Friday, July 07, 2006

Four American Missionary-Martyrs of El Salvador

In December, 1981, four American missionaries were murdered by the El Salvadoran death squad. Three of them were nuns, and one is a laywoman who volunteered to work in El Salvador as a missionary. One of the nuns, Sr. Ita Ford, was the niece of Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, who was killed by the Communists in China.
All four missionaries were engaged in medical and relief work, often distributing aid from USAIF and Catholic charitable organizations. In regions with very few priests, they organized prayer meetings and administered the Sacraments in appropriate ways. They also raised the consciousness of the people and taught them about justice and their rights. In a letter to her friend, Sr. Dorothy Kazel wrote, “I was especially impressed with what you had to say about the ‘middle class nature of US nuns’ work’ - and how important it is to serve the poor and oppressed. I believe that wholeheartedly - that's why I'm here in El Salvador.”
They were horrified with the murders and mutilations they met daily. One of the nuns, Sr. Maura Clarke, wrote, “My fear of death is being challenged constantly as children, lovely young girls, old people are being shot and some cut up with machetes and bodies thrown by the road and people prohibited from burying them. A loving Father must have a new life of unimaginable joy and peace prepared for these precious unknown, uncelebrated martyrs.”
Even though she was horrified by the situation, Sr. Clarke decided to stay in El Salvador. “I want to stay on now,” she wrote. “I believe now that this is right...Here I am starting from scratch but it must be His plan and He is teaching me and there is real peace in spite of many frustrations and the terror around us and the work, etc. God is very present in His seeming absence.”
Jean Donovan, the 27-year-old lay missionary, wrote to her friend weeks before she was killed, “Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.” Jean's time in El Salvador led her to those fundamental challenges of the meaning of life, of faith, in a world torn by injustice and violence against the poorest, the most vulnerable. It was a personal challenge.
The four missionaries informed the military authorities about their missionary work to avoid any misunderstandings. They made it clear that they were in El Salvador to help everyone, whatever their faction or political affiliation may be. But they were told that the Catholic Church was “indirectly subversive because it’s on the side of the weak.”
On December 2, 1980, Srs. Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan picked up Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke in the airport, who just came from Nicaragua after an assemble for Maryknoll missionaries. After leaving the airport, their van was commandeered at a road block by members of El Salvador's National Guard. They were taken to an isolated location, abused and shot, then buried in a shallow grave along a roadside.
The missionaries also knew what they are about to face. Sr. Ita Ford read a message which Archbishop Oscar Romero said about Christian life in El Salvador, “Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive - and to be found dead.”


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