By Eileen Purcell
Forty years ago, I met Jean Donovan on the steps of the Archdiocesan seminary, San José de la Montaña, in the capital city, San Salvador.
It was the summer of 1980. She rolled up on her motorcycle, revving her motor, her short. blond hair glinting in the sunlight. She exuded only confidence when she encountered me. She was 27. I was 26. We exchanged stories, hugs and the admonition to “stay safe!”
El Salvador was in the midst of an ever- escalating crisis and an incipient Civil War.
We were both young, idealistic women working on behalf of our dioceses (Cleveland for her, San Francisco for me) to bring to life gospel values of love and justice through service, public policy, solidarity and accompaniment.
It was only a few months since the assassination of the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. The Archbishop was killed by a sharpshooter while celebrating Mass at the chapel of the Hospital of Divina Providencia on March 24, 1980.
The beloved Archbishop had earned the enmity of the Salvadoran oligarchy and military by using his platform to denounce their human rights abuses; not only the state-sponsored violence perpetrated by the Armed Forces and their accomplices against anyone who dissented or challenged entrenched political interests, but also structural violence that consigned most Salvadorans to extreme poverty.
He preached the political dimension of faith and held accountable the generals, the oligarchs and even their patrons in the United States.
He opened the seminary grounds to refugees pouring into the capitol, fleeing scorched earth tactics. He deployed young lawyers to defend political prisoners. He instructed his Social Secretariat to mobilize food, medicine, housing supplies for the thousands of Salvadorans displaced from their homes. He wrote to then President Jimmy Carter asking him to halt US military aid since it was killing his people. And every Sunday,
he announced the Good News - a vision of a just society predicated on the Common Good and the preferential option for the poor, not the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.
In short – the Archbishop had jumped into the public square that was on fire, accompanying those in the crosshairs and their loved ones, confronting power with truth, radical love and forgiveness, fully aware of the risks. He faced death threats. But grounded by his faith and the courage and witness of his people, Oscar Romero was undaunted. “If they kill me, I will rise in the Salvadoran People.”
Jean Donovan was inspired by the Archbishop.
A young lay woman, she worked with Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, accompanying Salvadoran communities ripped apart by the violence, poverty and an escalating conflict funded by US tax dollars and directed by the United States military advisors. Yet in spite of the spiraling violence targeting opposition leaders, trade unionists, teachers, priests, sisters and lay leaders like herself, and though pressed by worried family and her fiancé to return home to Cleveland, Jean chose to stay.
Jean had fallen in love with the place, the people, especially the children. She once wrote, “Where else would you find roses in December?”
Her task was, in large part, to accompany families in crisis, to be present, to listen, to sing, to share stories, to share tears and elicit laughter. Jean was an outward sign of love and compassion in a time of sorrow. In a letter written to a friend just two weeks before her death, she shared “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 helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
While Jean was working in El Salvador, I was a young organizer at the Archdiocese of San Francisco, accompanying the growing number of Salvadoran refugees pouring into the City. Through Catholic Social Service, (CSS), we organized emergency social and legal services and organized the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop the Deportations. Working with our Social Justice Commission, we also organized the Interfaith Task Force on Latin America, educating our communities about US immigration and foreign policies and mobilizing resources to challenge summary deportations and the foreign policy causing the massive displacement of entire families in the first place.
That summer we invited Roberto Cuellar to visit the Archdiocese. Roberto was one of the bright, young attorneys who had co-founded Socorro Juridico and worked closely with Archbishop Romero to defend political prisoners and expose human rights abuses. During his visit, he shared documentary evidence of government-sponsored repression with church and congressional leaders and the press. Roberto, in turn, enlisted me along with Notre Dame Sister Sandra Price and Salvadoran-American Journalist Stella Ampuero to visit El Salvador and document the reality ourselves. Sponsored by the Archdiocese of San Salvador and Socorro Juridico, we would visit the refugees and communities under siege. Even though loved ones tried to dissuade us due to the risks, we chose to go.
Many of the accounts of the war in El Salvador focus on the brutal violence of the death squads and the scorched earth tactics taken from the US counter-insurgency play books applied in Vietnam and Indonesia. And we certainly encountered the horrors of the war, came face to face with death squads, held survivors of the Rio Sumpul massacre in our arms, and encountered the National Guard and paramilitary ORDEN.
But alongside the nightmare, was the beauty of the land, the people, and the vision and lived experience of a Beloved Community.
We were embraced by the Christian Communities seeking to incarnate genuine peace grounded in justice. We participated in the first national convocation of Ecclesiastical Base Communities in the crypt of the national cathedral. We walked with priests, sisters, catechists, labor leaders, and political leaders who shared their fervent conviction that a new world is possible. We met with organized campesinos who took us in at great personal risk when we got stuck in a rain storm after curfew. We prayed at the altar where Oscar Romero had been shot dead. We sang the “Misa Campesina,” “Vamos Todos al Banquete” and “Casas de Carton.” We taught our counterparts black spirituals! We encountered profound faith and unmitigated joy in the midst of human suffering and struggle! It was that vision, joy, and profound faith rooted in community and “conciencia” which captivated Jean, our sisters, and so many others who have made the pilgrimage to El Salvador and fallen in love with these remarkable people.
US government officials would later claim we were “duped” by the Marxist-inspired leftists. They alternated between denying human rights abuses altogether to justifying the Salvadoran government-sponsored repression as the only recourse to the perceived communist threat. They refused to recognize the right of the people to elect their own leaders and were blind to the utter failure of the political and economic status quo let alone the state-sponsored crimes perpetrated under a capitalist system that destroyed so many lives. The preservation of US hegemony trumped democratic principles let alone human rights. “Collateral damage” was perceived to be part of the natural order.
My interlude with Jean on the steps that day in the Summer of 1980 was short.
Jean exacted the purpose of our delegation. I invited her assessment of the situation, the needs, how best we could support the work. When I pressed her about the security risks, she nonchalantly responded, “They don’t kill blond North Americans.” An overt bravado, even though I suspect she carried the fear with her.
We took our leave of each other, strengthened. For if fear is contagious so are courage and love.
I spent the next 3 weeks documenting massacres, holding women who had witnessed their husbands macheted to pieces, their babies speared by bayonets on the edge of the Sumpul River. I visited the countryside following military sweeps and bombardments. We were followed by death squads. We were also blessed to be welcomed by the Sisters of Divine Providence and other families as we sought to divert attention. Sister Sandy was arrested by the Treasury Police when they discovered her in the home of a Christian Community leader. She was released only when US Ambassador Robert White went to retrieve her in the middle of the night against the protests of his own wife concerned for his safety.
Upon returning to the US, we issued an Archdiocesan Fact-Finding Report – an eye witness account that became a compelling case for our ongoing work defending, protecting and advocating for refugees in our midst and our counterparts in the region with the full weight of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and Archbishop Quinn. We echoed Archbishop Romero’s appeal for an end to U.S. military aid. We worked closely with the Salvadoran community in San Francisco who bravely told their own stories and invited us to accompany them, their relatives in Honduran refugee camps, and the displaced within El Salvador. Later, the work would grow into the public Sanctuary Movement.
A few months later, on November 27, 1980, six political leaders of the FDR - a coalition of opposition political leaders - were kidnapped by military operatives from the Jesuit High School in San Salvador during a noon time press conference – their tortured bodies discovered a few days later.
Then, on December 2nd, 1980 a contingent of Salvadoran National Guard intercepted Jean and her 3 sisters – Ita, Maura and Dorothy. The women were returning from Comalapa International Airport.
Their bodies were discovered in a shallow grave by a campesino and unearthed in the presence of US Ambassador Robert White with whom Jean and Dorothy had shared Thanksgiving dinner the night before. They had been raped and shot at point blank. Their charred van had been burned and left abandoned by the roadside.
The deaths of our sisters shocked the world.
The United States government’s initial response was to deny military involvement. US Defense Secretary Alexander Haig suggested “perhaps they ran a road block.” UN Secretary Jean Kirkpatrick stated “The nuns were not just nuns. The nuns were also political activists.” Meanwhile an elaborate coverup led by the leaders of the Salvadoran High Command began.
Taken together with the assassination of the Archbishop, the political leadership of the FDR and thousands of Salvadorans, the US church women’s death marked the beginnings of a 12-year armed conflict that would ultimately cost more than 75,000 civilian deaths, the overwhelming majority – according to the UN Truth Commission’s 1992 Report, “From Madness to Hope” -- at the hands of the US-trained and financed military and death squads. The US would invest more than $4.5 billion dollars on the side of the criminal government.
In 1981, a year after Jean died, we invited her parents to visit the Archdiocese of San Francisco for the anniversary celebration of her life and sacrifice. Mr. and Mrs. Donovan stayed with my parents and myself at our family home. Two sets of parents: one grieving the loss of a beloved daughter and the failure of the US State Department to provide any satisfactory answers on a mission to tell her story; the other worried that their daughter would fall victim to the same fate; all faced with the paradox of the Christian call to love, to live, and to be willing to take up the cross. They broke bread together, and gave thanks.
A few years later, in 1984, four members of the National Guard and their superior would be tried and convicted of the rape and murder of the four women – an historic first in the military history of El Salvador. But the intellectual authors of the crime were never brought to justice and a few years later, some of the implicated military leaders were even granted residency in the United States, including the Director of the National Guard, Coronel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia.
In 1993, the UN Truth Commission determined that Coronel Vides Casanova and Coronel Garcia had organized an official cover up. In 1994, four of the imprisoned guardsmen men confessed to the crimes and alleged that they acted on orders. A decades long legal battle in US courts ensued, led by the sisters’ families and by Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford’s brother, Bill Ford, a prominent attorney, and other dedicated groups, including the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability. They lost the court case, but in 2012, a judge found General Cassanova guilty of war crimes, and in 2015, he was deported to El Salvador.
Every year, on December 2nd, the Salvadoran community gathers at the site where the sisters and Jean’s bodies were unearthed. Thanks to the efforts of the SHARE Foundation, the site was declared an historical landmark in 2015. That year, over 100 women religious from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States made the pilgrimage with the SHARE Foundation to accompany the community to mark the 35th anniversary and to honor the life, sacrifice and legacy of the women who gave their lives for the poor and a vision of a just society, a beloved community.
The Community gathers at the Historical Monument for the 2015 35th commemoration of Ita Ford, Maura Clark, Dorothy Kazel & Jean Donovan’s martyrdom at the site their bodies were discovered in 1980.
This year, the 40th anniversary pilgrimage was postponed due to the COVID – 19 pandemic. Instead, the LCWR and the SHARE Foundation are sponsoring more than 40 celebrations across the United States, Central America and Europe.
A beautiful African American veteran of the Civil Rights movement, Rev. Phil Lawson, once described the people of El Salvador to be very similar to the Black social gospel communities in the United States: “A Resurrection People living Good Friday,” one committed to sacrificial love, an unconditional love of the marginalized and oppressed and the vision of freedom.
Today, as we recall the story of Jean Donovan, may we remember her invitation to set aside our fears and walk with the people yearning to be free. May we make our love concrete, through small and large gestures, through prayer and action, in community and song, in solidarity. May we draw strength and courage from her memory, from one another, from the beauty of the earth, full of hope and joy.
JEAN DONOVAN, PRESENTE.
ITA FORD, PRESENTE
MAURA CLARKE, PRESENTE
DOROTHY KAZEL, PRESENTE
Eileen Purcell served on the SHARE Foundation’s Board of Directors from 1983-1992 and as Executive Director from 1986-1991. She is currently a member of the SHARE Advisory Board.
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