A few Valentine’s Days ago, Roma Downey’s husband, Mark Burnett, gave her a most unusual gift.
Like many gifts, this one came in a box but one that could not be shaken for a clue to its contents. Instead, Burnett suggested that the couple repair to the garden of their Malibu home.
There, Downey says, she opened the box and out flew “a kaleidoscope” of butterflies. Yes, that’s what a group of butterflies is called, she tells well-wishers, who have gathered at The Perfect Provenance in Greenwich to celebrate the launch of her new book, appropriately titled “Box of Butterflies: Discovering the Unexpected Blessings All Around Us” (Simon & Schuster, $24.99, 256 pages). An inspirational memoir containing poems, biblical passages and images that have great meaning for Downey, the book is much like the actress/producer herself — filled with light, color, life. Much like a butterfly, too.
On this occasion, a pale blue butterfly pendant plays at her throat, while a butterfly ring sparkles on her hand.
“The butterfly has had a special significance in my life from the time I was 10 years old,” says Downey, who grew up Roman Catholic in Derry, Northern Ireland, during the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants. It was at that time that Downey’s mother — Maureen, a homemaker with artistic interests — died of a heart attack. Not long after, her father, Patrick — a schoolteacher turned mortgage broker who would die when Downey was 20 — took her to her mother’s gravesite. There a real butterfly alighted before flitting away.
“I realized it could be a symbol of my mother’s spirit and that I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was,” she tells WAG.
Ever since then, “the butterfly…has reminded me of my mom, God and all things good.”
Downey herself is like a butterfly, with a delicate bone structure and a voice as soft as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. Her warm smile alights on each person in the room.
It is a smile — the welcome of the face — that has brought her to The Perfect Provenance, where owner Lisa Lori is a supporter of Operation Smile, which Downey serves as an ambassador. The book launch is a benefit for the organization, founded in 1982 by plastic surgeon William P. Magee Jr. and his wife, Kathleen, a nurse and clinical social worker, to transform the lives of those suffering from a cleft lip and/or palate, disfiguring but easily corrected birth defects. In a country with vast resources like the United States, such defects are treated early on; not so in disadvantaged places. Operation Smile has restored the smiles of hundreds of thousands of children and even adults in 60 countries worldwide, thanks to the work of 5,000 medical volunteers, who also train local medical personnel in the surgical procedure so they can pay it forward, says Todd Magee, son of the founders and a director of the organization. Cleft lip and palate can be cruelly ostracizing conditions, even life-threatening. Amid the desperation, Downey’s genuine concern radiates. (She tells us the story of her determination to see that one young woman got the transformational surgery.)
“She is the perfect fit for Operation Smile,” Magee says. “She’s all about people.”
Downey was introduced to the nonprofit through an episode of the TV series “Touched by an Angel” (1994-2003), in which she played an angel, Monica, who helps people at a crossroads in their lives, under the supervision of Tess (Della Reese). The series — whose guest stars ranged from Muhammad Ali to astronaut Sally Ride — was a phenomenon that went on to syndication, fueled in large part by the chemistry between Downey and the earth-motherly Reese. So close did the two become that Reese, an ordained minister, officiated at Downey’s 2007 home wedding to Burnett. She also contributed the loving foreword to “Box of Butterflies” before she died last year.
At first, however, Downey didn’t imagine herself in front of a camera but rather in front of an easel. After graduating from Thornhill College, a Catholic grammar school in Derry, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree from England’s Brighton College of Art before combining art and drama studies at Brighton Polytechnic (later incorporated into the University of Brighton).
Drama won out over art. Downey was classically trained at the Drama Studio London. That led to Dublin’s prestigious Abbey Players and then to Broadway and then to the title role in the 1991 Emmy Award-winning miniseries “A Woman Called Jackie,” about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which in turn led to “Angel.”
Since “Angel,” Downey’s work has taken an even more spiritual turn. She and Burnett — perhaps best-known as the producer of the reality series “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” — produced the hit 10-part docudrama “The Bible” for the History Channel, which they adapted into the 2014 feature film “Son of God.” Their LightWorkers Media company — now owned by MGM but with Downey as president — has also created NBC’s “A.D. The Bible Continues”; CBS’ “The Dovekeepers,” a two-part miniseries based on Alice Hoffman’s novel about three extraordinary women at the Roman siege of the Jewish citadel of Masada; and the 2016 remake of “Ben-Hur,” starring Jack Huston, a scion of the acting family that includes Walter, John, Angelica and Danny.
At lightworkers.com, you’ll find “The Bible: Son of God” podcasts as well as faith-based lifestyle content.
“I love LightWorkers,” Downey says. “I’m all about hope and shedding a little light. ‘Better to light one candle than curse the darkness.’…We have to keep making noise for the good guys.”
Downey wears her faith with a lightness that matches the lilt in her voice. She says for instance, that she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy — or “Sisters of No Mercy,” as they were known to their students. Then acknowledging a priest amid the book party gatherers, she says, “Sorry, Father.”
A nod of the head suggests “no offense taken” before he ripostes, “but look at how you turned out.”