Thursday, November 29, 2018

Remembering the American Churchwomen Martyred in El Salvador

Clockwise from top left corner: Sr. Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U.;
Sr. Maura Clarke, M.M.;Jean Donovan; and Sr. Ita Ford, M.M.
(Photo Courtesy of the Maryknoll Mission Archives)
By: Joan L. Roccasalvo, CSJ

On December 21980, four American Catholic churchwomen and missionaries were tortured, raped, shot, and murdered in El Salvador by National Guardsmen of the military-led government there.

Two of the women, Sisters Ita Ford, M.M. and Maura Clarke, M.M., ages 40 and 49, respectively,  were members of the Maryknoll Missionary Order. Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U., age 41, belonged to the Ursuline Order (Cleveland, OH), and Jean Donovan, 27, a lay missionary, was Sister Dorothy's associate. In the spirit of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the women served the poor training catechists, preparing programs, and caring for the many practical necessities of daily life for those unable to care for themselves. As with the Archbishop, they had been under close surveillance by the government.  

Events Leading Up to the Murders

The chilling events leading up to the murders were carried out quickly, decisively, and with savage brutality, the essence of assassinations. Here is an account of those events.

December 2: Sometime after 9 PM

The two Maryknoll churchwomen, Ita and Maura, were returning to El Salvador from a two-month regional conference in Managua, Nicaragua. Dorothy and Jean drove to meet them at the airport.  They were driving a white van. The flight was scheduled for arrival at 9:11 PM. Shortly thereafter, the four left the airport, headed down the main road, homeward bound. 

Five uniformed assassins, who had changed into civilian clothes, waited for the women in the stealth of night. About fifteen miles from the airport, the attackers stopped the white van and directed the women toward a semi-secluded location. There they carried out the well-planned orders of their commander. The massacred bodies lay naked and exposed at the side of the road. 

Locals who saw the white van only later reported that they had heard machine-gun fire followed by single shots. "The five men fled the scene," reported the locals. "The lights in the van were on, the radio blaring. The van was then set on fire at the side of the airport road."

December 3: Early Morning

Some local residents found the women's bodies. The authorities, a judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders, forced the men to bury the women in a nearby common grave. The local men obeyed, but they informed their parish priest Father Paul Schindler of the murders. He himself had inquired about Jean and Sister Dorothy. News of the assassinations was dispatched to the local Catholic bishop and to the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White. It was the feast of St. Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary saint.

December 4

The bodies were exhumed in the presence of fifteen reporters, other missionaries, and Ambassador White. Sister Madeline Dorsey, M.M., from a nearby mission and an eyewitness, described the scene in her own words: "Then came the painful extraction of the four piled one on top of the other. Jean was the first, her lovely face destroyed. Dorothy had a tranquil look. Maura's face was serene but seemed to utter a silent cry, and last little Ita. I went forward to wipe the dirt from her cheek and placed her arms at her side. We Sisters fell to our knees in reverence."

December 5: A Mass of the Resurrection was celebrated by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas.  

December 6 

On the next day, the bodies of Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. were flown back to the United States for proper burial. In keeping with the tradition of the Maryknoll Missionaries, the bodies of Sisters Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke were buried at their mission in Chalatenango, El Salvador.


In 1984, four national guardsmen were convicted of the massacre and were sentenced to thirty years in prison. Their immediate superior was also charged and convicted of the murders. Some of these were subsequently released from prison.  

Sister Ita Ford's brother William, an attorney,  has spent more than twenty-five years in the U.S. court system attempting to obtain justice for his sister and the other slain women. A legal battle has ensued to have these men brought to the United States. The case is not as yet resolved. 

Who Were These Churchwomen?

Jean Donovan, raised in an upper-middle-class home, was educated in fine schools. On completion of her master’s degree in business from Case Western Reserve University, she took a position as a management consultant in Cleveland. Though engaged to a young physician, she felt the call to volunteer for youth ministry with the poor. After completing her training as a lay missionary at Maryknoll, NY, she went to El Salvador in 1977 with Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U.  

Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. first taught in Cleveland and then did missionary work among the Papago Tribe in Arizona. She joined the mission team of the Diocese of Cleveland. Both she and Jean Donovan worked in the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Dorothy was known as "an alleluia from head to toe." She and Jean worked not far from the mission of the Maryknoll Sisters in El Salvador.

Sister Ita Ford, M.M. was the cousin of Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, M.M., the first of a long line of seminarians to apply to the newly-established Maryknoll Fathers, founded in 1911. He went to China as a missionary and in 1952 was martyred in a Communist prison camp. Before entering the Maryknoll Missionaries, Ita was taught by religious sisters from three institutes: the Visitandine Sisters, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Prior to entering the convent at Maryknoll, Ita worked as an editor in a publishing company for seven years. As a missionary, she served in Bolivia, Chile, and finally in El Salvador.

Sister Maura Clarke, M.M. was the oldest of the four slain churchwomen. She had spent seventeen years in Nicaragua working against the dictatorship there and was assigned to El Salvador only months before her death. "If we leave the people when they suffer the cross, how credible is our word to them?" she wrote only weeks before her death. "The Church's role is to accompany those who suffer the most, and to witness our hope in the resurrection."

St. Oscar Romero and Fr. Rutilio Grande, S.J.  (Photo courtesy
of Tenquique503 [CC BY-SA 4.0
from Wikimedia Commons)
The Martyr, Saint Oscar Romero

The murders of the women missionaries occurred some ten months after the assassination of Archbishop, now Saint Oscar Romero in 1980 by a similar death squad, and Father Rutilio Grande, S.J. in 1977. Romero was celebrating Mass in March of 1980 and just as he completed a homily on the government's oppression and civil rights violations against the poor when he was shot and killed. 

The churchwomen were one with Archbishop Romero who, shortly before his martyrdom, declared: "Let it be quite clear that if we are being asked to collaborate with a pseudo-peace, a false order, based on repression and fear, we must recall that the only order and the only peace that God wants is one based on truth and justice."

Like the Archbishop, Jean, Dorothy, Ita, and Maura were martyred for their faith. Like Saint Oscar Romero, the women are worthy to have their cause opened for canonization. As martyrs, two miracles would be waived since they died "in perfect charity."

Civil War 1979-1992

In October 1979, a coup d'├ętat brought the Revolutionary Government Junta to power. It nationalized many private companies and took over much privately owned land. Nearly 50 percent of the Salvadorans are Roman Catholic. On December 2, we remember and honor these four churchwomen, missionaries, and martyrs. We pray to Sisters Ita Ford, MM, Maura Clarke, MM, Dorothy Kazel, OSU, and Jean Donovan. Let us anticipate their beatification. Did they not hold the palm of martyrdom in their hands?

[Joan L. Roccasalvo, CSJ is a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood]

1 comment:

  1. What is the status of their beautification? Surely these women were martyred for their faith and trust in God. Four Holy women pray for us as we believe that your deaths were not in vane.