Ministry of Presence
Michael Donovan Chooses a Retirement of Helping Others on Chicago’s South Side
Michael Donovan ’75 chooses to see the best in humanity, even when it is at its worst.
As someone who witnessed the World Trade Center attack on that tragic day of Sept. 11, 2001, Donovan had no choice but to watch the horror unfold from his Manhattan IRS office just across the street from Ground Zero.
However, when he retired at age 50 after a distinguished nearly 30-year IRS career, he did have a choice. He could do pretty much whatever he wanted during his retirement years. But instead of spending his time sitting on a beach in Florida, Donovan moved to Chicago to volunteer in prison ministry and restorative justice efforts.
“I knew it was time to give back,” said Donovan of his decision to get involved in helping those involved with violence and conflict. “I absolutely felt I did not have the time while I was working to give back. I wanted something substantive, and jail ministry and working in the inner city seemed like the right thing to do.”
For the past 13 years, he spends most of his days visiting prisoners at penitentiaries around the State of Illinois, and nights helping with the Precious Blood of Reconciliation ministry in Chicago’s infamous South Side. Donovan, a devout Catholic, said he believes this is what he was called to do.
“This was an area I knew nothing about,” Donovan said. “I never lived in an inner city. … I started with juvenile detention center one night a week. Then I took on a second night and a third night. I found it so fascinating to listen to the stories.”
And most of the time, those stories have tragic endings.
“I go to too many funerals,” Donovan said. “Out of the 70 guys in our program, almost every one has been shot. Almost every one of them have family members who have died by violence.”
Many of the people he works with are teenagers.
“I’ve kind of taken on very specifically visiting those guys that I’ve met over the years at juvenile jail that went on to lengthy sentences in adult prisons,” Donovan said. “Most of the adult prisons are four, five, six hours away from Chicago. Most of them get no other visitors, because either their families don’t have a car, or can’t afford gas or lodging.”
And just what does he do on his visits?
“I’m just working with the kids the best I can,” he said. “I provide aid and comfort in the moment. The guys whom I work with are very, very, very appreciative of just having someone who will listen to their stories. They don’t have that at home. … They don’t have an adult who isn’t screaming at them. We are there as a ministry of presence to listen.”
Precious Blood, a privately funded organization run by missionary priests and sisters of the Precious Blood from Ohio, operates in the Englewood neighborhoods, one of the worst part of Chicago. Volunteers reach out to those impacted by violence and conflict, including victims.
“We work with kids who are released from jail to provide support,” Donovan said. “They want to change, but it is very hard for them to make those changes. … It’s like a revolving door; you see the same kids over and over again.”
Volunteers provide mentoring, job placement, tutoring, carpentry, recreation, art, theater and other resources “to try to assist them in staying out of trouble,” Donovan said.
And being a volunteer means many times being put in harm’s way.
“I’ve been subject to an armed robbery,” Donovan said. “I’m scared sometimes. There are places I won’t go to at night. I’m not the target. Most of the time it’s one gang member shooting another gang member.”
He said he’s tried to pinpoint the crux of the problem, and it all comes back to one thing.
“So much of the problem is rooted in poverty,” Donovan said. “Many of the guys I work with are 15 years old and they don’t make the connection that the reason their lives are so difficult and screwed up are they had no father in their lives. And (now) they are a father themselves. In and out of jail. No education. Their baby is damned to a life of poverty. The cycle of poverty somehow has to be addressed.”
Donovan is doing his part, and he said Cardinal Blase Cupich and the Archdiocese of Chicago are “stepping up” as well.
“You do what you can,” said Donovan, who has taken numerous people into his home over the years. “Cardinal Cupich is really leading an anti-violence campaign. His mantra is ‘No one can do everything, but everyone can do something to try to help.’ That’s what gets me through.”
He said the system must change as well.
“At least in Illinois, we do not have a good reentry system for anybody coming out of prison,” said Donovan, who accompanies many youths to court, since many do not have family support. “There aren’t a lot of programs for them coming out of prison, but yet we expect them to assimilate back into society. They came from dysfunction, and they are returning to dysfunction.
“The legal system doesn’t help, either,” he continued. “None of the kids I work with, if they get arrested, they can’t make bail. So they sit in jail sometimes two or three years while waiting to adjudicate their case. … And most cases are just settled out or the kid pleads guilty because there’s no choice. That’s an unfair system problem. That’s a structural problem that really needs addressing.”
Donovan, who was New York state’s chief tax administrator, supervising more than 4,000 IRS employees before his retirement, said 9/11 showed him there is goodness in people, even in the most challenging of circumstances.
“I was right there and had to lead our employees through that trauma,” said Donovan, who had approximately 500 employees working in the World Trade Center buildings on that fateful day. “It was a horrible event. But you saw the best of people come out. You saw unions working with management. You saw neighbor helping neighbor. You saw the goodness of people come through all during those months following 9/11. I actually have more happy memories from that than I have horrible memories.”
For his post-9/11 leadership efforts, Donovan earned the Commissioner’s Award, the IRS’ highest honor, as well as the first National Treasury Employees Union President’s Award.
But he has a new life, a new purpose.
“If you would have told me 15 years ago that this is what I would be doing, I would have told you were crazy,” said Donovan, a former tennis player, sports information director and accounting major at Siena Heights. “I guess it’s being open to where the Holy Spirit sends you. Somehow I ended up more than knee deep in it.”
And he has a new goal as well.
“There is one young man now that I’ve been visiting in prison for 11 years,” Donovan said of his friend, Arthur, who he visits every other month despite the six-hour drive. “He was 15 when I met him, and he got a 27-year sentence. … I want to live until I’m 79 because I want to be there at that prison gate when he gets out, because I’m practically his only visitor. So my goal is staying alive.
“We meet them where they are and do our best,” said Donovan, who said he does find some time to enjoy the Chicago sports and theater scene. “That’s kind of our mantra. It’s akin to a hospice ministry. We’re there for the journey. The good, the bad and the ugly. I want to continue what I’m doing for as long as I can.”