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Author’s new book shaped by Quantico experiences

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“Write what you know” is on every tip list for aspiring authors. Donna Lee Davis of Stafford took those words to heart in creating Matter of Discretion, a murder mystery set in 1974 at the Quantico Marine Corps Base. The who-done-it novel is an intriguing tale and also comes off as a paean to the Catholic priesthood.

The writer retired after a 33-year career at the Marine base, which included six years as Chaplains Office Secretary and 27 years in court reporting within the military justice system. She now divides her time between volunteering at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg and as a writer of poetry, non-fiction and fiction.

The new book draws on Davis’ years of experience during her long career, which has been a labor of love for decades. It was put on hold numerous times because of family obligations and because of her devotion to her parish.

In 2016, church historian William Shorter prevailed upon Davis to set aside her work in progress to write Here Is the Church: a History of St. Mary Parish. The work chronicled the St. Mary parish history from its antebellum roots to the horrors of the Civil War up to the modern age.

The main character in Matter of Discretion is Lt. Commander Damon Keith, Chaplain Corps, U.S. Navy. He’s a composite of the many dedicated, hard-working clergymen she worked with at the base.

“I always had tremendous respect for the chaplains in the Navy,” Davis said. “It was like missionary work; they went where they were sent. They did everything a parish priest would do, but often got little support from their superiors.”

The influence of one of those naval chaplains would change Davis’ life incalculably. He shares the book’s dedication: “In honor of John, who walks with the saints.” That “John” would be Chaplain John J. O’Connor who was destined to wear the red hat as a prince of the church, serving as archbishop of New York.

One might reflect on God’s sense of humor back in 1967 when the young career woman landed her dream federal job in an office of chaplains. While baptized a Lutheran, Davis basically was unchurched and considered herself a committed agnostic.

One can guess the rest of the story. Father O’Connor promptly gave her a catechism and after a period of study and instruction, she became a Catholic at Marine Memorial Chapel in 1969. While he had left Quantico at the time for another assignment, Father O’Connor returned to celebrate the Mass when Davis was received into the church.

Davis and the future cardinal remained lifelong friends. She and her mother attended his elevation ceremony in Rome in 1985. They corresponded often and visited when the clergyman could find time in his busy schedule.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Davis writes, “There was no greater inspiration to me than my lifelong friend, Chaplain John J. O’Connor. The cardinal never lost his humility or his sense of humor. He was unfailingly supportive, always urging me to ‘keep writing.’”

While the fictional Father Keith is the center of attention in Matter of Discretion, there are several deliberate references in the book to Navy Chaplain Vincent Capodanno who was killed in Vietnam in 1967. He was named Servant of God in 2006.

Davis felt a certain connection to the priest. She began her job Feb. 13, 1967, which turned out to be Father Capodanno’s birthday. Then Sept. 4 that same year, because casualty lists came to her desk first, she learned the terrible news that the chaplain had been killed during Operation Swift. Davis remembers that a portrait of Father Capodanno remained in their office until he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1969.

Davis hardly has scratched the surface of the wealth of material from her Quantico years. Might we expect a sequel featuring Father Keith? Let’s hope so.

Mahoney is a freelance writer from Fredericksburg.

For more information

Donna Lee Davis, author of Matter of Discretion, will do a book signing Nov. 4 from 1-3 p.m. at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, 1201 Caroline St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401.  

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017