Near the end of the first semester of my senior year in college, in the late fall of 1980, within days of each other, monumental deaths occurred in the Catholic Church in America.
On November 29th Dorothy Day suffered a fatal heart attack at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker residence in Manhattan. As the Church mourned the death of the most important Catholic voice for social justice that this country has ever known news broke from El Salvador that four American women, members of the missionary team from the Diocese of Cleveland, had been beaten, raped, and murdered, and left in a ditch by the side of a road.
December 2nd marked the thirty-ninth anniversary of the brutal martyrdom of Marynoll sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay volunteer Jean Donovan. Here at Saint Ignatius we were able to commemorate this solemn occasion with a Mass presided over by our bishop, the Most Reverend Nelson Perez, a man who has been to El Salvador and has prayed in the chapel that stands on the site where the bodies were found by Fr. Paul Schindler ’60, the head of the Cleveland missionary team at that time.
The documentary Roses in December, released in 1982, recounts the events surrounding the deaths of these heroic women, focusing mainly on Jean Donovan, the free spirited young woman who moved from Connecticut to Cleveland in order to attend graduate school at Case Western Reserve University.
In the film, Fr. Ralph Wiatrowski, then at St. Luke Parish in Lakewood, recounts meeting Jean for the first time. The placid silence of the rectory was broken by the sound of the roaring engine of Jean’s motorcycle pulling into the parish parking lot. Little did Fr. Wiatrowski know that the rider of that motorcycle would soon leave behind her job at Arthur Anderson, her apartment on Lakewood’s Gold Coast, and her physician fiancé to travel to war-torn El Salvador as part of the Cleveland missionary team.
The film does a very good job of presenting Jean as a typical young, well-educated, fun loving, upper-middle class Catholic of the mid-1970s. Friends from Ireland, where she spent time abroad while in college, recounted that she would have been the last person they expected to wind up doing missionary work in Latin America. And yet, like so many saintly people, there was a spark and an inner longing for something more than material success that drove Jean to do what many considered unthinkable and foolhardy.
Although the film is mired in the politics of the day, what shines through is the genuine love that Jean had for her family, her friends, her fiancé, and the people she served in El Salvador. Her love was whole-hearted and generous and fun, and the stories told of her by those who loved her recount a person who was fully alive, and thus one who showed forth the glory of God.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving I was able to show a portion of the film to the seniors in my Christian Manhood classes, and it was a great way both to prepare them for the Mass with the bishop and to show them the call to service of an exemplary Catholic young person who offered herself in love to others. I wanted them to see a lot of themselves in her – both her free-wheeling style and her incredible talents and gifts. But I also wanted them to see that Jean Donovan was more than a person who liked to ride her motorcycle back and forth from the Carlyle in Lakewood to Arthur Anderson’s downtown offices.
And most of all I wanted them to see that Jean Donovan’s particular path led her to serve God’s poor, known throughout the Old Testament as the anawim. These least among Jean’s sisters and brothers, with God’s help, transformed her into one of the anawim herself, and her reward was to meet the same fate as so many of God’s poor in El Salvador, including the martyred St. Oscar Romero. It was also the fate of a certain carpenter from Nazareth two thousand years ago.
Amidst all of the merriment that this time of year brings, it is always necessary for those who claim Jesus as Lord to remember that the wood of the stable must ultimately be transformed into the wood of the cross. For Jean Donovan and her companions, Advent 1980 was such a time. Let us pray that we might imitate them in their willingness to love that Lord no matter the path He leads us down.