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About the Martyrs
Dorothy Kazel was born on June 30,1939, and joined the Ursuline Sisters, a teaching order in Cleveland, in 1960. Before entering religious life, she was engaged to be married. Feeling called to the life of a religious, she postponed her marriage in order to test her calling. She remained with the Ursulines until her death.
Dorothy taught for seven years in Cleveland and later became involved in ecumenical and interracial community programs in the city. At a 1968 community retreat, another sister remembers Dorothy saying that she wanted to be remembered as "an alleluia from head to foot."
In 1974 Dorothy joined the diocese of Cleveland's mission team in El Salvador. The team consisted of nine members working in three parishes. Their main tasks involved visiting the homes of parishioners and preparing people for the sacraments.
Her brother James said of Dorothy's decision, "She wanted to work with the people who didn't have the advantages of the people in the United States. She wanted to spread the Gospel to people who needed help."
But by the late 1970's, the increased repression and political violence was changing the character of the team's work. Explained Maryknoll priest Stephen T. DeMott, "Dorothy spent more and more time transporting homeless people, especially women and children, to the refugee centers. She wrote home about the corpses that daily were being found along the roadsides and described the mutilations as 'sick, demonic.'"
Sr. Sheila Marie Tobbe, OSU, a friend and visitor to El Salvador, said of the work of Dorothy and her companion Jean Donovan, "They went to El Salvador, a country named after the Savior of the World, to preach the good news to the poor. They trained catechists, assisted in the formation of Basic Christian Communities, carried out sacramental preparation programs, and oversaw the distribution of Catholic Relief aid and Caritas food supplies." They were also "engaged in working with refugees: securing food and medical supplies, finding shelters for them, taking the sick and wounded to medical clinics. They were unable to take the wounded to government-sponsored hospitals for fear that these innocent victims would be killed right there in the hospital...In the process of these duties, they fell in love with the beauty and warmth of the Salvadoran people" (reflection, December 14,1980).
This cruel reality deeply affected Dorothy's understanding and experience of her own faith as she shared the suffering of the people and accompanied them in their grief and in their hope. In a November 1980 letter, she wrote of El Salvador that it is a country "writhing in pain - a country that daily faces the loss of so many of its people - and yet a country that is waiting, hoping, yearning for peace. The steadfast faith and courage our leaders have to continue preaching the Word of the Lord even though it may mean 'laying down your life' in the very REAL sense is always a point of admiration and a vivid realization that JESUS is HERE with us. Yes, we have a sense of waiting, hoping, and yearning for a complete realization of the Kingdom, and yet we know it will come because we can celebrate Him here right now."
While the danger of the repression was closing in on the mission team, Dorothy and the others wrestled with what they should do. On October 3, she wrote to a friend, "We talked quite a bit today about what happens IF something begins. Most of us feel we would want to stay here...We wouldn't want to just run out on the people...I thought I should say this to you because I don't want to say it to anyone else - because I don't think they would understand. Anyway, my beloved friend, just know how I feel and 'treasure it in your heart.' If a day comes when others will have to understand, please explain it for me."
That same month, Dorothy wrote a letter to Sr. Theresa Kane, a member of the leadership team for the Sisters of Mercy. She was responding to an article she had read about a talk given by Theresa to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. She wrote: "I was especially impressed with what you had to say about the 'middle class nature of US nuns' work' - and how important it is to serve the poor and oppressed. I believe that wholeheartedly - that's why I'm here in El Salvador. I should be coming back to the states next year - it will be then that I face a greater challenge...Within this past year I had been fortunate to meet women theologians...They, along with the little I've actually read about you, do give me the hope that the reign of God is making headway - and for this I am grateful. Do continue to be Spirit-filled and challenging. Please keep the people of El Salvador before the Lord as we are literally living in a time of persecution and in need of his strength."
Dorothy never made it back to the US. On the evening of December 2,1980, she and Jean Donovan got into their van and drove to the airport outside San Salvador to pick up the Maryknoll Sisters returning from their regional assembly in Managua.
Jean Donovan, the youngest of the four church women killed on December 2,1980, was born on April 10,1953. She was the younger of two children and raised in an upper-middle class family in Westport, Connecticut. Her father, Raymond, was an executive engineer, and later chief of design, at the nearby Sikorsky Aircraft Division of the United Technologies, a large defense contractor for the US and manufacturer of helicopters used in the Vietnam War.
Jean was very close to her brother Michael and was deeply affected when he was struck with Hodgkins disease, from which he made a complete recovery. The experience of the disease and his courageous battle to conquer it left a strong impression on Jean and, as she said later, gave her a deeper sense of the preciousness of life.
Jean received a masters degree in business administration from Case Western Reserve University, then took a job as management consultant for an accounting firm in Cleveland. She was on her way to a successful business career.
Not the shy or withdrawn type, Jean was described by friends as outgoing, a "driver,", a "joker," who often did outrageous things to get attention. Her mother, Patricia, described her as "a gutsy, loving, caring person." She loved riding her motorcycle and was once known for pouring scotch, her drink of choice, over her cereal in the morning. Her spirit and generosity drew loyal friends who later were left to grapple with the choices Jean made.
But Jean was not content and began a search for some deeper meaning in life. While volunteering in the Cleveland Diocese Youth Ministry with the poor, she heard about the diocesan mission project in El Salvador. It was what she was looking for.
Jean attributed her decision to "a gut feeling," and said "I want to get closer to Him, and that's the only way I think I can."
The director of the mission program, Maryknoll Sister Mary Anne O'Donnell, described Jean as intelligent, loving and apostolic and believed that, despite (or because of?) her fun-loving, hard-living ways, she had the signs of being a good missioner.
Jean had also been much affected by time she had spent in Ireland as an exchange student, where a priest who befriended her, Fr. Michael Crowley, a former missionary in Peru, introduced her to a different world, a world of the poor and a life of faith committed to a more radical following of the example of Jesus of Nazareth. Jean was haunted by what she experienced there, and this brought her to question the values of her own life.
After her training, including a stint at Maryknoll, Jean arrived in El Salvador in July 1979, a time when the repression was intensifying and the church had become a major target. She became Caritas coordinator for the diocesan mission program. In addition to keeping the books, she worked in La Libertad with Dorothy Kazel, distributing food for the poor and the refugees and carrying out family education programs. Her mother Patricia said of her work, "Jean took her commitment to the campesinos very seriously. She was strongly motivated by St. Francis of Assisi and by Archbishop Oscar Romero. She translated God's teachings into clothing for the poor, feeding the hungry, and caring for the wounded refugees - mainly children - who had lost what little they had..."
As for the people of La Libertad, they loved Jean Donovan and dubbed her, "St. Jean the Playful."
Jean was very devoted to Msgr. Romero, often coming to the cathedral on Sundays to hear his homilies which at that time were the only source of news and truth left in El Salvador. After his assassination, Jean and Dorothy were among those who took turns keeping vigil at his coffin. And they were present in the cathedral when the overflow crowd in the plaza attending his funeral on March 30,1980, was attacked by security forces, resulting in a panicked stampede. The massacre left 44 dead and hundreds of wounded. As Jean sat crowded among the desperate people who fled into the cathedral for safety, she fully believed that she might die that day.
The repression touched her in other very personal ways. Friends were killed by death squads. She witnessed one such killing.
In the fall of 1980 Jean took a break from this tense reality to attend the wedding of a friend in Ireland. There she was reunited for a time with her fiance, Dr. Douglas Cable. Many of her friends tried to persuade her to leave El Salvador, but she comforted them with the quip, "They don't kill blond-haired, blue-eyed North Americans."
In fact, she and Dorothy often used their very visible presence to accompany people in danger, or to get supplies into areas not accessible to others. They became a well-known sight, driving along the country-side in their mission van.
As the violence engulfed the country, Jean felt the personal challenge of trying to cope, to understand what was happening. It tested her faith. "I think that the hardship one endures maybe is God's way of taking you out into the desert and to prepare you to meet and love him more fully."
And while she had been a loyal patriotic Republican, she also saw the direct connection between the violence in El Salvador and the policies of the US. Ronald Reagan won the presidential election in November 1980 promising a strong stand against "Communism." The Salvadoran government got the message.
Wrote Patricia, "Things grew progressively worse in El Salvador after the United States election...The military believed they were given a blank check - no restrictions. In light of what happened, who's to say they weren't? Jean had told us that she feared there would be a bloodbath in El Salvador."
Two weeks before she was murdered, with the bloodbath already begun, she wrote to a friend in Connecticut: "Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness. Not mine, dear friend, not mine."
For the family of Jean Donovan, her death was an indescribable blow. When she had first told them she was going to El Salvador, they had to pull out a map to find out where it was. Now they had lost their only daughter in this tiny country that had become a major focus of US foreign policy.
But Jean's death was not the only blow; following her death they had to deal with what for them became the betrayal by the very government they thought embodied values of justice and political good. As they approached the State Department for information, they were treated coolly, then with hostility. Eventually they were told to stop bothering State Department officials. In April 1981, at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all but one Republican Senator left the room when Michael appeared to testify.
The final insult came when the Donovans received a bill from the State Department for $3,500 for the return of Jean's body to the US.
The scandal of the way the US government treated this case, including Reagan administration officials accusing the women of "running a roadblock," of engaging in "an exchange of fire," of being "not just nuns...but political activists," enraged the Donovans and other families of the women.
As levels of US military aid escalated, Jean's mother wrote, "Jean deserves, at the very least, that her native land not reward her killers."
The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become Minister of Defense under the "democratic" government of José Napoleon Duarte (1984-89).
Jean's time in El Salvador led her to those fundamental challenges of the meaning of life, of faith, in a world torn by injustice and violence against the poorest, the most vulnerable. It was a personal challenge.
"I'm 26 years old. I should be married. I shouldn't be running around doing all of these things. But then I think, I've got so many things I want to do. It's hard when I see my friends getting married and having babies, that's something I've thought about...am I ever going to have kids? Sometimes I wonder if I'm denying that to myself. I really don't want to, but that's maybe what I'm doing. And then I sit there and talk to God and say, why are you doing this to me? Why can't I just be your little suburban housewife? He hasn't answered yet."
Ita Ford was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 23,1940. After college at Marymount, she joined the Maryknoll Sisters in 1961. Health problems forced her to leave after three years. This was a difficult personal trial for Ita as she saw her plans for her life derailed.
However, after seven years working as an editor for a publishing company, she reapplied in 1971 and was accepted. In 1973 she was assigned to Chile, arriving there only a few months before the September 11,1973, US-backed military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.
The following years were bitter ones for Chile. Thousands of people, suspected government opponents, were rounded up and killed or disappeared. Thousands more endured torture and imprisonment. Ita lived in a poor shantytown of Santiago with Sr. Carla Piette. There the sisters ministered to the needs of the people during the time of repression, fear, and increased misery for the poor.
Her years in Chile had a profound impact on Ita. In 1977, coping with feelings of inadequacy in the face of the harsh reality, she wrote, "Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent? Can I say to my neighbors - I have no solutions to this situation; I don't know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you. Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness as I learn it from the poor ones?"
But even in the midst of this anguished searching, Ita was known for her lively and generous spirit. Maryknoll friends said of her, "Ita's buoyant personality, her wit, her sense of humor and fun were striking contrast to the suffering and pain she experienced throughout her life. Her twinkling eyes and elfin grin would surface irrepressibly even in the midst of poverty and sorrow."
In 1980 Ita and Carla responded to a call for help from El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero. While they were en route to their new mission, they learned of Romero's assassination, March 24,1980. They entered into the martyred church of El Salvador.
In June of that year, the two sisters began working with the Emergency Refugee Committee in Chalatenango. In this work Ita saw first-hand the Salvadoran reality, working with the homeless, the persecuted, the victims of savage repression and counterinsurgency war, the violence of a military dictatorship determined to wipe out any trace of opposition with incredible ruthlessness.
Ita and Carla wrote to Maryknoll President Melinda Roper, "Since the death of Monsignor Romero the news coverage on Salvador has declined to almost nothing. The Committee fears that decisive action will be taken by our [US] government under the guise of 'stopping communism' - and that all of Central America will be involved if it happens. It's a heavy scene - but if we have a preferential option for the poor as well as a commitment for justice as a basis for the coming of the Kingdom, we're going to have to take sides in El Salvador - correction - we have."
On August 23 Carla and Ita took their jeep to pick up a political prisoner and take him home - a service they often performed for those whose lives were threatened with violence. On the way back from his house, they were caught in a flash flood as they were crossing a river. Carla pushed Ita out a window. As the rampaging water carried her downstream, Ita remembered praying, "Receive me, Lord, I'm coming." Finally she managed to grab onto a branch and pull herself to the river bank.
Carla's body was found the next morning. For Ita the impact of the loss of her dearest friend was profound, and left her with the question of why she had been spared. A catechist working with Basic Christian Communities, Hna. Noemí Ortiz, spoke of visiting Ita after the tragedy.
"After we rescued Ita from the waters, I remember Ita [lying] on the bed and we were all around her, and she was sharing the following with us. She said that Carla had just written a letter to a friend saying, 'I do feel, and today I can say, now I have a heart of flesh.' And Ita said, 'You're right, we do have hearts of flesh now. The Salvadoran people have converted us'."
Following Carla's death, Sr. Maura Clarke, already in El Salvador to explore the possibility of working there, became Ita's new partner in the refugee work in Chalatenango.
Maura was a great personal support for Ita, and Maura said of her new colleague, "Ita is a powerful example, a blessing to be with her."
But real healing came for Ita at a five-day regional assembly of Maryknoll Sisters which took place on the Thanksgiving weekend. It was there that friends said they saw her old spirit returning.
At the closing liturgy on December 1, Ita read a passage from one of Romero's final homilies: "Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive - and to be found dead."
The following day, December 2,1980, she and Maura boarded a plane to return to El Salvador.
Maura Clarke was born on January 13,1931, and lived in Queens, New York. She joined Maryknoll in 1950. In 1959 she was sent to Nicaragua where she taught school and did pastoral work in a Capuchin parish in Siuna , a remote city in eastern Nicaragua.
In the early 1970's she was working in a parish in the capital city of Managua and was there at the time of the devastating earthquake of 1972. Managua was hit hard; an estimated 10-20,000 people were killed. Trapped on an upper floor of the parish house, the Maryknoll Sisters climbed down through a window with a rope of sheets and immediately began ministering to the wounded and digging out the bodies of the dead.
Friends said of Maura, "She was outstanding in her generosity...She would give whatever she had to the poor. She was accustomed to living in poverty." Others said she was "supportive...always saw the good in others...was very gentle...could always make those whose lives she touched feel loved."
In Nicaragua, she was known by the people as "the angel of our land."
In 1977 Maura returned to the US to take her turn doing the work of mission and vocation promotion. Traveling in various parts of the country with the Maryknoll Sisters World Awareness Team, she once said of this task, "I see in this work a channel for awakening real concern for the victims of injustice in today's world; a means to work for change, and to share...deep concern for the sufferings of the poor and marginated, the non-persons of our human family."
Maura was not in Nicaragua for the July 19,1979, fall of the Somoza dictatorship, but she greeted the news with joy. After 20 years in the country, she knew only too well the full impact of a military dictatorship on the lives of the people. And she saw with her own eyes how the international relief that came into the country after the earthquake ended up in the pockets of the dictator, his family and friends among the elite. Meanwhile, the lives of the poor, especially in the devastated capital, became more desperate.
She returned for a visit in 1980, in time for the first anniversary celebration of the victory. She was described as "bubbling with joy" at the spirit she found upon her return, a spirit of incredible relief, of hope and freedom after the 45-year Somoza dynasty. And she was happy to be back with her friends of 20 long years.
But Maura had also been pondering the appeal of Archbishop Romero for help in El Salvador. On August 5, just two and a half weeks before the death of Sr. Carla Piette, Maura Clark went to El Salvador to explore the possibility of working there. It was a hard decision - to leave behind 20 years of relationships in Nicaragua at such an exciting moment in its history, and to take on the human and pastoral challenge of El Salvador in a time of persecution. After Carla's death on August 23 Maura decided to take her place working at Ita's side.
She was quickly immersed in the emergency work among the victims of the repression. "We have the refugees, women and children, outside our door and some of their stories are incredible. What is happening here is all so impossible, but happening. The endurance of the poor and their faith through this terrible pain is constantly pulling me to a deeper faith response."
The days were often difficult and the internal struggle radically challenging. "My fear of death is being challenged constantly as children, lovely young girls, old people are being shot and some cut up with machetes and bodies thrown by the road and people prohibited from burying them. A loving Father must have a new life of unimaginable joy and peace prepared for these precious unknown, uncelebrated martyrs.
"One cries out: Lord how long? And then too what creeps into my mind is the little fear, or big, that when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful?"
Maura decided she would stay in El Salvador. She and Ita, and two other Maryknoll Sisters working in El Salvador, travelled in November to Nicaragua for the regional assembly. It was there that Maura affirmed her commitment before all the Maryknoll Sisters of the Central America region. She said she would remain in El Salvador, "to search out the missing, pray with the families of prisoners, bury the dead, and work with the people in their struggle to break out of the bonds of oppression, poverty, and violence" (words written by friends of Maura). She told them the days would be difficult and dangerous, but assured the other sisters of her "certain confidence in God's loving care of her, Ita, and all the people."
"I want to stay on now," she wrote. "I believe now that this is right...Here I am starting from scratch but it must be His plan and He is teaching me and there is real peace in spite of many frustrations and the terror around us and the work, etc. God is very present in His seeming absence."
The day following the assembly, Maura gave her all, even her very life, for the people of El Salvador.