People hold photos of Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford during a prayer service in 2007 at a shrine at the site where the three missionaries were murdered in San Salvador, El Salvador. Dec. 2 marked the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of the three nuns and lay missionary Jean Donovan, who were kidnapped, raped and killed in El Salvador. (CNS photo/Courtesy of Maryknoll Sister Margaret Dillon)

Colleagues recall four churchwomen slain 30 years ago in El Salvador

By  Laura Dodson, Catholic News Service
  • December 2, 2010

MELBOURNE, Fla. - Dec. 2 marks 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.

“I can’t say this to anybody because they wouldn’t understand,” Kazel wrote to her former missionary partner, Sr. Martha Owen, in October 1980. “I want you to explain why I have to stay.”

El Salvador was experiencing civil unrest, repeated military coups and finally civil war. Amid the death squads and countless disappearances, the four churchwomen attempted to bring life to the communities they served.

“Dorothy had a true and genuine concern for people,” Owen said. “She was always open to both sides of an issue — trying to bring light, not heat, to the issue. The preferential option for the poor was in her heart even before we went. She felt the needs of the poor so deeply within herself that she identified with them. She was willing to sacrifice anything. She offered herself for the violence to stop.”

Owen had shared a one-room hut with Donovan.

“Jean had a call there and tried to follow that,” she said. “She was easy to be around. She was involved with the young people and totally committed to the kids. Jean was everybody’s sister and daughter and maybe God had exactly that in mind.”

Maryknoll Sister Margaret Dillon recalled the decisive moment in the lives of Clarke and Ford.

During a retreat in Nicaragua of U.S. religious at Thanksgiving, Clarke, who had been working in Chile, discerned, “God wants me to be in El Salvador,” and then turned to Ford, who had experienced several months of the unrest there, and said, “We will go back together.”

Fr. Gregory Chisholm, a Canadian missionary serving in Pucallpa, Peru, was a member of a delegation of six who flew into the San Salvador airport that fateful December day and was greeted by Kazel and Donovan, who were awaiting the arrival of Clarke and Ford.

“They were very nervous,” Chisholm said. “They told me to go with the Canadians because the situation was ‘very tense.’ Dorothy said, ‘Pray for us.’ We got into a minibus — the same vehicle in every detail as the sisters’. Out of a ditch came military guys who stopped us and when we said we were there for the bishop, they started cursing us.

“We told them, ‘We’re Canadians!’ and they told us, ‘Get out of here,’ ” the priest recalled. “We learned that 45 minutes later, they stopped and killed the nuns. On our return trip to the airport, we passed by their burnt-out minibus.”

“Sr. Dorothy was my mission partner in 1974,” Owen said. “We went down together to study the language. We were raising the consciousness level of the poor and middle class — bringing them an understanding of their dignity and their rights.

“We taught the people how to say their name in public. They were so frightened they wouldn’t look at you. We made the people catechists — teaching first Communion classes, Liturgy of the Word sessions, they distributed Communion and developed lay leadership.

“Once war broke out, the catechists were seen as an underground guerilla movement,” she added. “There was a disconnect totally between a better economic situation and being committed to the poor. Faith does have consequences in the real world.”

The sisters helped the poor to find food and build shelter. They also taught the farmers about runoff and implemented health care programs. The people distributed food, which became a form of leadership development that gave a sense of dignity and self-worth.

The slain women are remembered every year in the little towns where they served and at the chapel built at the site where their bodies were found.

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