The first time I ventured into the countryside of El Salvador in 1983 was to visit the graves of Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, two of the four American churchwomen beaten, raped, and murdered by members of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military.
Their assassinations forty years ago, commemorated this month in prayer services, webinars, and zoomed gatherings around the world, has come to stand for the thousands who gave themselves for faith in a better future for the poor of Central America during the liberation wars of the last century.
“They are the named of so many nameless ones,” said Maryknoll Sister Margaret Dillon, quoting the words of the Reverend Jon Sobrino, colleague of the six Jesuit priests who were murdered by a U.S.-trained military squad in San Salvador in 1989, along with their housekeeper and her daughter.
Seventy-five thousand persons died in El Salvador during the twelve-year war, most of them at the hands of government soldiers and hit squads according to a United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission report.
The religious order to which Ford and Clarke belonged, Maryknoll, customarily inters the remains of its members where they served. The bodies of the other two women, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, a young lay volunteer from the Cleveland diocese, were returned to their families.
Sister Dillon, who worked with the North American women—all in their forties except for Jean Donovan, who was twenty-seven when she was killed—regards them as models for today. People in the United States “are organizing and giving themselves for something bigger,” she says. “We have Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, and eco-martyrs like Berta Cáceres in Honduras. They are giving their lives in deep satisfaction, joy, and vulnerability.”
“I hope that you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you,” wrote Ford from El Salvador to her teen-age niece in August 1980. “Something worth living for—maybe even worth dying for, something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be—that’s for you to find, to choose, to love.”
Most of El Salvador was miserably poor in the 1970s when peasant associations, labor unions, students, church groups, and others began agitating for peaceful change, stoking the ire of an elite clutch of wealthy families who had long commanded the allegiance of the military.
Soldiers, paramilitaries, and death squads dragged popular leaders from their homes and murdered them. Armed resistance arose. Washington threw diplomatic, economic, and military weight behind the Salvadoran government—the opposition was branded “communist.” In 1980, all out civil war began.
In March of that year, a death squad sharpshooter killed Archbishop Óscar Romero as he said mass, the day after he stood in the pulpit and commanded soldiers to “stop the repression.” In November, military operatives took six opposition leaders away from a press conference at a Jesuit High School, their tortured bodies were found days later.
On December 2, National Guardsmen followed the four churchwomen’s white van from the international airport where Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan had just picked up Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, returning from a Maryknoll meeting in Nicaragua. The soldiers stopped the van, took the women out of the vehicle, beat and abused them, shot each of them point blank.
What was their crime? They delivered food to peasants displaced by the violence, rescued children whose parents were killed and brought them to safety. They spent mornings gathering the bodies of death squad victims left on the streets overnight to give them decent burials—even when they found notes attached to the cadavers warning them off. Sometimes one or another of the women would show up at a garrison to argue for the release of a community member, usually successfully.
My colleague, the Austrian journalist Leo Gabriel, remembers sitting next to Dorothy Kazel that night at the airport, passing the time in conversation as they both waited for friends on the plane from Nicaragua. When he asked her if she wasn’t afraid, he remembers she gave him an “enigmatic” smile and tossed off a very Salvadoran expression of the time, “A quién le toca, le toca,” translated roughly as, “Whosever’s turn it is, it’s his turn.”
In his book Levantamiento de culturas, Gabriel wrote, “The sister’s words in no way expressed resignation, but rather a humble sense of obligation, as if she wanted to say, ‘The Lord has sent me to the poor . . . I can’t abandon them, no more, no less.’ ”
In the United States, anger exploded at news of the murders, raising new questions about America’s intervention in Central America. But Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s recently nominated U.N. Ambassador, dismissed the dead women as “activists.” Recently nominated Secretary of State Alexander Haig effectively blamed them for their own rapes and executions. “[P]erhaps they were trying to roadblock,” he told a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The two Salvadoran generals responsible for giving the assassination orders retired happily to Florida; Reagan awarded one of them, former defense minister General Eugenio Vides Casanova, the illustrious Legion of Merit, given for meritorious service, fidelity, and loyalty.
As a child, Eileen Markey, who now teaches journalism at Lehman College, noticed the impact of the churchwomen’s murders on the way her parents saw foreign policy. “The killings were so shocking,” she said, it made them realize in Central America, “that’s what our country does.”
As an adult, Markey was “so incredibly angry over sex abuse, homophobia, and misogyny” in the church that she went back to the story of the churchwomen that had stayed with her growing up, a kind of pure and true aspect of the church on which “I could use my skills as a reporter,” she says. The product, A Radical Faith, the Assassination of Sister Maura, a vibrant account of Clarke’s life, is one of several books (along with an oratorio by Tony Award-winning Elizabeth Swados) about the women.
“We can draw inspiration from them,” Markey says. “They forsook the comfort of their middle class upbringings because people mattered.”
Óscar Romero was declared a saint by Pope Francis in October 2018 and now, in El Salvador and elsewhere, a movement is afoot to put the four martyred women on the path to canonization. Their religious orders are not part of it, and one Maryknoll sister told me, “Oh, I don’t think that they would want it at all.”
Jean Donovan, an effervescent young woman who left a fine job at a nationwide accounting firm to volunteer in El Salvador and rode a Harley, even made light fun of the idea of herself as a saint, as peace activist John Dear recounts in Jean Donovan and the Call to Discipleship.
At a farewell party, one of her Cleveland friends asked, “What are you going to El Salvador for anyway, Jean? So you can be known as ‘St. Jean the Playful?’” Jean laughed and said it was a “can’t lose” situation: “Either I’ll get three years of great experiences out of it or I will die—and then you’ll have to pray to St. Jean the Playful for the rest of your life!”
“Canonization changes nothing about the person being honored,” notes University of Notre Dame Professor Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. “And it is a convoluted, costly, and tedious process.”
The churchwomen are already widely honored—girls in El Salvador are named after them, there are YouTube videos, documentaries, academic papers about them, study centers and school halls in the United States carry their names.
But Cummings, author of A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American, enthusiastically favors canonization because, she says, the women’s stories are important—“they’re who we need at the moment.” Sainthood would compel continued knowledge of their prophetic work.
“Think about 100 years from now—will there be a parish named after them? Sainthood gets them embedded in the landscape in a permanent way, and what they stood for.”