Kevin Jean-Marie Donovan, SJ
September 26, 1931 - August 21, 2008
September 26, 1931 - August 21, 2008
Liturgist, musician, incomparable pastor
“A unique spirit has been taken from the world – not just another Jesuit liturgist but an extraordinary human being” – just one of an enormous number of reminiscences of and tributes to one of the most remarkable characters to grace the English liturgical scene in the past hundred years. A further selection:
“He was magnificent.” “I loved him.” “A great gift from God to us.” “A finer Christian I have yet to meet.” “For me, he was Christ in this world.” “For my first example of a member of the Society of Jesus, no better person could there have been. His wit, humanity, as well as his enormous wisdom will stay with me always, not least because he would send one off on a tangent to do some extremely interesting work and then, forgetting what he had suggested, come up with another interesting line.” “He filled all our hearts and we were all blessed to know him.” “Kevin’s special gift was his extraordinary, sometimes child-like enthusiasm (‘I’m re-reading Congar; you know, it’s wonderful stuff’): he was one of life’s encouragers.”
“The one thing that seems to me to stand out very clearly was his intellectual brilliance. He could master and shine in almost any subject he took up to the extent it was difficult for him to know in what he should specialise. There was a time when he was fascinated by botany and acquired extensive knowledge of plants and their names. We felt he could turn his hand to almost anything.”
“He was a truly charismatic figure, an original in the true sense: irreplaceable in his combination of learning – which he bore so lightly –, of pastoral instinct which few could match; and a puckish humour which could transform a situation in a moment. But for me most of all will be the memory of his sheer humanity and vulnerability. I will miss him very much.”
“A musician deep to the core, a suggestive homilist never preaching down to anyone, gifted with a dry (dare I say, British) sense of humour and an indomitable urge to reach out to, and genuinely care for, others, are only a few of the qualities I was gifted to experience.”
For many, their principal memory of Kevin will be the wild hair, wild beard, playing a flute (most often) or guitar (occasionally) and wearing open-toed sandals… His informal repertoire included unforgettable performances of Alouette, gentille Alouette and Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (“Daylight come and me wanna go home”), but he could also take his part in a polyphonic choir when the occasion arose. Others will recall the characteristic handwriting with its flourishes and Greek epsilons for lower-case e’s, the way he would sometimes call himself “Kev the Rev”, the inimitable body language, the laugh, the eyes....
“Liturgically, of course, he was brilliant: no one ever proclaimed a Gospel text as meaningfully; people used to go to Mass twice to hear him preach again. He would produce newspapers and books from nowhere, and even his trusty wooden flute. His facility with the sung Mass in Latin was magnificent”, and he even occasionally presided at Eucharist in the Tridentine Rite in recent times (for example, at the Latin Mass Society AGM Mass in 2006 – he said that if they were going to do that sort of thing, at least he could help them to do it well).
“In Kevin’s case it wasn’t ‘twice’ that those who sing pray, but more like ten times, he put so much meaning into the sung texts, whatever language they were. His rendition of Huijbers’ Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead as the paschal flame entered the darkened church will remain long in the memory of those who were lucky enough to hear it.”
He was extraordinarily widely-read, and he had the ability to retain much of what he read. And yet he often said how little he felt he knew, how much he had not read. He loved words, and would go through phases of using a particular word frequently – for example “rebarbative”, which he would enunciate with great relish – before moving on to another favourite.
An unlikely phenomenon as a Jesuit, he was not organised enough to be an academic in the strict sense of the word. While he was certainly very erudite, he carried his learning very lightly, and never talked down to anyone. He allied the academic aspect of his work to a remarkable pastoral sense. When confronted with a pastoral problem, his response would be “What is the most loving thing that we could do?”
Kevin was a bridge-builder. He seemed to have a particular ministry to the homeless and the housebound. Kevin would talk to anyone, and frequently did. He could often be seen in conversation with sellers of the Big Issue and gentlemen of the road and, because of Kevin’s shaggy appearance and perhaps the famous old duffle coat, it was not always easy for an outsider to tell who was in need and who was not. On one occasion, sitting on a London park bench chatting to two American friends (Virgil Funk and Nancy Bannister), they were approached by a policeman who asked “Is this man bothering you?”
“For all his abilities with people, beneath the bravura, the humour, the warmth and the magnetism, he was in himself quite a shy person. He had more than a tinge of self-doubt, and had to cope with a life punctuated by emotional highs and lows. I vividly remember asking how some talk had gone, and he said it was ‘Another sickening success’ – as if he himself could not believe in the gifts which everyone else could see.” “With all this, we were also aware of a searching Kevin, the one not always bien dans sa peau, and this made him all the more impressive as he wrestled with the Lord.”
His room was always a riot of papers, piles of books and heaven-knows-what-else. You were lucky if you could see any furniture at all. And Kevin would lose his diary and address book with monotonous regularity – as often as three times a year.
He was a man of enthusiasms, always in search of the little-known and the unexpected, and would delight in tasting wine made from a grape he was not familiar with, or trying out a new cheese or type of olive or Real Ale. At one time he went so far as to carry a piece of obscure cheese in a bag on a leather thong around his neck for several weeks in order for it to mature at body temperature. He had to give up drinking beer when it was discovered that it was giving him gout, and eventually in his final years the intake of wine also had to be diminished because of its effect on his system – a sore trial for a man with the French love of the grape in his blood.
Kevin Jean-Marie Donovan (he himself pronounced it “Dunnervern”) was born on 26 September 1931 (inexplicably, the funeral order of service printed 29 September) at Montrécourt-par-Saulzoir, near the French border with Belgium, between Valenciennes and Cambrai. He never knew his father, Denis John Donovan, who died when Kevin was only ten months old. His mother, Marcelle Félicie Caudrillier, was a short but very feisty blonde lady who had an enormous influence on Kevin’s life. She brought up her only child in England single-handed, and he felt her loss very deeply when she died. Her sparkling and very French élan and an artistic flair combined with a lively sense of fun were all characteristics that she passed on to her son. They always spoke in French, and Kevin was therefore completely bi-lingual in both languages. (It was not uncommon to find him reading the abstruse scholarly tomes of liturgical theologians such as Louis-Marie Chauvet in the original French.) Kevin had an affinity for languages, and had more than a smattering of German and Italian, in addition to the Latin and Greek that he studied at school and university.
He was educated first at the Salesian Prep School (St Joseph’s) in Burwash, Sussex (1940-43), and then at St John’s College, Beaumont, in Berkshire, run by the Jesuits (1943-49). He entered the Society of Jesus straight from school at the age of 18, commencing his formation at Manresa House, Roehampton, and continuing at the newly-acquired Jesuit novitiate at Harlaxton, Lincolnshire, where he took his first vows. His philosophy studies were at the old Heythrop College in Oxfordshire (1952-55) and at Roehampton, and he then trained as a teacher in the mid 1950s. He moved to Campion Hall, Oxford, to study Classics, and obtained a 1st Class Honours Degree in Greats. He then returned to Beaumont College to teach Classics for two years, and also trained a fife and drum band for the Combined Cadet Force. (In addition to playing the flute, he had been an accomplished pianist, and could find his way around the basic guitar chords without difficulty.) He then returned to Heythrop for his theology studies.
Kevin was ordained a priest on 1 August 1965 at the Jesuit Sacred Heart Church in Wimbledon by the retired Archbishop of Bombay, Thomas Roberts SJ. He then moved to Paris to study liturgy at the Institut Supérieur de Liturgie. Among his teachers were Joseph Gelineau and Pierre Jounel, and his classmates included Italian Jesuit Eugenio Costa. Kevin and Eugenio both took the opportunity to study harmony and counterpoint privately alongside their other studies. During this time they lived in the Jesuit house in the Rue de Sèvres, next door to the church of Saint-Ignace where they sang in the choir (directed by Gelineau) every Sunday at Mass.
It was here also that Kevin made the acquaintance of Christine Barenton and her excellent children’s liturgical choir named Mini-Hosanna. He went off on their first summer camp with them in 1968, and was finally able to invite the choir to perform in Wimbledon just a few years ago. They remember with love and affection “his gaiety, his humour and his superb sense of service”, and had been planning to invite him to their fortieth birthday celebrations. The name of Christine’s group would years later inspire him later to name his RCIA group of child catechumens the “Mini-Cats”.
Right at the beginning of his time in Paris, in 1965, Kevin attended a large congress in Fribourg, Switzerland, organised by the group which would become Universa Laus a year later. Here he met many other young liturgists who would, three years later in 1968, be co-opted en masse into Universa Laus; the group included Louis Cyr (a Canadian Jesuit), Eugenio Costa, Nico Schalz and a number of others. Kevin, Louis and Eugenio all worked together on the simultaneous translation needs of the 1969 Universa Laus Congress in Turin. When Kevin was eventually elected to the Universa Laus Praesidium at Gentinnes, Belgium, in 1977 in succession to Joseph Gelineau, he received more votes than all the other candidates combined. He continued as a President until 1986, when he was succeeded by the present writer.
Returning to England in 1969, Kevin was appointed Professor of Liturgy at Heythrop College, then in the throes of moving from its Oxfordshire home to the north side of Cavendish Square, London. He became a key figure in the Pastoral Year course that was held there, which evolved into the MA in Pastoral Studies. It was at this time that he encountered the work of former Jesuit Bernard Huijbers, and Kevin was responsible for the English translation of Huijbers’ Great Litany that appeared in Sing the Mass (1975). (The same publication also includes an Entrance Chant by Kevin himself, also borrowed for use as an Intercessions Litany – very simple, just a few bare fifths and sustained chords under spoken text.)
From 1972 to 1973, Kevin was a member of the Consilium’s working group which produced a revised draft of the Ordo Poenitentiae. Doubtless he was invited to be part of this work because he was known and respected by the chair of the group, Fr Pierre Jounel, from his time studying in Paris.
His teaching time at Heythrop was briefly interrupted when he spent a year in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) teaching at St Ignatius College in Chishawasha from 1978 to 1979 in the wake of the independence of the Rhodesian Jesuit province. Returning to the UK in October 1979, he resumed his professorship at Heythrop, a post he held until his death. It was around this time that he first took up an interest in jogging and running, culminating eventually in his running no less than six London Marathons, the last in 2000 at the age of 68, despite suffering all his life from asthma.
He contributed a chapter on the Sanctoral cycle to the standard student textbook The Study of Liturgy (1978, rev. ed. 1992) and a chapter on influences on the post-Vatican II English liturgical scene to English Catholic Worship, published in 1979 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Society of St Gregory. His articles appeared in a number of journals.
In 1982 he moved to Stamford Hill to become parish priest in addition to his teaching work, and would frequently run into central London and arrive sweatily in the classroom to give his lectures. Stamford Hill was a highly multi-ethnic parish with 115 languages spoken by parishioners, a fact which Kevin made good use of at his first Pentecost there. Here, for the first time, Kevin could begin to put into practice on a systematic basis (if one could ever use that adjective of him) his own marvellous incarnation of liturgy with a truly pastoral dimension. He was not afraid to experiment, and his liturgies both in the parish and at Heythrop were always memorable. “Nobody else but Kevin could have made it not a gimmick but real prayer.” It was at this time that he became involved with Kevin Yell’s Epiphany Dancers, an ad hoc group with a strong ecumenical flavour which performed and enhanced prayer through liturgical dance in St James’s, Piccadilly and a number of other London churches. Kevin would boast that he was the first Catholic priest since the Reformation to have danced in Westminster Abbey.
In 1991 his service as parish priest in Stamford Hill came to an end. After a sabbatical year in Berkeley, California, from where he was able to explore some of the finer vintages of the Napa Valley, in 1992 Kevin became a member of the parish staff at the Sacred Heart Church, Wimbledon, where he became responsible for the pastoral care of one of the four subdivisions of this large south-west London parish right up until his death. He made a special point of visiting the housebound, and was for some years chaplain to the bottom year of the Ursuline Convent Primary School.
1993 saw Heythrop College move from its home in Cavendish Square, which had become economically unfeasible for the Jesuits, to the former Maria Assumpta College in Kensington Square. In anticipation of this move, Andrew Cameron-Mowat SJ and Kevin transformed the liturgical components of the MA in Pastoral Studies into an MA in Pastoral Liturgy, at that time unique in the British Isles. They first sketched out the new degree course together in the garden of a Jesuit community house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1992; and September 1993 saw the course commence, taught by Kevin and Robin Gibbons. Students in the early years included Ann Blackett Moynihan, Mags Shepherd, Lindsay Urwin (an Anglican bishop), and the degree attracted a very wide and ecumenical range of people.
Kevin and technology did not mix very well, and he would sometimes spend hours preparing a lecture on an old computer, only to find that he had saved it incorrectly or deleted it, or that he had left the relevant papers at home; and he would then prepare the lecture on the back of an envelope while sitting on the Victoria or District Line. It was a mark of his brilliance that he never said anything quite the same way twice. His handouts were famous for their misprints, some unrepeatable. When Andrew arrived at Heythrop in 1998, he supplied the organisational ability, taking care of paperwork and teaching modern liturgical theology and ritual, while Kevin took care of all the history, being a sort of “living tradition” in himself. He would make a point of attending as many of Andrew’s seminars as he could and his presence was invaluable, interjecting extraordinary insights or pastoral examples one after another. Old timers at Heythrop were always glad to see Kevin around the corridors and in the library; he would pick out wonderful and challenging passages from an enormously wide range of reading, and was never at a loss to discuss practically anything.
Kevin had lived life to the full, and for quite some time before his death he had talked about visions of mortality and feeling tired. In a letter dated as far back as 5 June 2007 to his friend Louis Cyr, who had had a long period of rehabilitation after a near-fatal heart attack, Kevin wrote:
“Someone recently gave me a good & thorough book by Gustave Martelet on Teilhard. A resumptive account to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his death. Because it is so ‘dense’ I’ve only read parts of it - but one chapter I have read a couple of times is about death, approach of, passive diminution I think he calls it - it’s from Le milieu divin, which to my shame [I haven’t read]. Like yourself, I’m beginning to experience this passive diminution. Not as thoroughly as yourself, no doubt, but still - touch of rheumatics, and a number of tooth extractions, and a reasonable set of new ones. So I appreciated your own remarks on that subject. However, I’m pretty pleased with my own intimations of mortality – especially as they haven’t affected the flute playing – and indeed I’m getting back into some sort of shape. It’s useful in church – especially family Mass & baptisms – and I find that plainchant goes rather well with a flute – especially in a flattering acoustic.
Off to Lisieux (been re-reading her on suffering, Little Way, etc.) next month with a parish pilgrimage, which includes Joan of Arc, the Normandy landings, and Monet’s Water Lilies.”
He was a member of the international Jesuit Jungmann Society, and had been to their meeting in Montserrat in June 2008, where he seemed in very good form, if a little tired. Only days before his death, he had been on the phone with the present writer, planning a memorial Mass for Joseph Gelineau. On 21 August he presided at a wedding in Wimbledon. He collapsed at the reception from a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at Kingston Hospital.
The funeral celebrations extended over two days. On the evening of 1 September a Mass was held at the Sacred Heart Church, Wimbledon, with music by the parish’s Family Mass music group, attended by a large number of people. On 2 September, an even larger gathering of about 1,000 people (including a coach-load from Stamford Hill) crammed into the same church for a Requiem Mass with choir and organ which included music by Duruflé, Gelineau, Fauré, preceded by a half-hour of some of Kevin’s favourite psalms with cantor/assembly and piano and followed by a most extraordinary reception and display of photographs. The clergy present included two bishops, and the presider was the Jesuit Provincial, Fr Michael Holman. The wonderful homily was preached by Fr Gerard J. Hughes, who had been preparing a talk at the same time as the homily. He arrived in Wimbledon to find he had brought the notes for the talk instead of the homily, and had to reconstruct it rapidly from memory on the spot, which he did brilliantly – a real “Kevin moment”. The size of the attendance was in itself a powerful memorial to a unique personality, and he will be sorely missed by a huge number of people. May he rest in peace.
Tribute prepared by Paul Inwood with special thanks for contributions from Andrew Cameron-Mowat SJ, Gerard J. Hughes SJ, Louis Cyr SJ, and many other friends
The photograph of Kevin was taken at the wedding on the day that he died, 21 August 2008.