Ita, Maura, Dorothy, Jean: The legacy of 4 missionaries murdered in El Salvador 40 years ago

Maura Clarke, M.M., Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, M.M., Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U.

“If we abandon them when they are suffering the cross, how can we speak credibly about the resurrection?” – Maura Clarke, M.M.

Most of us feel we would want to stay here.… We wouldn’t want to just run out on the people.” – Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U.

“Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children.” – Jean Donovan

I truly believe that I should be here, and I can’t even tell you why.… All I can share with you is that God’s palpable presence has never been more real.” – Ita Ford, M.M.

All four women chose to stay. They had friends, family members and colleagues urging them to come home.

El Salvador had become a very dangerous place to be a missioner. Civil war was imminent. Popular movements were being crushed by government-sponsored violence. Repression from the military and its allied paramilitary death squads had become savage and widespread by 1980. Student activists, human rights workers, labor and campesino organizers and political opposition leaders were all being targeted. Bodies were turning up in ditches along roadsides, in garbage dumps or floating in rivers, often with thumbs tied behind their backs. Catechists, lay missionaries, priests and other pastoral workers were being threatened and killed.

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Even St. Óscar Romero, then the archbishop of San Salvador, was not spared. Indeed, his assassination on March 24, 1980, sent a message to all those who had taken up the “preferential option for the poor” articulated by the Latin American bishops’ council in 1979 and promulgated across the Americas. They were not safe.

Despite all of that—or because of it—the four churchwomen chose to stay and to suffer, as St. Romero had once said, “the same fate as the poor.”

Reality in the light of faith

A little over a decade earlier, at a conference in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, the Latin American bishops gathered to discuss the implications of the Second Vatican Council for the Latin American church. Special attention was given to “Gaudium et Spes,” which called the church to enter into the modern world: “The joys and the hope, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (No. 1).

“The Church,” the document says, “has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (No. 4). When the bishops came together to look at the reality of their nations and peoples, what they saw was deep-seated structural injustice, often enforced by brutal military regimes whose mission was to defend the interests of the wealthy. Together, they scrutinized “the signs of the times” and reflected on them “in the light of the Gospel.” And the bishops declared this suffering “a collective fact” that “expresses itself as injustice which cries to the heavens.”

The four churchwomen chose to stay and to suffer, as St. Romero had once said, “the same fate as the poor.”

By the late 1960s, popular movements were emerging in most Latin American countries, demanding justice, relief from hunger and oppression, respect for the rights and dignity of the majority of the population and an end to corrupt, repressive governments. For these movements and for the pastoral workers who supported them, these words pronounced by the bishops were a source of encouragement.

The engagement with the modern world encouraged by “Gaudium et Spes” was not the only Vatican II reform that had an impact on the church of Latin America. The liturgical reform that changed the language of the Mass from Latin to the vernacular reverberated beyond the altar. People were hearing the stories of Jesus of Nazareth as if for the first time, and they realized that those stories were about them, their reality, their lives.

The poor of Latin America began to realize that their suffering was not God’s will, not a trial to endure for bliss in the afterlife, as the church had taught them for centuries. Instead, the cause of their suffering was injustice. It was oppression and greed that had shaped their societies, and what Jesus preached was liberation from that suffering. This was revolutionary indeed.

Throughout much of Latin America, pastoral workers and scholars of this struggle for liberation interpreted this new consciousness among the poor. And, like the early Christians in Rome, it did not take long for the powers that be to see this as an unsettling threat.

The poor of Latin America began to realize that their suffering was not God’s will, not a trial to endure for bliss in the afterlife, as the church had taught them for centuries.

Encouraged by the call for greater lay participation in the life of the church expressed in the Second Vatican Council, more Christian Base Communities (known by the Spanish abbreviation C.E.B.s) formed and began to interpret their historical reality in the light of faith. The impact this had on local churches and base communities living under the weight of dictatorships was profound, both for those that opposed these movements and those that embraced them.

The four women entered El Salvador at a time of great ferment in the church. By the time they arrived, the C.E.B. movement was already well-organized, and its leaders were taking a stand on the side of the poor.

Dorothy’s Journey

On Oct. 3, 1979, Sister Dorothy Kazel penned a letter to Martha Owen, O.S.U., trying to explain her decision to remain El Salvador:

We talked quite a bit today about what happens if something begins.... We wouldn’t want to just run out on the people.... I thought I should say this to you because I don’t want to say it to anyone else because I don’t think they would understand. Anyway, my beloved friend, just know how I feel and ‘treasure it in your heart.’ If a day comes when others will have to understand, please explain it for me.”

Dorothy knew what was coming. She chose to stay. She was willing to take the risk, the same risk faced by those in the communities where she worked. She also knew that some of the people closest to her back home would not understand. Of the four, Dorothy had been in El Salvador the longest, assigned in 1974 by the Cleveland Diocesan Latin American Mission Team to serve there. She turned 35 that June. What she witnessed, as conditions in the country worsened over the next six years, as popular movements emerged and the repression intensified, changed her.

“Most of us feel we would want to stay here.… We wouldn’t want to just run out on the people.” – Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U.

Many of Dorothy’s friends and family did not understand. They did indeed need an explanation. Dorothy had overstayed her time there, they believed. The Cleveland bishop and some members of her congregation wanted her to come home. But her allegiance had shifted. Among the poor of El Salvador, she had found her place in this world.

In a letter to Sister Theresa Kane, R.S.M., Dorothy wrote of “how important it is to serve the poor and oppressed. I believe that wholeheartedly—that’s why I’m here in El Salvador. I should be coming back to the States next year. It will be then that I face a greater challenge,” the challenge, she wrote, of finding a way to continue to work with “the poor and oppressed.”

Dorothy’s “preferential option for the poor” was no longer an option in her life but a mandate. And it got her killed.

The Helicopters

It was not a fate that the Donovan family could have ever imagined. Jean was the youngest of the four missioners, a lay woman who arrived in El Salvador in July 1979 at the age of 26 to join the Cleveland team. Described as outgoing, a “joker” whom some did not take seriously, she had a big heart and a yearning for meaning in her life beyond the privilege in which she had been raised. Her father was an executive engineer and later chief of design at the Sikorsky Aircraft Division of United Technologies. The company was a large defense contractor, the manufacturer of the UH-1H “Huey” helicopters used in the Vietnam War. These helicopters were also used by the Salvadoran military, a fact that contributed to Jean’s awakening to her country’s role in El Salvador’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign.

Jean grew up politically conservative (a Republican supporter of Ronald Reagan, like her parents) and was initially dismissive of the leftist groups arming themselves to prepare for civil war in El Salvador. But by standing with the poor, the ones being abducted, tortured, disappeared and killed, her lens shifted radically.

“Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children.” – Jean Donovan

Each Sunday, she went to the cathedral or listened to Archbishop Romero’s homilies, broadcast via radio across the nation, as he denounced the repression, listed the names of victims and interpreted the raw reality of the people’s suffering in the light of the Gospel texts. It may have been a terrible time to be in El Salvador, but for those following in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, it was also a time when the Gospels came alive with a fierce clarity, an unfolding revelation.

Why did Jean stay? Just two weeks before she was killed, she wrote a letter to a friend back in Connecticut making her case for staying in words that were repeated so often in so many communities in the years after the murders that many of us can still say them from memory:

Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.

Jean, too, had found her place in the world.

The Maryknollers

Ita Ford, M.M., and Maura Clarke, M.M., were new to El Salvador but not to what it meant to work in countries dealing with military dictators and government repression. Ita had been assigned to Chile, arriving there in 1973 just months before the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet that crushed the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. What followed were years of repression and a dictatorship that took the lives of thousands of people—abducted, tortured and executed or simply disappeared forever. Included in their numbers were friends and neighbors of Ita.

In 1977, she wrote, “Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless? Can I say to my neighbors, ‘I have no solution to this situation. I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you.’”

Ita arrived in El Salvador in April 1980 with a colleague and friend from Chile, Sister Carla Piette, M.M.. They were responding to the call from Archbishop Romero, who had issued an urgent plea for more missioners from the international community to assist with the burgeoning needs of his persecuted people. In August, their jeep was caught in a flash flood. Ita escaped. Carla did not. It was a devastating personal blow for Ita.

“If we abandon them when they are suffering the cross, how can we speak credibly about the resurrection?” – Maura Clarke, M.M.

Maura Clarke had worked in neighboring Nicaragua since 1959. It was another country reeling under the oppression of dictatorship, this one directly installed by the United States in the 1930s. Savage repression of popular movements in the 1970s led to an insurrection, which, with the leadership of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, overthrew the dynasty of the Somoza family in July 1979. Maura was in the United States when that occurred and was overjoyed. She longed to return. But she had also been lured by Archbishop Romero’s call and went to El Salvador in August of 1980 to explore the possibility of working there. This was just two weeks before Carla’s death. After that tragedy, Maura decided to stay and work alongside Ita, quickly becoming immersed in, if not overwhelmed by, the emergency work with victims of the repression:

My fear of death is being challenged constantly as children, lovely young girls, old people are being shot and some cut up with machetes and bodies thrown by the road and people prohibited from burying them.... One cries out, how long? And then too what creeps into my mind is the little fear, or big, that when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful?

It did, and she was. Maura and Ita became a team, their mission work centered in Chalatenango, where some of the worst violence was occurring. Soldiers stationed there were well aware of the work of the parish. They considered the communities it sponsored and the missioners that supported them to be subversives. In fact, Ita’s and Maura’s names had turned up already on a death list.

“I truly believe that I should be here, and I can’t even tell you why.… All I can share with you is that God’s palpable presence has never been more real.” – Ita Ford, M.M.

On Dec. 2, 1980, Maura and Ita were returning from a Maryknoll gathering in Nicaragua. They were met at the airport by Dorothy and Jean. Driving back from the airport, their van was commandeered by members of the Salvadoran National Guard, who abducted, raped and murdered all four women.

The Meaning for Us Now

In any historical moment, we are called to enter the reality in which we live and together to read the signs of the times. The violence and injustice experienced by the people of El Salvador was the foundation from which the four U.S. churchwomen discerned what it would mean to accompany the poor and to follow Jesus in their time.

So what of our time? How do we understand this moment in the human journey as we come to the end of this traumatic year? The list of the year’s sufferings is long: the pandemic, the collapsing economy and increase in poverty and hunger, the police killings of Black men and women that sparked angry protests around the nation, the resurgence of white nationalism, the raging wildfires in the West and a record Atlantic hurricane season fueled by our warming planet.

We have seen the collapse of good governance and furious political polarization that threatens our democracy. Fear of change, fear of things getting out of control, extreme individualism—these are all signs of a society in crisis, fragmenting as our problems appear increasingly insurmountable.

We must ask ourselves: Where will we take our stand in the midst of such uncertainty?

We must ask ourselves: Where will we take our stand in the midst of such uncertainty?

The answer requires a process of discernment done not in isolation but in community. Discernment sometimes feels to me like a lost skill in a culture where we never seem able to take the time to just stop and think about what we are doing and why. But it requires some radical shifts in our vantage points, not least of which is stepping into the reality of the suffering ones of our world and seeing the world through their eyes. For the privileged, it is quite likely that the view will make them exceedingly uncomfortable.

I learned from these women about the courage of stepping into reality and allowing it to touch you, to change you or, as Maura put it, to “strip you and show you God.” I told their stories over and over again for 23 years as coordinator and director of the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico in Washington, D.C. Over those years, I came to know many of their friends and family members. The four women became so much a part of my life that to this day I cannot believe I never met them in person.

[Related: Forty years after killings, Salvadoran city claims Maryknoll Sisters as its own]

I fervently wish that a younger generation will come to know their story because it expresses a historical thread that runs through our history to this day. It runs to our southern border where hundreds of Central Americans are languishing in misery because we refuse to open our border to them and in the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years.

As justice becomes more elusive, as our democracy remains fragile and endangered, as the damage we have done to the living communities of this planet become increasingly irreversible, threatening our human future, it seems we all have a lot to discern, especially about where we will place ourselves as conditions deteriorate. The point is not to flee the danger but to find our place where we can be of service and to choose to stay.

Which brings us back to the question Maura asked: When the time comes, will I be faithful?

Well, here is our time. Will we?

More from America:
– This is the homily Óscar Romero was delivering when he was killed.
– How a murdered Maryknoll sister became the subject of a new spiritual and political thriller

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