In the spring of 1979, a young Jean Donovan, answering a “gut feeling” that she had to “to get closer to Him,” was trained at Maryknoll on the ways of being a lay missioner. That July, she arrived in her first assignment, the nation of El Salvador. The archbishop of the time — the soon to be martyred, future saint — Archbishop Oscar Romero, had recently asked Maryknoll to send more missioners to his area to serve El Salvador’s poor, ignored, and forgotten residents.
Jean served the local farmers and the area’s children. She became known among the locals as “St. Jean the Playful.” When times were getting more and more dangerous, friends back home encouraged her to protect herself and return to the U.S. However, it was the thought of the children that kept her from leaving.
“I almost could [leave] except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
In March of 1980, Archbishop Romero was shot and killed during Mass. Jean attended the funeral a week later when radicals again attacked the crowd with bombs and guns prompting a panic. Forty people died in the immediate aftermath of the chaos as people trampled other people to seek safety. Jean survived that day, and continued to serve the area’s population.
Several months later, on December 2, 1980, Jean joined her fellow missioner, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, to the airport to pick up Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke. As they left the airport, they were taken by soldiers, raped, killed, and then buried about 15 miles away.
Jean was only 27 years old when she was murdered, but her legacy has continued for over 40 years in the lives and witnesses of the Maryknoll lay missioners who are either currently serving similar populations in need, or have returned after a period of mission.
Read how Jean Donovan and the other three martyred U.S. church women continue to inspire Maryknoll lay missioner Melissa Altman in El Salvador today: https://mklm.org/news/cns-melissa-altman/