Remembering the Churchwomen of El Salvador

Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet | Remembering the Church Women of El Salvador

Photo by Alison McKeller, 2007 (Flickr).

December 2nd marked the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, lay missionary Jean Donovan and Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, the four churchwomen of El Salvador who were savagely brutalized and killed for spreading the good news and teaching people to read and pray.

As part of one of many remembrance prayer services held in their honor across the globe, Sister Mary McGlone, CSJ gave the following reflection on December 5 at St. Francis Regis Church in Kansas City.

We are here this afternoon because we admire the four church women whose anniversary we are commemorating.   We began to call them "church women" because three were women religious and the fourth a lay missioner.  Today, perhaps the phrase should convey a different concept and carry a different reminder for us.  In all that is happening in the church today, as we read the signs of the times and weep and sigh or even laugh at the absurdity of some issues, these women remind us of what we want our Church to be and do. 

 For me, the memory of December 2 - 3 remains intense.  In December of 1980, I was finishing a mission preparation course at the Mexican American Culture Center with Doug Kazel (no relation to Dorothy) a young priest from Cleveland and Maria Berlec, the Ursuline sister who was preparing to take the over from Sister Dorothy Kazel who was scheduled to return to Cleveland within a few months. 

 Over a period of almost four months, struggling with Spanish, culture and concerns about what it would be like to enter a new culture, we grew to be close friends. 

You can imagine how it was for us on Dec. 2 and 3.  Cleveland was in constant touch with Doug and Maria.  First we got the news that the sisters did not arrive  home at the expected time, then that they were missing,  then, that their car had been found, and finally, that the bodies had been discovered, that they were identified and that their torture had been verified. That slammed us into an awareness of the very real implications of what our service might mean in countries wracked by violence and a war of the rich against the poor.

 My two friends left the program and returned to a grieving diocese in Cleveland.  Every member of the Cleveland mission team came home and together with their bishop and mission office, they had to discern what their future would be.  Would they stay in El Salvador?  Would the diocese send new people there? How were my young friends going to explain it to their families as they decided to go to El Salvador in spite of it all? 

 As we know, the diocese decided to remain in El Salvador, and my two friends went off to a mission that was more than just rumored to be dangerous. 

That was then, and 30 years later, here we are today - remembering. 

I think it is important that we remember not just these, "our martyrs," but all of those, living and dead, who acted the same way as they did.  I include among them so many Latin American martyrs, Dorothy Day - who died a few days before Ita, Maura, Jean and Dorothy - Catholic Workers, inner-city teachers, and you can fill out the list. 

 I would like to talk a little about who these women were, and then reflect on how they are representatives of so many more and how we might imitate them, if not, God help us, in martyrdom, at least in giving our lives. 

In our Gospel reading we heard Jesus' proclamation that unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains but a single grain.  We usually take that to refer to his death, but I think it also refers to the Incarnation - did not cling to equality with God, but emptied himself and took the form of a slave...  That is the grain of wheat dying  day by day, constantly being a servant/slave of beloved humankind. 

 When her niece turned 16 Ita Ford wrote her saying:

          Yesterday I stood looking down at a 16-yr-old who had been killed a few hours earlier...The reasons why so many people are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands.  One is that many people have found a meaning to live, to sacrifice, struggle and even die.  And whether their life spans 16 years, 60, or 90, for them, their life has had a purpose.  In many ways, they are fortunate people. 

            ...some things hold true wherever one is, and at whatever age.  What I'm saying is that I hope you can come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you, something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead.  

 Such "purpose," the reason to live, was what Ita and her companion martyrs gave their lives for - day in and day out and finally on December 2, 1980.  They had planted the grain of wheat of their lives amidst the poor of El Salvador.  Their dedication to the people gave them a reason to live, to sacrifice, to share the struggle.  They planted the grain of wheat of their lives in the midst of that people and that caused them to live in such a way that they also shared the risk of dying with and for those same people. 

Who were these saints we celebrate today?   I would like to share a verbal snapshot of each of them.

Ita, perhaps the most feisty, is said to have gone to a military officer one day to demand the release of an innocent man- when the officer did not seem to be paying enough attention, the diminutive Ita stood on his shoes and repeated her demand while pointing her finger in his face. - The campesino did get released, but this did not ingratiate her to the petty bosses of the country who could not tolerate an insult to their arrogant authority.  Ita's name was put on a list.

Jean Donavan, no holy-go-pious wimp, is said to have served up her cereal one morning by dousing it with Scotch - her beverage of choice.  Known for her sense of humor,  she left a business career and fiancé to serve the poor in a far-away land.  Though she thought of returning to the USA, she told a friend that she had not the heart to turn away from the children she served. 

Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun whose community faithfully wore a habit in Cleveland, had been in El Salvador for 6 years.  (My friend, Ursuline Sister Maria Berlec was preparing to take her place in the spring.)   Dorothy went to El Salvador with the intention of doing "typical" mission work: religious education, visiting homes, preparing people for the sacraments, etc. But, Salvador ceased to be a "typical" place in those days.  Reading the signs of the times, Dorothy was able to adjust and convert her regular ministry to one of using her "status" as a US citizen and Catholic nun to protect the innocent.  She and Jean became a chauffeur  service for people who needed safe transport, taking the wounded to clinics where they might be safe from death squads, moving widows and children to safe havens, carrying Caritas food supplies to people who had fled their homes and fields.  

Maura Clarke, at 49, the oldest of the four had already tempered her commitment to the poor in Nicaragua in the years that the people of that nation suffered and died under the dictatorship of Somoza.   In that nation, she had already seen much of the suffering that was coming to fruition in El Salvador.  Then, the Sandanista Revolution overthrew the dictatorship and began a program of promoting literacy, universal health care and gender equality.   What must it have taken for her to respond to El Salvador's need just when her beloved people of Nicaragua seemed to be coming into their freedom!  She left the Alleluia land for a repeat the experience of the standing by the cross of her suffering neighbors under the pastoral care of Oscar Romero.

What brought this on? What spurred these women - and so many others to do what they did?  Belief in the Reign of God.  These women, and so many others like them, Salvadoran catechists, community organizers and priests, missioners, NGO workers, were not theologians or politicians, they were believers.  They were not standing up for an ideology, but for their suffering sisters and brothers.  They were, first and most of all, believers.

They believed that the Reign of God is possible and that God is building it through the work of faithful people, people who hear the cries of others.  They could believe in God's Reign because they believed Jesus' words about the grain of wheat.   As they took up their daily cross, as they carried the cross of their neighbors, they gave witness to the power of love and the ultimate impotence of violence.   

I am not saying they were not afraid, but they didn't let fear diminish their committed activity.  Fear was less powerful than love and community took the edge off fear.

They were daily busy about building up, daily involved in incarnating  the Reign of God with their neighbors. Therefore, they were a tremendous threat to those who believed in and relied on the power of violence; they were an intolerable countersign to those who believed in the power of repression and in the need to control the poor masses.  Because they gave witness to the power of love over fear they undermined the power base of the oppressors.  That was their unforgivable offense.   They, like those about whom Ita spoke to her niece, were living witnesses to the ultimate, utter impotence of violence.

They believed that the Reign of God has begun and that the victory is already won, therefore, no threat could stop them, no fear could trump their faith.  They did what they did because, as Jesus said, it was an expression of the Truth. 

Some years ago, in a reflection for Pax Christi, Dominican Sister Judith Hibling  called the four women martyrs icons.  What does it mean to say that Dorothy, Maura, Jean and Ita are icons for us?

In the Eastern tradition, Icons are visible signs and sources of grace, images we cherish with our eyes, that we appreciate with our senses so that through them we can touch and be touched by the Divine Incarnate.   These four women present us with icons of the Divine Incarnate in simplicity of service, in unstinting response to the immediate need.  They did not set out for martyrdom, they simply loved their neighbor. 

As we contemplate them as icons, as signs of the Divine Incarnate, we need to remember that the Divine Incarnate is always contemporary.  It is one thing to recall March and December of 1980 or November of 1989.  But if we want to celebrate these martyrs, if we desire that they be grace-filled icons for us, we must do so in a contemporary way - a way that makes their history live. 

Not all of us are called into direct service of the poor.  Very few of us are called to leave our homeland to serve neighbors far beyond our borders.  But all of us are called to cultivate and incarnate our catholic identity.  By that I mean to be and ever become the church women and church men that the world needs now.  

Catholic identity keeps us aware that no matter what our nationality or language, we are part of one family - a world-wide family in which every one of us is called to defend to the welfare of the most vulnerable. 

The Ita, Jean, Maura, Dorothy icons remind us that to follow Christ is to plant the grain of wheat of our lives where it can nourish those who most need us. They show us that to follow Christ is to take up the cross of our needy neighbor daily.  These icons, feisty, funny, mobile and adaptable, remind us that the gifts we have are given us for the service of others. 

Their memory calls us to incarnate the Reign of God here and now, so that the world may begin to believe that no matter what the appearance, no matter what the powers of the world try to prove, love trumps fear.  The grain of wheat that is planted in the good ground of the Reign of God bears fruit that will last.

Let us remember them and go and do likewise.


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