 10:00 the night of Tuesday, December 2, three hours after Donovan and Kazel picked up Clarke and Ford, local peasants had seen the sisters' white van drive to an isolated spot and then heard machine-gun 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 would be found later that night, on fire at the side of the airport road.[4]

Early the next morning, Wednesday, December 3, they found the bodies of the four women, and were told by local authorities—a judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders—to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field. Four of the local men did so, but informed their parish priest, Fr. Paul Schindler, and the news reached the local Catholic bishop and the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, the same day.[4]

The shallow grave was exhumed the next day, on Thursday, December 4, in front of fifteen reporters, Sisters Alexander and Dorsey and several missioners, and Ambassador White. Donovan's body was the first removed; then Kazel's; then Clarke's; and last, Ita Ford. The next day, a Mass of the Resurrection was said by the bishop, Arturo Rivera y Damas; and on Saturday, December 6, the bodies of Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel were flown out for burial; Donovan to her parents in Sarasota, Florida, and Kazel back to her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The bodies of the Maryknoll sisters, Clarke and Ford, were not repatriated and were buried in Chalatenango.[4] The U.S. State Department charged the Donovans $3,500 for the return of their daughter's body (the repatriation of remains is usually paid for by the family).[5]

Subsequent history[edit]

As news of the murders was made public in the United States, public outrage forced the U.S. government to pressure the El Salvador regime to investigate. The earliest investigations were condemned as whitewash attempts by the later ones, and in time, a Truth Commission was appointed by the United Nations to investigate who gave the orders, who knew about it, and who covered it up. Several low-level guardsman were convicted, and two generals were sued by the women's families in the federal civil courts of the United States for their command responsibility for the incident. U.S. foreign policy, which had shored up the right-wing government through the Carter, Reagan, and Bush Administrations, was forced into the public eye.

In 1984, four national guardsmen-Daniel Canales Ramirez, Carlos Joaquin Contreras Palacios, Francisco Orlando Contreras Recinos and Jose Roberto Moreno Canjura—were convicted of murdering Donovan, and the three Maryknoll Sisters, and were sentenced to 30 years in prison.[6] Their superior, sub-sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman, was convicted for the murders as well.[6]

According to the Maryknoll Order:

The [1993] U.N.-sponsored report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded that the abductions were planned in advance and the men responsible had carried out the murders on orders from above. It further stated that the head of the National Guard and two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed the facts to harm the judicial process. The murder of the women, along with attempts by the Salvadoran military and some American officials to cover it up, generated a grass-roots opposition in the U.S., as well as ignited intense debate over the Administration’s policy in El Salvador.[7] 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 Salvadoran history that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behavior. Two of the men remain in prison and have petitioned the Salvadoran government for pardons.[8]

The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become Minister of Defense in the government of José Napoleón Duarte.[1] In 1998, the four assassins confessed to abducting, raping and murdering the four churchwomen and claimed that they did so because Aleman had informed them that they had to act on orders from high-level military officers.[6] Some were then released from prison after detailing how Vides and his cousin Col. Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar, the local military commander in Zacatecoluca, had planned and orchestrated the executions of the churchwomen.[9] A 16-year legal battle to deport Vides Casanova soon commenced.[10]

After their emigration to the U.S. state of Florida, Vides Casanova and his fellow general, José Guillermo García, were sued by the families of the four women in federal civil court. The case is styled Ford v. Garcia. The defense won the case. On 24 February 2012, however, a Federal immigration judge cleared the way for the deportation of Vides Casanova after the General was held liable for various war crimes which occurred under his command.[11] On March 11, 2015, the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed General Vides Casanova's appeal.[12][13] Vides Casanova was then deported back to El Salvador on April 8, 2015.[10]

Films and plays[edit]

Donovan is the main subject of the 1982 documentary Roses in December, which also includes footage regarding Archbishop Romero and Sister Dorothy Kazel.[14] This documentary won the Interfilm Award at the 1982 International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg.

Melissa Gilbert played Jean Donovan in a 1983 television movie, Choices of the Heart, which has been criticized for lacking clarity about the political context of the women's killings.[15] The movie won the 1984 Humanitas Prize in the 90-minute category. Helen Hunt, Martin Sheen, and Mike Farrell were among the cast members.

In Salvador, Oliver Stone's 1986 film about an American reporter trying to cover the overall conflict, Cynthia Gibb portrays the Donovan-based character Cathy Moore and is shown in several scenes interacting with the main character. The film also depicts the rape and murder of the four women.

In March 1996, a one-woman play written by Lisa Wagner premiered in Kansas City and then went on a national tour which included a month in Chicago. Wagner had written an earlier work about Dorothy Day called Haunted by God. The 1996 play, written with her parents' permission and with research in El Salvador among the people who knew Donovan, was called Points of Arrival. The narrative displays Donovan's sunny personality in the context of her somber spiritual journey, with emphasis on the last months of her life. It was developed with support from the Joliet Franciscan Sisters (Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate) and Call to Action, a progressive Catholic group.[16]

Elizabeth Swados composed a musical play entitled Missionaries about the four church women killed in El Salvador.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Martyrs of Central America & Colombia published by the Inter-Religious Task Force of Cleveland; accessed online December 9, 2006.
  2. ^ a b c d e The Life and Example of Jean Donovan by Rev. John Dear, December 2, 2005; accessed online December 9, 2006.
  3. ^ Advent Reflections on the El Salvador Murders accessed online December 9, 2006.
  4. ^ a b c d Judith M. Noone The Same Fate as the Poor ISBN 1570750319
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c Larry Rother (April 3, 1998). "4 Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of Military". New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved June 23, 2015. 
  7. ^ jher blavik
  8. ^ Martyrdom in El Salvador published by the Maryknoll Sisters; accessed October 7, 2005.
  9. ^ Larry Rother (April 3, 1998). "4 Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of Military". New York Times. p. 2. Retrieved June 23, 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Preston, Julia (April 8, 2015). "U.S. Deports Salvadoran General Accused in ’80s Killings". The New York Times. 
  11. ^ Preston, Julia (February 23, 2012). "Salvadoran May Be Deported From U.S. for '80 Murders of Americans". The New York Times. 
  12. ^ Board of Immigration Appeals. "Matter of Carlos Eugenio VIDES CASANOVA, Respondent" (PDF). Executive Office for Immigration Review. Retrieved 11 March 2015.  External link in |website= (help)
  13. ^ Preston, Julia (March 12, 2015). "General in El Salvador Killings in ’80s Can Be Deported, Court Rules". The New York Times. 
  14. ^ "Roses in December" details at American Friends Service Committee lending library; accessed online December 9, 2006.
  15. ^ kaaytie84 (5 December 1983). "Choices of the Heart (TV Movie 1983)". IMDb. 
  16. ^ Call To Action News September 1996; accessed online December 12, 2006.

Further reading[edit]

  • "Hearts on Fire: The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters," Penny Lernoux, et al., Orbis Books, 1995.
  • "Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan," Ana Carrigan, Ballantine Books, 1986.
  • "The Same Fate As the Poor," Judith M. Noone, Orbis Books, 1995. ISBN 1-57075-031-9
  • "Witness of Hope: The Persecution of Christians in Latin America," Martin Lange and Reinhold Iblacker, Orbis Books, 1981.

External links[edit]