Chicago Tribune: John A. Donahue, 64 – Activist devoted life to championing poor

John A. Donahue leaves a legacy of unwavering devotion to empowering the poor.

Executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Mr. Donahue, 64, died of lung cancer Monday, Nov. 17, in Illinois Masonic Medical Center.

“He was a real warrior for justice all of his life. He always strove to make everybody part of the solution,” said Ed Shurna, the coalition’s acting executive director. “He used to say he organized hope for people that were left out. He brought a spirit and strength that said to them that they could rise up and change their lives.

“He showed us at the coalition how to make changes by involving the people most affected; by organizing the homeless so they could reclaim their voices and speak out for themselves.”

Mr. Donahue, a former Catholic priest, was a teacher at Visitation High School in Chicago before becoming vicar of the Archdiocese of Panama in 1971. In Panama, he made his home in squatter communities.

Broad-shouldered and robust with a magnetic personality, he loved the nickname given to him by his Panamanian parishioners, “Juancho,” which he used for the rest of his life.

In 1979 he left the priesthood and married his wife, Chelin, whom he had met in Panama. They returned to Chicago that year, and he became a division director at the Association House of Chicago. In 1982 he founded Comite Latino to organize jobs and housing.

During his five years with the group, he became close friends with Josh Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

“Juancho was one of the people in Chicago with the biggest hearts … for justice and the people on the bottom,” Hoyt said. “And he was grounded in love for his wife and children.”

Mr. Donahue returned to Panama in 1987 as director of Agro Bia Mundi Yala, a project intended to improve lives by better use of the environment. For example, Panamanians were taught how to improve soil and increase crop yield.

In 1990 he moved back to Chicago and joined the Coalition for the Homeless.

“All his life he never left his ministry for the poor and for justice,” his wife said.

He was instrumental in Chicago’s passage of a living-wage ordinance, the city’s replacement of single-resident occupancy units in the South Loop and the city’s plan to end homelessness in Chicago by 2013.

“He was one of the key forces in the creation of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a coalition of poor peoples organizations from across the country,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, a national anti-poverty organization in Washington, D.C. “He had an incredible gift for organizing, but also had the unique ability to get people to work together toward a common goal.”

Studs Terkel included a profile of Mr. Donahue in his new oral history, “Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times.”

“He did so much, not simply for the homeless but for all the dispossessed,” said Terkel, a longtime friend. “He worked in the community with them, made them visible and helped them feel that they counted. And that is what it is all about.”

Mr. Donahue is also survived by four daughters, Belen, Maricela, Lisa and Megan; one son, Daniel; one brother, James; and six sisters, Maureen Jensen, Nancy Horvath, Susan Clark, Peggy Donahue, Kathleen Coia and Virginia Kelly.

Visitation is scheduled from noon to 9 p.m. Friday in John E. Maloney Funeral Home, 1359 W. Devon Ave., Chicago. A mass will be said at 11 a.m. Saturday , in St. Gertrude Catholic Church, 1420 W. Granville Ave., Chicago.

– Barbara Sherlock, Staff Writer