A group of pilgrims gathers near the tomb of Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke Dec. 1, the eve of the 40th anniversary of their assassination in El Salvador. Along with Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and laywoman Jean Donovan, the Maryknoll sisters helped children and civilians find refuge, but were subsequently raped and assassinated by military. CNS photo/Rhina Guidos

Nuns gave lives in testimony to Gospel

  • December 11, 2020

A Canadian missionary who, just an hour before the soldiers committed their crime, came face-to-face with men who raped and murdered four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980, is urging Canadians to remember the martyrdom of both the American missionaries and the Salvadoran people.

“The importance of remembering these men and women, and many of them were children by the way, who gave their lives as living testimony to the Gospel — it’s really important now,” Fr. Greg Chisholm told The Catholic Register. “In 2020, especially with the pandemic, remember many of those people who in difficult times were willing to creatively respond and go against the grain, if you would, putting their lives on the line.”

On the 40th anniversary of the killing of Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Marua Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan, Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny relied on Chisholm’s testimony about events of Dec. 2, 1980 in his homily for a Mass in Rome in memory of the American martyrs.

“They witnessed to a loving God whose preferential love is for the poor and marginalized,” Czerny said after reading Chisholm’s account of events that led to the discovery of the women’s beaten and desecrated bodies in a shallow grave near El Salvador’s main airport. “They did so, not so much with words as by re-enacting and indeed re-incarnating what today’s Gospel recounts: ‘The lame, the crippled, the blind, the dumb and many others’ were ‘put down at His feet and Jesus cured them.’ ”

Czerny himself lived and worked in El Salvador 30 years ago, taking the place of one of six Jesuits murdered at the University of Central America in 1989 along with their housekeeper and her daughter.

In December of 1980, Chisholm had arrived in San Salvador just an hour before the four U.S. churchwomen were to arrive from Managua, Nicaragua. He was there representing Canada’s Interchurch Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, to attend the funeral of five murdered opposition politicians. In an atmosphere of fear and tension, Chisholm and the other Canadians took a van from the airport into the city. They were stopped at a dark, secluded bend in the road and interrogated by men in uniform. After a tense confrontation, their Canadian passports got them through the roadblock.

After the funeral the next day, the American women were discovered in a shallow grave very close to the place where Chisholm and his group had been stopped.

In 1984 four members of El Salvador’s National Guard were convicted of the murders.

“These four women were quite unusually happy women,” said Chisholm. “They were very alive and creative women with the poor.”

The Cold War politics of the time overlaid events. When news of the murders reached the U.S., Chisholm recalled that President-elect Ronald Regan’s nominee for Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, dismissed the killings as likely the result of the sisters running a roadblock and then being killed in an exchange of fire. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, called the martyred women “more political activists than religious sisters.”

“In the name of anti-communism we killed a lot of innocent people,” Chisholm recalled.

In his 42 years as a priest in Peru, first as a member of the Scarboro Foreign Missions then later as a parish priest, Chisholm has always found the accusations of communism levelled at the Church bizarre.

“My experience of living with people on the ground has absolutely nothing to do with communism,” he said. “I’ve been in the refugee camps. You meet people who are common people, who are farmers and who have never been involved in any type of political activities. They find themselves basically under fire, crossing the rivers and the frontiers to escape from probable death. We’re talking about a Church that should be accompanying people who are in trouble, who are under fire.”

In his own visits to refugee camps in Central America, Chisholm saw the same people Ford, Clarke, Kazel and Donovan came to serve in the Diocese of Chalatenango. The diocese saw more than 50 mass killings in the early 1980s. More than 70,000 Salvadorans died during their nation’s long civil war and hundreds of thousands were either internally displaced or became refugees in neighbouring countries.

“To see the people in the refugee camps, saying Mass and praying the rosary in the traditional, strong Catholic practice of the faith — it was an inspiring thing,” Chisholm said.

As Chisholm read Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, he was reminded of the martyrdom he has seen in Latin America. “The Church of martyrdom continues to be Christ’s Church,” he said. 

Forty years on, the Canadian Church should not turn its back on its history of ecumenical engagement with Latin America, said Chisholm.

“I don’t know if it has ever been repeated since then. It was a kind of watershed of ecumenical activity in theology, on the struggle for truth and solidarity,” he said.

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