The 30th Anniversary of the Deaths of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador

By Kevin Kelly, Catholic Key Associate Editor

Their numbers swelled by members of five orders of women religious, nearly 200 people came to honor four women missionaries who paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives 30 years ago for refusing not to serve the poor and marginalized.

It is what the followers of Christ do when they choose to imitate Christ, said Sister of St. Joseph, Mary McGlone in her reflection on the lives of Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan.

On December 2, 1980, Sister Dorothy and Donovan left in a white van to pick up Sister Maura and Sister Ita at the airport in San Salvador, El Salvador.  Two days later, the tortured bodies of all four women were recovered from shallow graves in a cow pasture. All four were shot in the head at close range, execution style. Two of them were raped.

“These women remind us of what we want our church to be and to do,” said Sister Mary, who herself has logged years of service to the poor in Central and South America. She now serves as executive director of a Wisconsin-based foundation that provides services to the disabled in Ecuador, and is named after its Spanish acronym, FUVIRESE, the Foundation of Life, Reality and Service.

Sister Mary could have been accused of preaching to the choir. Among the audience who came to pray, to hear Scripture, and to listen to the words of the murdered women themselves were dozens of women religious — Ursuline of Paola, Mercy of Omaha, Charity of Leavenworth, Benedictine of Atchison, and St. Joseph of Carondelet of St. Louis, all of whom for generations have given their lives to the church and its poor in the Midwest.

Sister Dorothy was the veteran of the four. She had been in El Salvador for six years, and her religious order, the Ursulines of Cleveland, were calling her home the following spring.

Sister Mary was preparing for missionary work at the Mexican Cultural Center in San Antonio with Sister Maria Berlec the woman the Ursulines were sending to El Salvador to replace Sister Dorothy.  Also preparing for work in El Salvador with them was Father Doug Kazel, no relation to Sister Dorothy, also from Cleveland.

As if it were yesterday, Sister Mary recalled December 2-3, 1980 as their Diocese of Cleveland stayed in constant touch with Sister Maria and Father Doug.  “First we got the news that the sisters did not arrive home at the expected time, then that they were missing, then that their car had been found, and finally that the bodies had been discovered, that they were identified, and that their torture had been verified,” Sister Mary said.  “That slammed us into an awareness of the very real implications of what our service might mean in countries wracked by violence and a war of the rich against the poor,” she said.

Cleveland called all its missioners home from El Salvador to discern. Despite the dangers that became reality with the brutal murder of one of their own, the diocese decided to keep its presence there, Sister Mary’s two new friends among them.

The four murdered women, the two friends of Sister Mary, are “representatives of so many more” — Catholic Workers whose founder, Dorothy Day, died just three days before the murders in El Salvador, inner-city teachers, all who sacrifice to serve the poor.

These were people who, like Christ himself in the parable of the Gospel reading at the prayer service, became “the grain of wheat dying day by date constantly being a servant/slave of beloved humankind.”

Sister Mary read from the letter that Sister Ita wrote to her niece on her 16th birthday, recalling the body of a murdered 16-year-old El Salvador youth.  “Many people have found a meaning to live, to sacrifice, struggle and even die,” Sister Ita wrote. “And whether their life spans 16 years, 60 or 90, for them their life has had a purpose. . . I hope you can come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you, something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead.”

And that is the ultimate truth that compelled the four women to move ahead. They could not do otherwise, Sister Mary said.  “These women, and so many others like them, were not theologians or politicians. They were not standing up for an ideology, but for their suffering brothers and sisters,” she said.  “They were believers,” Sister Mary said.

“They believed that the Reign of God is possible and that God is building it through the work of faithful people, people who hear the cries of others,” she said.  “They could believe in God’s Reign because they believed Jesus’ words about the grain of wheat,” Sister Mary said.

“As they took up their daily cross, as they carried the cross of their neighbors, they gave witness to the power of love and the ultimate impotence of violence,” she said.

“They believed that the Reign of God has begun and that the victory is already won, therefore, no threat could stop them, no fear could trump their faith,” Sister Mary said. “They did what they did because, as Jesus said, it was an expression of the truth.”

And in doing so, the witness of their lives became a challenge to all who believe, she said.  “Not all of us are called to direct service of the poor,” Sister Mary said.

“Very few of us are called to leave our homeland to serve neighbors far beyond our borders,” she said.  “But all of us are called to cultivate and incarnate our Catholic identity, and by that, I mean to be and ever become the church men and church women that the world needs now,” Sister Mary said.

“Catholic identity keeps us aware that no matter what our nationality or language, we are part of one family, a world-wide family in which everyone of us is called to defend the welfare of the most vulnerable,” she said.  “Ita, Jean, Maura and Dorothy remind us that to follow Christ is to plant the grain of wheat of our lives where it can nourish those who most need us,” Sister Mary said.  “They show us that to follow Christ is to take up the cross of our needy neighbor daily” and “remind us that the gifts we have are given for the service of others,” she said.  “Their memory calls us to incarnate the Reign of God here and now so that the world may begin to believe that no matter what the appearance, no matter what the powers of the world try to prove, love trumps fear,” Sister Mary said.

“The grain of wheat that is planted in the good ground of the Reign of God bears fruit that will last,” she said. “Let us remember them and go do likewise.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:  To read Sister Mary McGlone’s full reflection, visit here.

Reprinted with permission of author.

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