El Salvador martyrs' struggle lives on

  • November 6, 2009
{mosimage}A generation ago the martyrs of El Salvador galvanized Catholics and today Canadian Catholics claim those martyrs as part of their spiritual heritage.

On Nov. 16 the church marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of six Jesuits who lived and taught at the University of Central America in San Salvador. They were killed along with their housekeeper and her daughter because they argued that the vast gulf between rich and poor in El Salvador, a country just slightly larger than the Greater Toronto Area, was feeding the civil war that had by then killed more than 70,000.

Next year will be the 30th anniversary for martyrs who first brought world attention on El Salvador’s ugly war. March 24 is the anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s 1980 assassination. Romero was killed by an army death squad a day after he broadcast a sermon calling on police and soldiers not to carry out orders that amounted to repression and violations of human rights. Dec. 2 it will be 30 years since four American church women — three Catholic nuns and a laywoman who worked in poor villages in the Salvadoran countryside — were raped and murdered near the San Salvador airport.

El Salvador’s war officially ended in 1992, and the Cold War logic that justified U.S. military aid propping up a corrupt, anticommunist government is fast-fading history. But the memory of those martyrs still matters, said Mary Jo Leddy, one of the founders of Romero House for refugees in Toronto.

“It was like we were witnessing the early Christians, the church of the martyrs,” recalls Leddy. “It summoned everybody to a deeper faith. We were very proud of them.”

Though a generation has grown up since El Salvador’s martyrs died, Romero House still attracts young volunteers who want to be part of a church that chooses to live with and for the poor, said Leddy.

“Most people don’t really listen to sermons or church documents — they don’t read them. They maybe don’t even read the Scriptures. It’s the secular kind of post-modern period that we’re in,” she said. “But I do think what still stands is the text of a person’s life, the witness. Mother Teresa, Romero. If you want to know how a Christian life is lived, that’s the text that has meaning, more than words.”

Jesuit novice Santiago Rodrigues will commemorate the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador with those preparing to take first vows with the Society of Jesus in Montreal. Rodrigues thinks of his vocation in terms of following the martyrs.

“There’s an ideal, following the martyrs,” he said. “A huge ideal, and maybe a little bit of utopia. But at the same time you need to live that out.”

Rodrigues doesn’t believe the war in El Salvador is ancient history or that the struggles of a poor country in Central America are too remote from Canadian reality. He thinks the martyrs were witnesses to a deeper Christian reality.

“We’ve come to a fuller understanding of what it means to have a preferential option for the poor,” said Rodrigues. “It’s very much what the Gospel asks us to do — to lay down everything we have for those who do not have what we do have.”

Fr. Gregorio Chisolm, born in Antigonish, N.S., ordained a Scarboro Missions priest in Toronto and now a priest of the apostolic vicariate of Pucallpa, Peru, remembers meeting the University of Central America martyrs just months before they were killed and being one of the last people to see the four American churchwomen alive at the San Salvador airport.

The church simply can’t be the church without remembering its martyrs, said Chisolm.

“The Salvadoran martyrs are martyrs in the traditional Christian sense. They quietly but explicitly gave their lives and shed their blood for love of their people — and this blood is not in vain,” said Chisolm in an e-mail.

“We must keep this dynamic memory and contemplative reflection going, because God continues to work in history, in concrete events and people.”

That historical memory is part of Rachel Warden’s work day.

“The partnership work and the human rights work in Latin America, it’s where our roots are,” said Warden, the Latin America partnerships program co-ordinator for the Canadian ecumenical social justice group KAIROS.

Though the focus today is more likely to be on the activities of Canadian companies with mines on disputed indigenous lands rather than military governments, there’s a continuum with the religious activism of the 1980s, she said.

“(Salvadoran martyrs) should still matter because the issues that existed then, the reasons that so many of these martyrs died, continue to exist today,” said Warden. “There’s still impunity. There’s still human rights defenders in the church and not in the church who are being killed. There is an increasing number of indigenous environmental activists and land rights defenders who are being killed.”

Frances Arbour, who ran the Inter-Church Committee for Human Rights in Latin America at the time of the martyrs, can’t imagine Canadians would ever forget them.

“Canadians who visited El Salvador in the ’80s and ’90s returned with a new and different sense of the church,” she said. “We have learned the importance of a faithful solidarity with the poor of Latin America and of Canada.”

Rosina Bisci woke up to that new and different sense of the church just as she was graduating from university in 1980. As she was contemplating becoming a teacher, Bisci was confronted with the rape and murder of Jean Donovan, Sr. Maura Clark, Sr. Ita Ford and Sr. Dorothy Kazel.

“In Toronto in 1980 their deaths shocked, angered and compelled us to keep their spirits and their examples alive,” Bisci wrote in an e-mail. “The risks that they were willing to face helped me to make the decisions that I contemplated. I joined the Scarboro Mission Society as a lay associate in 1981 and went to Lima, Peru, where I lived for the next four years.”

As a lay missionary, Bisci saw Donovan as a role model.

“I feel great respect for the sacrifice that she made. I fully understand why she chose to stay in El Salvador despite the personal risk,” said Bisci.

Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc, a former St. Michael’s College professor of theology, said his career was ignited and shaped by the martyrs of El Salvador. He spent rainy afternoons through the 1980s and ’90s protesting outside the U.S. consulate in Toronto. He has visited El Salvador three times, each time stopping at the hospital chapel where Romero was shot, the rose garden Julia Elba Ramos’s husband planted to commemorate his wife, his daughter and the six Jesuits and the spot a short drive from the San Salvador airport where soldiers dumped the four churchwomen’s bodies in a shallow grave.

“It’s always a moving, moving experience,” he said.

Catholics who remember those events share something special, Mihevc said.

“I know former church mice who say, ‘Yeah, I started with El Salvador.’ I feel an instant bond of brotherhood or sisterhood with them because I know the religious space from which they came,” said Mihevc.

Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of FCJ Hamilton House for refugees, has had his life as both a Salvadoran and a Canadian shaped by the martyrs. As a young man he met Fr. Rutilio Grande, the Jesuit who helped Romero see the problems of poor Salvadorans and was murdered in 1977. He knew Romero. As a lawyer working with the Jesuit Refugee Service, he lived under the threat of the death squads. At the funeral for the murdered Jesuit professors Martinez knew it was time to leave El Salvador.

Martinez has told the story of the martyrs to Canadians many times.

“When I mention that I met (Romero) it’s unbelievable the reaction,” he said. “There is this beautiful recognition of this tradition of the martyrs of the church — how they struggled not for the freedom but for equality, for humanity, for the love of the church.”

Twenty years into life in Canada, Martinez is convinced El Salvador’s martyrs have something to say to Canadians.

“The Salvadoran reality is not so far from Canada,” he said. “We are part of this continent. There are a lot of people here in Canada who have been saved by Romero.”


Christian civilization vs. culture of oppression

There were at least 75,000 Salvadorans killed in their country’s 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. Many were catechists and church volunteers who were shot because they were carrying a Bible or had been caught teaching people to read.

Beginning with Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, murdered March 12, 1977, certain Salvadoran martyrs came to symbolize a struggle between Christian civilization and a culture of violence and oppression.

In coming months the church will mark anniversaries of three of the most significant Salvadoran martyrs:

  •  Nov. 16 is the 20th anniversary of the slaughter of six Jesuit professors, their housekeeper and her daughter. They were Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, Fr. Ignacio Martin-Baro, Fr. Segundo Montes, Fr. Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Fr. Amando Lopez, Fr. Ramon Moreno, Julia Elba Ramos and her 15-year-old daughter Cecilia Ramos.

  •  March 24, 2010 will be the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, the fourth archbishop of San Salvador. Romero was shot as he elevated the Eucharist while saying Mass in a hospital chapel in San Salvador.

  •  Dec. 2, 2010 will be the 30th anniversary of the rape and murder of four American churchwomen — lay missionary Jean Donovan, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll missionaries Sr. Maura Clarke and Sr. Ita Ford. Their murders moved U.S. President Jimmy Carter to suspend military aid to El Salvador but it was restored under President Ronald Reagan, and military aid, training and U.S. military advisors working in El Salvador all increased.


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