Maura Clarke and Companions
Martyrs of El Salvador (d. 1980)

Sr. Maura ClarkeIn Nicaragua, where Maura Clarke first served as a Maryknoll Sister, she was known as “the angel of our land.”  Following an appeal in 1980 by Archbishop Oscar Romero, she came to work in El Salvador.  There, she and her companions worked with refugees – searching out missing people, praying with families of prisoners, burying the dead, and in many other ways showing what Sr. Maura described as “real concern for the victims of injustice in today's world...for the sufferings of the poor and marginated, the non-persons of our human family." These religious women clearly knew the danger facing them.  Sr. Maura admitted that her fear of death was constantly challenged as she saw "children, lovely young girls, old people…being shot and some cut up with machetes and bodies thrown by the road and people prohibited from burying them.”  We can be grateful that this fear did not stop her and her friends from living lives of compassion.  Mercy does not seem to be a popular value in our times, either, and so we draw strength from these women's courage.  -- Patricia Carlson


“One cries out, ‘Lord, how long?’ And then too what creeps into my mind is the little fear or big, that when it touches me personally, will I be faithful?” -- Maura Clarke


Sr. Dorothy KazelOne a December morning in 1980 a small assembly of priests, nuns, and peasants gathered in a cow pasture in El Salvador to witness the exhumation of four North American women.  One by one their broken and disheveled bodies were dragged from the shallow grave:  Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, both Maryknoll Sisters; Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline sister, and Jean Donovan, a lay missioner, both from Cleveland.  They had been missing since December 2 when Dorothy and Jean, in their distinctive white minivan, had left for the airport to pick up Maura and Ita on their return from a meeting in Nicaragua.  Two days later some peasants alerted church authorities and led them to the site of this hasty burial.

Each woman had followed a different  path.  Maura and Ita had spent many years in mission in Nicaragua and Chile.  Dorothy Kazel was the longest in El Salvador.  Jean Donovan, only twenty-seven, had wrestled with the possibility of marriage and the security of a lucrative career before choosing, instead, to remain in El Salvador.  But for each one, called by Christ to live out her faith in solidarity with the poor, the path had led to the same cow pasture.

It was a possibility they had all wrestled with and faced up to.  After all, they had all to one extent of another been touched by the witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated only nine months before.  In words which Ita Ford quoted on the night before she died, he had said, “One who is committed to the poor must risk the same fate as the poor.  And in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies:  to disappear, to be tortured, to be captive, and to be found dead.”

The death of the four women had an enormous effect on the North American church, galvanizing opposition to U.S. funding for the Salvadoran government.  But at the same time, the deaths provoked a backlash on the part of apologists for these policies.  As one American official noted, “The nuns were not just nuns, the nuns were also political activists…on behalf of the Frente [the guerrillas].”  The U.S. secretary of state went so far as to describe a “prominent theory” that the churchwomen may have been killed “in an exchange of fire” after they were believed to be running a roadblock.

This “prominent theory” had little to do with the readily determined facts of the case:  that the four women were targeted for assassination by Salvadoran officers; that soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes for a “special assignment,” had followed the Sisters on their way home from the airport; that the women were killed many hours later in a different place; that they were shot in the head at close range; and that before being killed two of them were raped.

In fact the four women were anything but “political activists.”  Their work, in support of the Salvadoran church, involved ministering to the needs of refugees; shepherding priests on the run; delivering supplies; offering solace to isolated and terrified catechists.  These were nightmare years in El Salvador.  The women’s work confronted them with scenes from hell.  They saw villages where the security forces had committed massacres and then refused to allow the survivors to bury the dead.  “The other day,” wrote Maura, “passing a small lake in the jeep I saw a buzzard standing on top of a floating body.  We did nothing but pray and feel.”  They each had identified with the church’s “preferential option for the poor,” believing that the effective witness to the gospel was inseparable from the witness to life and solidarity with the oppressed.  In El Salvador this was enough to label one a subversive.

Sr. Ita FordAnd yet in bearing witness to the cross they were also witnesses to the resurrection.  Among the believing poor of El Salvador there was not only death, but a faith and a stubborn hope that inspired them to carry on – or at least, kept them from fleeing.  As Ita wrote to her sixteen-year-old niece:

This is a terrible time in El Salvador for youth.  A lot of idealism and commitment are getting snuffed out here now.  The reasons why so many people are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands.  One is that people have found a meaning to live, to sacrifice, struggle, and even die.  And whether their life spans sixteen years, sixty, or ninety, for them their life has had a purpose.  In many ways, they are fortunate people.

Brooklyn is not passing through the drama of El Salvador, but some things hold true wherever one is, and at whatever age.  What I’m saying is that I hope you can come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you, something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead.

Jean DonovanJean Donovan, at twenty-seven, was the youngest of the four, and the only laywoman among them.  From a privileged background, with a degree in business and a promising career, she had been drawn to the mission in El Salvador and stayed on even when the risks became clear.  Two weeks before her death she wrote, “Several times I have decided to leave – I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of adult lunacy.  Who would care for them?  Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness?  Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

The history of the church is written in the blood of martyrs.  But these four women represented a different kind of martyrdom, increasingly common in our time.  Their murderers dared to call themselves Christians, indeed defenders of Christian values.  And they died not simply for clinging to faith but for clinging, like Jesus, to the poor.


Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David


Additional Resources
See:  Donna Whitson Brett and Edward T. Brett, Murdered in Central America (Maryknoll, N.Y.:  Orbis, 1988); Penny Lernoux (with Arthur Jones and Robert Ellsberg), Hearts on Fire:  The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters (Maryknoll, N.Y.:  Orbis, 1993)

"At the Checkpoint," a poem by Charles Rohrbacher, reminds us - in shades of blue - of the truthfulness of these women's lives.