Martyrs of El Salvador

Clockwise from upper left corner: Jean Donovan, Sr. Ita Ford, Sr. Dorothy Kazel, Sr. Maura Clarke.

Today, December 2, 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the martyrdom of three women religious and one lay woman in El Salvador. Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan were murdered by National Guardsman of the Salvadoran government on orders from the commander.

The four women were all involved in Catholic missionary work, working on behalf of educating the poor in El Salvador. They were caught in the middle of a civil war that had broken out the year before when a coup initiated by a military-led, right-wing junta overthrew the government of President Carlos Humberto Romero and established the Revolutionary Government Junta of El Salvador (JRG). The JRG was opposed by the Farabunda Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of left-wing parties. The civil war that ensued lasted until 1992. Estimates are that 70,000-80,000 were killed and over one million were displaced internally or forced to take refuge in other countries.

In March of 1980, Archbishop St. Oscar Romero had been murdered by right-wing soldiers while celebrating Mass. His assassination was in response to his outspoken criticism of the violence carried out by government forces. According to the remembrances of Sr. Christine Rody, a Sister of Charity from Cincinnati who was part of the team that included the four murdered missionaries, “Sister Ita had taken on an activist role in speaking out against the country’s violence through direct confrontation with the commandante himself. Every time he initiated a raid on a village, she would rebuke him for murdering his own countrymen.”

Sister Christine believes that the commandante tired of Sister Ita’s rebukes and was suspicious of the work the women were doing for the sake of the poor. He had them surveilled and, on the night of December 2, when Sister Dorothy and Jean Donovan went to the airport to pick up Sisters Maura and Ita, they were followed. Their van was stopped. The four women were beaten, raped and murdered. Witnesses saw the van the women had driven peel off rapidly with the radio blaring. The next day, the bodies of the women were found by locals, who buried them in a shallow grave on orders from authorities. The locals informed the parish priest, and the news eventually reached Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, Romero’s successor and Robert White, the U. S. Ambassador to El Salvador.

Outrage at the murders forced an investigation and a temporary halt in U. S. aid to El Salvador by Jimmy Carter, the U. S. President at the time. Aid was soon started again under Carter, however, and the reputations of the women were smeared as naive, leftists political activists by members of the Reagan administration, in particular Jean Kirkpatrick, the U. S. Secretary of State.

Years would follow, but in 1984 four Guardsmen and their commander were convicted of the murders and were sentenced to 30 years in prison. In 1998, the four Guardsmen confessed to the crime. The Maryknoll Sisters issued the following statement:

“The [1993] U.N.-sponsored¬†Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded that the abductions were planned in advance and the men responsible had carried out the murders on orders from above. It further stated that the head of the National Guard and two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed the facts to harm the judicial process. The murder of the women, along with attempts by the Salvadoran military and some American officials to cover it up, generated a grass-roots opposition in the U.S., as well as ignited intense debate over the Administration’s policy in El Salvador. In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in Salvadoran history that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behavior. Two of the men remain in prison and have petitioned the Salvadoran government for pardons.”

Today is a day to remember the heroic sacrifices made by Catholic missionaries across the world. Martyrs are not only those who are killed in hatred of the teaching of the faith, but also those who are killed for acting on and living the principles of the faith. Sr. Ita Ford, Sr. Maura Clarke, Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan were such women. They deserve to be remembered.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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