December 2nd is a day for remembrance, celebration, and continued advocacy for justice in El Salvador. Why? On the night of Dec. 2, 1980, four church women were violently murdered by the Salvadoran army. Maryknoll sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, lay missioner Jean Donovan and Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel were victims of a government that targeted those working with the most vulnerable, those in desperate need because of the devastation of the civil war that raged in El Salvador for 12 brutal years.
Ita, Maura, Jean and Dorothy’s crime was providing aid and comfort to the many desperate civilians caught in the scorched earth policy of the government. Their assassination awakened many in the U.S. and in other countries to the realities of the smallest country in Central America and compelled many to insist on a full investigation, not only of these brutal deaths, but of the legitimacy of the government in El Salvador.
Though peace accords were signed in 1992, those who planned, authorized and perpetrated this and myriad other crimes have not been held accountable.
SEW board member Tom Howarth will be among hundreds from the U.S. attending this year’s 35th Anniversary events. A chapel has been built on the site where their bodies were found. Through much advocacy, the place has been designated an historic site and the dedication is expected to be part of this anniversary’s events.
An Ursuline friend visiting El Salvador said of Dorothy and her co-workers said, “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.”
Jean’s letter to a friend is oft quoted: "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."
Ita Ford came to El Salvador in March of 1980. Learning of Romero’s death she wrote to the Maryknoll President, "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."
In response to Archbishop Romero’s appeal for help, Maura Clarke came to El Salvador in August, 1980. She wrote, "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."
Violence and injustice still plague El Salvador. Today, it stems from organized crime and vicious gang activities. It impacts everything from everyday safety, economics diverted through extortion and immigration to avoid the hostility. Much work for justice remains to be done and thankfully many groups in solidarity with El Salvador are deepening those efforts.
The resolute lives of these women have inspired many through the decades and continue to do so today. May we commit to the hope and courage that was theirs.
You can learn more about the Church Women (and see where we pulled these quotes) at the InterReligious Task on Central America website.
The image is borrowed from Creighton's Online Ministries.