‘They are very much alive’
Dec. 7, 2010
By Eileen Connelly, OSU
EL SALVADOR — Dozens of colleagues, friends and relatives of the four U.S. churchwomen slain in El Salvador — Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, and lay missionary Jean Donovan — came together last week at a series of memorial events marking the 30thanniversary of their deaths.
On the afternoon of Dec. 2, 1980, Donovan and Sister Dorothy picked up the two Maryknoll Sisters, who were returning from a conference in Nicaragua, at the international airport in San Salvador. As they left the airport, five Salvadoran national guardsmen, dressed in plain clothes, stopped the vehicle they were driving and took the women to a remote site where they were beaten, raped and murdered.
In each of the years since their deaths, their legacy has been commemorated in gatherings throughout the country they loved and served.
The 30th anniversary events were highlighted by a Dec. 2 Mass at the memorial chapel built by the Maryknoll Sisters at the actual site near the rural village of Santiago Nonualco where the women were killed. Groups representing the Cleveland Mission Project of El Salvador, Maryknoll and Ursuline Sisters, SHARE Foundations and Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ) were in attendance.
Members of the CRISPAZ delegation in Cincinnati, led by Dennis O’Connor, xecutive director, included his daughter, Colleen; Stephanie Schuckman, director of alumnae relations at St. Ursula Academy; and Eric Hubbard, a local photographer.
A delegation from Cleveland led by CRISPAZ board member Chris Janezic included students and teachers from Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School and Beaumont High School, where Sister Dorothy taught prior to arriving in El Salvador.
Sister Dorothy began her mission service in the troubled Central American nation in 1974 at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in La Libertad. Jean Donovan joined the Cleveland team and came to the parish in 1977. Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke arrived later, working in Chalatenango in the north central part of the small Central American nation.
The scene 30 years after their deaths was joyous rather than somber. Ursuline Sister Rose Elizabeth Terrell, who ministers in the small mountain village of Chiltiupan, brought parishioners to the site three weeks previously to clean the structure and paint the memorial cross.
A classmate of Sister Dorothy, Sister Rose recalled her as “a happy person, smiling in every picture of her that you see. She was where she wanted to be and couldn’t leave the people,” she said
Ursuline Sister Maureen Grady, who also knew Sister Dorothy and was visiting El Salvador for the first time, said, “It’s a privilege to be among the people the churchwomen worked with. I sense their love and devotion for what the missionaries have done through the years.”
The chapel was filled to capacity for the bilingual memorial Mass, with an overflow crowd spilling outside the front doors of the structure. Father Stephen Vallenga of the Diocese of Cleveland was primary celebrant for the liturgy, with a number of Jesuit and Maryknoll priests concelebrating. Father Paul Schindler, who was part of the Cleveland diocese’s mission team in El Salvador in 1980 and still serves there today, was the homilist.
He reminded those gathered that, like the four churchwomen, “we have to be those who share our lives with others.”
After the Mass, Ursuline and Maryknoll representatives, holding photos of the four women, led the congregation in a procession to the cross erected at the site of their deaths.
Maryknoll Sister Mary Annel, who has worked with those suffering from HIV/AIDS in both Guatemala and El Salvador said, “It’s inspiring to see so many people, especially young people, here. Each of the churchwomen had special gifts they shared with the people they served. They gave them hope for the future, and the Salvadoran people have made them their own.”
“I don’t think of them as dead; they are very much alive,” added Maryknoll Sister Carol Marie McDonald, who has ministered in El Salvador for three years and currently works with a program that provides ongoing biblical formation for lay leaders. “They continue to inspire all of us and help us to assist each other on our journeys.”
“I felt honored to be here for the anniversary events,” said Stephanie Schuckman. “It’s very touching to see how grateful and joyful the Salvadoran people are as they celebrate the lives of the churchwomen. It’s been very humbling for me.”
The celebration continued in La Libertad, where guests inside the parish school were treated to dancing and musical performances by children of the parish and other communities served by the Cleveland team over the years.
On Dec. 3 the Maryknoll Sisters held a memorial service at a small stream crossing near San Antonio los Ranchos, near Guarjila in Chalatenango Department, to remember Maryknoll Sister Carla Piette, who drowned saving Sister Ita, her roommate at the time, during a flash flood at the stream in August 1980. A Mass in the nearby town followed.
In attendance at the liturgy and other commemorative events were Clark’s sister, Julia Keogh, and nephews, Peter Keogh and Fitzwilliam Anderson. Peter Keogh, who was 16 at the time of his aunt’s death, recalls collecting donations of clothing from his high school classmates then sending them to Sister Maura to distribute to Salvadoran children.
Peter Keogh also attended the 20th and 25th anniversary services for his aunt, and said, “It’s always really hard to come, but it is wonderful being with our Maryknoll and Ursuline family. I leave feeling recharged and inspired by what the women sacrificed. Their memory encourages others to consider mission work, and they are great role models.”
The commemorative events came to a close Dec. 4 with a memorial Mass celebrated in San Salvador at El Rosario Church. Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez of San Salvador presided. During his homily, Bishop Chavez welcomed the U.S. visitors in attendance. He spoke of the love the churchwomen had for the people of El Salvador and for all God’s people and said their deaths are a dangerous, but beautiful, reminder of what it means to follow God.
Franciso Mena, country coordinator for CRISPAZ in El Salvador, said the women, in addition to the other martyrs of El Salvador — Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated on March 24, 1980, and the six Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, who were murdered on Nov. 16, 1989 — continue to inspire the Salvadoran people.
“They still give us hope” said Mena, who with his family was forced to flee El Salvador during the height of the nation’s civil war. “They gave their lives for us, so the very least we can do is share their message with those who will listen. We need to honor what they did.”