By Msgr. John E. Vesey
In Rome, on December 2 at the end of his General Audience, Pope Francis said:
“Today is the 40th anniversary of the death of four missionaries killed in El Salvador … On the 2nd of December in 1980, they were kidnapped, raped, and killed by a group of paramilitary forces. They were offering their services during the civil war and they were bringing food and medicine to those who had to flee, especially to the families that were the poorest. These women lived their faith with great generosity. They are an example for all of us to become faithful missionary disciples.”
The four American churchwomen who died in El Salvador forty years ago were: two Maryknoll sisters, Sisters Ita Ford (from St. Ephrem’s Parish, Brooklyn) and Maura Clarke (from St. Francis de Sales’ Parish, Queens); Sister Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline sister; and Ms. Jean Donovan, a lay missioner from the Diocese of Cleveland Mission who worked in El Salvador.
The church in El Salvador said they were murdered because they served and cared for poor widows and orphans in their communities. On the anniversary day of their death, Bishop Eduardo Alas Alfaro, the first bishop of Chalatenango, where Sisters Ita and Maura worked and are buried, wanted a Mass celebrated on their anniversary with a procession in their honor so that the community would never forget the sacrifice of these martyrs.
Even though the church in El Salvador was quick to realize that the churchwomen died as martyrs, the US Government quickly blamed them for their own deaths. Just four weeks after their murders, the US Ambassador-designate to the United Nations, Dr. Jean Kirkpatrick said the churchwomen were “political activists” (Tampa Tribune 12/25/80).
Then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 18, 1981, suggested that the nuns may have tried to run through a military roadblock. Today the world knows that they were murdered by the Salvadoran military and that they were slandered by members of the US Government because, in the Salvadoran civil war, the US Government actively supported the Salvadoran Military.
If it were admitted that the Salvadoran Military murdered the churchwomen, the American people would have demanded that the United States pull out of El Salvador and the leftist guerrillas would probably have won the civil war. In service to their people, Sisters Ita and Maura ministered to those living in the refugee camps or high in the hills away from the violence.
They would fill their jeep with food and medicine or go by horseback with pack mules to reach those who were living in hiding from the violence. Sister Dorothy trained catechists. With Ms. Jean Donovan, she transported homeless people to refugee centers and distributed Catholic Relief Service Aid. Together, they established an orphanage for wounded and orphaned children.
For living the Word of God and being living witnesses of the Gospel these sisters of ours are honored today as faithful servants of Jesus. Months before her death, Sister Ita wrote: “You say you don’t want anything to happen to me. I’d prefer it that way myself — but I don’t see that we have control over the forces of madness, and if you choose to enter other people’s suffering, or love others, you at least have to consent in some way to the possible consequences.”
Last week, reflecting on those who have given their lives for others, Pope Francis wrote: “So many have paid the price of love by dying for others. We return their love by grieving for them and honoring them. Whether they were conscious of it, their choice testified to a belief: that it is better to live a shorter life serving others than a longer one resisting that call.”
Msgr. Vesey is the pastor of St. Michael Church in Flushing. He has worked as a missionary in Guatemala, Paraguay and China.