Father John L. Donovan once told me to avoid “ephemeral and short-lived enthusiasms.” He was condemning those diversions that numb the soul. Apparently that didn’t include roller-coasters. He coaxed me onto one during a church outing. “Existential man,” he explained, “must get his thrills and spills.” He laughed while I hung on for dear life. I think it was his third ride of the day.
He was known as Father John or, simply, J.L. Friends, relatives, and fellow religious from Dorchester and across the Boston archdiocese are mourning his loss this week. He passed away peacefully on March 5 at Marian Manor at the age of 91.
He was my best friend. All who knew him have stories about the parish priest, scholar, and spiritual adviser who seemed constantly amused by life’s roller-coaster ride of moral foibles and spiritual follies, including his own. Many believe he was among the most gifted homilists ever to grace the pulpits of the archdiocese.
He showed up at St. Ann’s, Neponset, at age 36, took charge of the CYO, stepped aboard a bus bound for a Berkshires ski trip and sternly warned us to behave ourselves. Grumpy and old fashioned, I thought. A real kill-joy. Then I heard his laughter skyrocketing up from the schoolyard, young parishioners praising his sermons and older parishioners praising his grasp of scripture, history, and church doctrine.
I realized he was the kind of priest everyone should know.
“He was charismatic,” said the Boston attorney and Dorchester native Steve Finnegan. “He helped me get into Georgetown, take elocution lessons, realize my potential. We formed a life-long bond.”
John Laurence Donovan was born in South Boston on May 27, 1927, one of four children and only son of the late John J and Cecelia (Lee) Donovan. He graduated from BC High, St. Bonaventure University, and the Vincentian seminary in Niagara, New York. Ordained in 1954, he served in parishes in Dorchester, Roxbury, Woburn, Melrose, and Quincy.
He loved sports, read widely, and introduced us to the church’s rich intellectual and spiritual heritage: St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton. Soon-to-be-canonized Blessed John Henry Newman was his spiritual model. Politically conservative, he cast a cold eye on world events.
“God is good and ever faithful to those who love Him,” he wrote in a letter to me on March 22, 1980 when I was a news reporter in Florida. “Perhaps with too many of us,” he said, “fear contends with desire and produces more anguish than action. But the gift of love is given to unite persons at all levels and in diverse manner. Included in the process, almost as its price, must be prayer.”
He loved the traditional Latin Mass, celebrated it weekly during his final years and offered retreats and spiritual direction to the nuns, brothers, and students of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Still River, Mass.
Engraved on his headstone at St. Joseph’s Cemetery is a portion of Newman’s famous prayer: “In His Mercy, may He give us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.”
He should rest in peace now – unless they have a roller-coaster in heaven.