Murdered churchwomen remembered with their own words

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People hold pictures of four American churchwomen during a 2 December memorial service to commemorate the 35th anniversary of their murder in the town of Santiago Nonualco, El Salvador. Members of Catholic and human rights organisations participated in a memorial at the place where four U.S. churchwomen were killed by members of the Salvadoran National Guard during the civil war. Photo: CNS/Jose Cabezas, Reuters
People hold pictures of four American churchwomen during a 2 December memorial service to commemorate the 35th anniversary of their murder in the town of Santiago Nonualco, El Salvador. Members of Catholic and human rights organisations participated in a memorial at the place where four U.S. churchwomen were killed by members of the Salvadoran National Guard during the civil war. Photo: CNS/Jose Cabezas, Reuters

Thirty-five years after they were murdered in El Salvador, four American churchwomen were remembered in their own eerily prescient and profoundly moving words.

Colleagues and successors of the women gathered on 2 December for a vespers service at the headquarters of the Maryknoll Sisters.

On 2 December, 1980, Salvadoran National Guardsman abducted, raped and murdered Maryknoll Srs Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr Dorothy Kazel and Cleveland lay missionary Jean Donovan. They were among 75,000 people who died in El Salvador during a decade of violent conflict.

In a letter read at the service, Sr Maura Clarke wrote, “The way innocent people, families, children are cut up with machetes and blessed temples of the Lord thrown and left for the buzzards to feed on them seems unbelievable, but it happens every day. … Being here with Ita and working for the refugees has its sweetness, consolation, special grace and is certainly a gift. The courage and suffering of these people never ceases to amaze me.”

Sr Kazel was remembered for writing, “This little country of El Salvador is writhing in pain, but we continue to preach the word of God, even though it may mean ‘laying down your life’ in the real sense and it is my most vivid realisation that Jesus is here with me.”

Sr Antoinette Gutzler, president of the Maryknoll Sisters, said the women’s faith was a gift that permeated their personalities, their relationships and their missions.

She used the words of her predecessor, Sr Melinda Roper, who led the congregation at the time of the murders: “The inescapable challenge of their lives and deaths is their compassion for and solidarity with the poor. They were not blind to the evil and sin in our world, nor were they naive about its causes. The wisdom of their faith was that their lives were not focused against the evil and sin but upon the holiness of human life.”

A memorial service was held where four American churchwomen were murdered in the town of Santiago Nonualco, El Salvador. Photo: CNS/Jose Cabezas, Reuters
A memorial service was held where four American churchwomen were murdered in the town of Santiago Nonualco, El Salvador. Photo: CNS/Jose Cabezas, Reuters

Participants at the service reflected on words written by Sr Ita Ford, “I don’t know if it is in spite of, or because of the horror, terror, evil, confusion, lawlessness, but I do know that it is right to be here. To activate our gifts, to use them in this situation, to believe that we are gifted in and for Salvador now. … It’s a privilege to come to a church of martyrs and people with a strong committed faith.”

Sr Peg Donovan, director of the Maryknoll Mission Institute, said the women lived the call to be in solidarity with the poor and were killed for their Gospel stance. She quoted Blessed Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was shot dead while celebrating Mass: “The one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor. We know what that ‘fate of the poor’ signifies: to disappear, to be tortured, to be held captive, to be found dead.”

The vespers service in the main chapel of the Maryknoll Sisters Centre was part of an international five-week celebration of the lives of the four churchwomen.

In her reflection at a 29 November Mass, Sr Gutzler said the martyred churchwomen were icons of the love and courage central to the Christian story and witnesses to the challenge and consequences of the Gospel call to risk one’s life as Jesus did for the poor.

“This yearly remembrance of our four holy women and the love and courage that marked their lives emboldens us to continue to ask: why the poor, why oppression, why violence, why the deaths of so many innocents?” Sr Gutzler said.

“In our struggle for answers, our martyrs help us by continuing to call us to conversion as a nation, conversion as a church and conversion as a community – a community of believers and the community of Maryknoll Sisters.”

Maryknoll Sisters is the first U.S.-based congregation of women religious dedicated to foreign mission. Founded in 1912, its 430 members work primarily among the poor and marginalised in 224 countries.