Fr. Gerry Donavan, M.M.
Sixty-one years after joining Maryknoll, including 20 years as a missioner in Chile and 25 in southern Sudan, Sister Mary Ellen Manz explains how the story of the first Maryknoll priest to give his life in China inspired her own vocation.
In 1943 I was in the sixth grade and like most 11-year-olds, I was dreaming about what I'd be when I grew up: a nurse, a writer, a flight attendant, a mother. Being a missionary Sister never entered my mind.
Our teacher, Sister Rose of Lima, a Sister of St. Joseph, liked to read inspiring stories to us during the last 10 or 15 minutes before dismissal time. One of the stories was about a newly ordained Maryknoll priest, Gerard Donovan. Of all the stories read to us, this one really grabbed me.
Gerry, the youngest of seven children from McKeesport, Pa., was described as "a puny, flaxen-haired kid, with a mischievous grin whose hair kept falling into his eyes making him look pretty much like Mickey Rooney." He followed his two older brothers, Joe and Tom, into the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and was missioned to Fushun in Manchukuo, China, in the spring of 1931.
Manchukuo was a huge area where gangs of bandits roamed, preying on villages, looting and killing at random. The people greatly feared them and warned the young Shen Fu (Chinese name for Father) to be careful. His family was also fearful for Gerry's safety, but he made light of the dangers, assuring them, "Over here we don't worry about them as you do at home. They haven't bothered any of our men because we're Americans."
Donovan was captivated by the beauty of China, but even more by the Manchus, Chinese and Korean people who lived in the huge parish assigned to him. No obstacles were too great for this little priest, who seemed to face the greatest hardships with such good humor that many of his parishioners dubbed him "the Laughing Father."
He was fearless, traveling long distances to get to know the people. One day while on a journey through the mountains, he and his companion, Wang, were captured by bandits and taken to their leader. Seeing who the captive was, the leader scolded his men: "We do not stop this man; he is the new Shen Fu from Lin Kiang." Apologizing to Donovan, he said, "Go your way; my men will not trouble you again."
Things were going well for Donovan as he continued to win the hearts of the people he served. In August 1937, he was assigned to a new mission at Hopei. Two months later a ragged stranger entered the church where people were gathered with the priest and Maryknoll Sister Veronica Marie Carney quietly chanting the rosary. The man rudely approached Donovan, who led him into the small sacristy. The stranger pulled a revolver, threatening him and a teenage boy, Francis Liu, who was preparing charcoal for the incense burner. The intruder pushed the priest and boy outside while the congregation, unaware of what was taking place, continued to pray.
This time, the chief of the band of robbers was not kind to Donovan, who wore only a thin cassock in the frigid night air. After traveling on foot for 11 days through the mountains, they arrived at the bandits' hideout. This gang wanted ransom money and sent Francis Liu back with a note demanding US$50,000 for the release of the priest. Donovan tried to convince them there was no money for this. After receiving the note, the Maryknollers could only plead with the gangsters to set the young priest free, explaining that any money they had was used to help the poor.
On Feb. 11, 1938, Monsignor Raymond Lane, superior of Maryknoll's China mission, was informed that a body had been found in the snow at the foot of a mountain in Huai-Jen, some 60 miles from the mission center. The next morning, Maryknoll Father Thomas Quirk and Mr. Ray Ludden of the U.S. Consulate flew to Huai-Jen, where they found Father Donovan's body with rope marks of strangulation and badly mangled by wolves.
When Sister Rose finished the story of this courageous missionary, she asked us, "Who will take Father Gerry's place?" I remember to this day feeling a bit of a jolt and saying to myself, "I will!"