BAY RIDGE — When Allie Hinz, a senior at Fontbonne Hall Academy, learned recently about the legacy of Sister Ita Ford, M.M., the Maryknoll sister who was murdered in El Salvador 42 years ago while serving as a missionary in that war-torn country, she found her life story deeply inspiring.
“Hearing how important she was to the Fontbonne community and to the world in general inspires me and other students,” she said. “She was so brave to be able to go to these dangerous places and talk about what she really loved.”
Honoring Sister Ford’s legacy was the centerpiece of Bishop Robert Brennan’s visit to Fontbonne Hall Academy, the girls’ Catholic high school in Bay Ridge, on Friday, Dec. 2 — 42 years to the day she was killed.
Bishop Brennan celebrated a Mass to commemorate Sister Ford, who was a graduate of Fontbonne, Class of 1957. A sign of her legacy can be found right on campus. One of the school’s buildings is named after her.
Sister Ford was working as a missionary in El Salvador — a country in the grip of a bloody civil war — when she was shot to death, along with three of her fellow Maryknoll sisters and a lay woman working with them, on Dec. 2. 1980. The women’s remains were found two days later buried in a shallow grave. They had been shot at close range.
The execution-style murders were believed to have been carried out by members of the El Salvador military under orders from their commanders, but no one has even been held officially responsible for the slayings.
Despite the fact that she has been deceased for more than four decades, Sister Ita’s life can be a lesson to today’s students, Bishop Brennan said, because of the way she lived her life.
“Sister Ita spoke about learning from the people she served. I find that to be very, very inspiring. We can’t always solve the world’s problems but we can make a big difference in individual lives in parts of the world without knowing it. Somebody like Sister Ita wouldn’t have imagined the legacy of her life and her death,” he said.
Victoria Bruno, a senior and president of the Student Activity Council is a member of Rho Kappa, the social studies honor society. Sister Ford helped start the society’s Fontbonne chapter when she was a student in the mid-1950s.
“As a two-year member, I’m honored to finally be learning more about her and why a building is named after her. It’s important to talk about all of her hard work and all of the challenges she went through,” Bruno said.
Sister Mary P. Hurley, C.S.J. was a schoolmate of Sister Ford.
“I graduated from Fontbonne in January of 1957 and she graduated in June of that year,” she said. She recalled that Sister Ford was a “very, very friendly girl” and a superb athlete. “She was really the star of the basketball team. We used to go to all of the games and cheer for her,” Sister Hurley remembered.
She is happy to see her friend’s memory kept alive. “I know that she was very well loved here at Fontbonne,” she added.
In addition to honoring Sister Ford, the Mass featured other highlights. Bishop Brennan commissioned five students — Ava Berardelli, Olivia Bradley, Victoria Bruno, Ava Mollaghan and Jennifer Sarji — to serve as eucharistic ministers.
And three former teachers — Sister Eileen Agoglia, Cathy Barton and Anne Rafferty — returned to Fontbonne and were installed into the Emeritus Faculty, a group of outstanding former teachers.
During his visit, Bishop Brennan received a guided tour of the campus and blessed the school’s new science suite, the crown jewel of Fontbonne Hall’s effort to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for young women. The suite is located in the Ita Ford Building.
“One of the core values of Catholic education is excellence in education. In Catholic schools, it’s not just a matter of having religious imagery. But it has to do with the quality of the education. And science is an example of that,” Bishop Brennan said. “The discovery of how everything works in the sciences, that’s a gift from God. In the scenes, we dig deeper into the mysteries that God has put at our disposal.”
Fontbonne Hall Academy is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year. The school was founded in 1937 by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
“This is such an important time,” said Dr. Fred Herron, the school’s interim principal. “We’re celebrating our 85th anniversary and we’re celebrating a woman who was a martyr for the Church and a role model for our young woman. And we’re celebrating the Fontbonne community’s commitment to service.”