e-mail us
Finding peace in wake of aunt's death

Special Reports Writer

Ruth Ford was 14 when her aunt, Maryknoll Sr. Ita Ford, was raped and murdered in El Salvador 16 years ago, along with her companions, Maryknoll Sr. Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll lay missionary Jean Donovan.

When Maryknoll called Ita's brother, Bill, with the news of her disappearance, on Dec. 2, 1980, the family was still in shock over the news three months earlier that Ita's life had been saved by her friend, Maryknoll Sr. Carla Piette, who pushed the smaller nun through the window of their jeep as it was overturned in a surging gully that had trapped the car and its passengers. Piette drowned, while Ita was pulled to safety by the force of the cascading water.

Ita left behind a mother, a brother, a sister and 10 nieces and nephews -- five of them are Ruth's siblings and one, her 16-year-old brother John, was but a few days old when the tragedy occurred.

Sometimes the cousins talk about the murder, Ruth said. "But it is still very raw. People are just starting to assimilate it into their lives," she told NCR during a visit to the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she helps with publicity as a volunteer.

The murder has put an obligation on them, she said. "Each of us feels it in a certain way."

Ruth has been accepted into law school and may attend next year. She has held a number of jobs, including one as a news aide at The Washington Post in 1987 when six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were also murdered in El Salvador. The Post editorialized that the priests "were in the line of fire."

Ruth found the courage to confront the paper's deputy editorial page editor. In what she called "an Ita moment," she went into his office and said: "I'm sorry, but you're wrong."

In 1994 Ruth, then 28, traveled to the places in El Salvador where her aunt had lived, worked and died. "Everything was completely strange and yet very familiar," Ruth said.

She found the tiny Central American country, whose civil war had displaced half the population and put 75,000 Salvadorans in graves, "totally steeped in the blood of the martyrs. ... Someone from the Balkans would understand what it was like," she said.

For part of her stay she lived among rural people who had returned from Honduras, where they had fled during the fighting. She spoke of the "tremendous modesty" of the women with whom she camped and their "absolute determination to survive."

One night Ruth went into a field where a single shower had been installed. Under the stars and the warm water, "I realized that 'I'm not going to be happier than this in my life,' " she said. For the first time in the 14 years since her aunt's death, Ruth found "complete peace -- a feeling I'd not had before or since," she said.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 1996