“Like a Thief in the Night:” Remembering the Four Martyred Churchwomen
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.”
I was tired this weekend. I spent Friday and Saturday with 11th graders on their Confirmation retreat. I worked at the parish on Sunday. So it was a half hour into Monday morning when my husband reminded me that the anniversary of the 1980 martyrdom of the four American church women in El Salvador had just passed, having read it on a post by Michael Iafrate on Vox Nova.
Dec. 2. I wasn’t alert. I wasn’t awake. And I missed an anniversary of a story that has been with me since I was a teenager. What follows in an excerpt from a reflection I wrote two years ago on the 25th anniversary of the deaths of Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Cleveland lay woman Jean Donovan and Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke. In El Salvador, a country named for the savior, they lived an Advent life, waiting for Christ to arrive amidst grave suffering, injustice and violence. I’m sure they were so accustomed to seeing him in the faces of those they served, that there was no mistaking him when he came as a thief in the night and took then home to live with him.
I was 14 when the four churchwomen were killed. Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan were from the diocese of Cleveland where I grew up. Their stories filtered into my high school years and on into my adulthood. Fr. Paul Shindler, who was head of the Cleveland mission team in El Salvador in 1980, found their bodies. He returned to Cleveland a few years later and was a parish priest in the city of Akron where I went to high school. I remember being on a retreat in 1982 where he told the story of his work as a missionary in El Salvador, the difficulties of the people that he worked with and of the great joy they had in their faith despite the fear and death that marked the time. I don’t think I realized then how recent the tragedy was for him.
Many years later, when I worked for the diocese of Cleveland, I would meet more of their friends as well as others who were committed to the people of this small Central American country. I received my master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Ursuline College, which is run by the Ursuline community of which Sister Dorothy Kazel had been a member.
So on this 25th anniversary of their deaths, the memories of Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan are fresh in my home town. The ongoing work of that mission team has inspired great action in the Diocese of Cleveland – Catholics there support an Orphanage in El Salvador. The Interreligious Task Force on Central America educates the public on the ongoing human rights abuses that exist among the poor in Latin America, the exploitation of workers, the need for peace and for economic justice.
I tell you this because for me these women’s stories speak to the power of martyrdom. ‘There is no greater love,’ Jesus tells us, ‘than to give up your life for a friend.’ When love meets death – as Jesus taught us in his own agony on the cross – death does not get the final word. Love does. And so the story of these women’s love of the poor and their stand against the dehumanization of people could not be silenced. Their images are synonymous with the work of social justice in my hometown and elsewhere in the United States. Their blood fuels organizations that are still working for change in the lives of the poor there.
So I slept through the anniversary, but woke up just in time to retell the story. In fact, who better to preach on being ever ready for the coming of God than the women themselves:
Sister Ita Ford was a Maryknoll sister who worked in Santiago, Chile, during the 1970’s, ministering to the poor during a time of repression, fear and increasing inadequacy. While still in Chile she wrote:
Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent? Can I say to my neighbors – I have no solutions to this situation; I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you? Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness as I learn it from the poor ones?”
After Ita arrived to serve in El Salvador in 1980, she witnessed the Salvadoran reality: the homeless, the persecuted, the victims of savage repression and the counterinsurgency and the violence of a ruthless military dictatorship determined to wipe out any trace of opposition. She wrote,”We are going to have to take a side in El Salvador – correction – we have.”
She went to El Salvador in 1980 at a time when Archbishop Romero was appealing for missionary help.
That year she 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. 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 very personally, will I be faithful?”
Dorothy Kazel was an Ursuline Sister from Cleveland who once said she desired to be remembered an “alleluia from head to foot.” In 1974 Dorothy joined the diocese of Cleveland’s mission team in El Salvador.
The team consisted of nine members working in three parishes. Their main tasks involved visiting the homes of parishioners and preparing people for the sacraments. They also provided the poor with information about nutrition and found homes for refugees from El Salvador’s political violence.
El Salvador, Savior of the World, is writhing in pain – a country that daily faces the loss of so many of its people – and yet a country that is waiting, hoping, yearning for peace. The steadfast faith and courage our leaders have to continue preaching the Word of the Lord, even though it may mean laying down your life in the very REAL sense, is always a point of admiration and a vivid realization that JESUS is HERE with us. Yes, we have a sense of waiting, hoping, and yearning for a complete realization of the Kingdom, and yet we know it will come because we can celebrate Him here right now.”
Jean Donovan was 26 years old when she became a member of the Diocese of Cleveland’s mission team working in El Salvador. Not long before, she had earned a master’s degree in business administration from Case Western Reserve University and was on her way to a successful business career in Cleveland. But she wanted something more, and her spiritual quest led her to missionary work.
In El Salvador, she and Sister Dorothy Kazel often used their very visible presence to accompany people in danger, or to get supplies into areas not accessible to others. They became a well-known sight, driving along the country-side in their mission van. She wrote to her brother:
Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, and 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.”