Four Churchwomen Killed in El Salvador 40 Years Ago Remembered for Their Gospel Witness

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The Maryknoll Sisters, based in Ossining, marked the 40th anniversary of the martyrdom of the four churchwomen slain in El Salvador by members of the National Guard during the Central American nation’s civil war. More than 70,000 people died in the war. 

The four churchwomen were remembered and honored during a 90-minute public webinar Dec. 2, the date of their deaths. The event featured reflections on martyrdom, prayers, moments of silence and testimonies from the women’s relatives. There were also reflections from representatives of institutions in the United States and Central America, such as schools, whose work expressly carries on the legacy of the churchwomen. 

Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, along with Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donovan, were killed on a roadside and buried in a shallow grave, on Dec. 2, 1980. (Sister Maura was born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, and Sister Ita was born in Brooklyn. Sister Dorothy and Ms. Donovan were on mission for the Diocese of Cleveland). 

The webinar was titled “Called by the Energy of the Four Churchwomen: We too respond.” It was streamed live with prerecorded portions. 

“Maura loved nature,” said Deirdre Keogh, niece of Sister Maura. “She would find time to go out, to walk by the ocean, to go out into a field, to look at the sky, to observe nature. I think for her nature was a way of thinking about God’s beauty and recognizing that that beauty was always there—even during troubled times.”

Ms. Keogh also noted that her aunt was prayerful and always sought to serve where there was great need, at home or abroad. “This is really what Maura was about,” she said. “She listened to people; she cared about them.”

Ruth Ford, niece of Sister Ita, said, “The word that comes to mind the most when I think about this 40th commemorative of the lives of Ita, Maura, Dorothy and Jean is the word resilience. And I think that their legacy, their example of serving as witness to the poor, to the marginalized, to the disenfranchised, that witness is something that we still experience today and still drives all of us in our own lives.” 

Sister Sheilamarie Tobbe, O.S.U., visited her friend  and fellow Ursuline Sister Dorothy and Ms. Donovan in El Salvador in 1979. “Jean and Dorothy were strong women of the Gospel, Beatitude women. They went to El Salvador, a country named after the Savior of the world, (to teach) the Good News to the poor,” Sister Sheilamarie said. “They trained catechists, assisted in the formation of basic Christian communities, and oversaw the distribution of Caritas food supplies. And they fell in love with the beauty and warmth of the Salvadoran people.”

Sister Melinda Roper, M.M., has been at the Maryknoll mission in Panama since 1985. She was president of the Maryknoll Sisters when the four churchwomen were killed, serving in that capacity for six years ending in 1984. After the killings, Sister Melinda, with the help of others, was called to be the voice of justice and truth, “the voice of these martyrs,” said the webinar host, Peggy Healy, vice president of Covenant House.

Jean, Dorothy, Maura and Ita are sacraments leading us to welcome the challenges and multiple problems to be solved now for the common good,” Sister Melinda said in a videotaped message from Panama. “There are many ways to understand the life and death of Jesus, Maura, Ita, Dorothy, Jean and of countless others who have suffered and died for the common good and for the well-being of others.”

Reflections were also offered by Eileen Markey, author of a biographical book called “A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura.” Others who spoke about the churchwomen included Sister Antoinette Gutzler, M.M., president of the Maryknoll Sisters; Sister Norma Pocasangre, M.M., a Salvadoran-born Maryknoll nun who serves in China; and Melissa Altman, a Maryknoll lay missioner in El Salvador.

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