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Heroic, operatic story of four women

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

As a composer, Elizabeth Swados was drawn to news stories 20 years ago of four American churchwomen raped and murdered in the beginning years of the Salvadoran civil war.

“The idea itself of belief is extremely important to me,” she said. “That somehow people could believe so much in something, that even though they could lose their lives, they could stay and believe that no matter what the outcome, it was meant to be.

“That’s heroic. It’s operatic. That doesn’t exist very often in our culture.”

But it wasn’t just the operatic subject matter that inspired Swados to compose “Missionaries,” a choral drama about the lives, work and murders of Maryknoll Srs. Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and laywoman Jean Donovan.

“I’m a Jew and I did it for Jewish reasons,” she said during a telephone interview from her Manhattan home. “We’re not supposed to forget. We’re supposed to seek justice. We’re supposed to speak out.”

“Missionaries” will be presented in New York twice on Dec. 2, the 20th anniversary of the women’s murders. “We will simultaneously be praying for them throughout the piece and introducing their words and spirit,” said Swados, who will direct and introduce her work.

During the 90-minute performance, which features a 20-member cast, the words of the women and the sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero are used as libretto and lyrics, with music from the Mass and Latino culture woven throughout. The vicious works of the military and government conspirators are used as percussive sounds of warning.

“If there’s any kind of prayer, I believe it’s in song, in music,” Swados said, explaining that a play cannot create the same spiritual elements. “Words are more subjective. Music is universal. It can touch an unconscious nerve.”

It took Swados, whose work is highly regarded on and off Broadway, nearly 10 years to complete “Missionaries,” which was first performed in the early 1990s. She wanted to know the women as best she could, so she read every news story and book. But it wasn’t just the research that held her back.

“I had a hard time dealing with the notion of Christ. I was brought up with the idea there was no such thing, yet here I was with four women deeply loving this person or saint or whatever you want to call him. It was one of the major hurdles.”

It was only after she discovered liberation theology that she felt comfortable dealing with Jesus. “Whether or not you believe he’s the Messiah, if you believe he’s a symbol like Moses representing a fight for freedom and enduring suffering with dignity, you don’t have to believe. Liberation theology taught me an awful lot, probably because I’m a Jew.”

Swados made it a point not to involve the women’s families because she didn’t know if her piece would ever be completed or performed publicly. “It was extremely delicate and enormously important to a great number of people. The responsibility was constantly with me, that as much as I might try to be a regular artist and write good stories, I knew there were grieving families, and that colors the writing,” she said.

Although the tortures are described in horrifying detail and the growing threat is clear, the dominant elements of the work are the women’s words representing their faith and their love of the people, which are the reasons they stayed.

In an early letter home, Clarke is filled with gratitude for her work. “This is a terrible time in El Salvador for youth,” she sings with the others joining her. “Many people have found a meaning to live, to sacrifice and even die. And whether their life spans 16 years, 60 or 90, for them their life has had a purpose. In many ways, they are fortunate people.”

Donovan sings that she is “really thrilled to be doing my Lord’s work as a laywoman, missionary, God-driven person.” She is welcomed by the three sisters as Kazel tells her what to expect: “Hard work, long days, this is what the soul takes strength from. Sharing prayers, staying awake to keep the others safe. … We know we aren’t heroes. We just try our best, and the rest is up to God and the Salvadoran people.”

As the repression and genocide grow, fear and doubt ring out of their correspondence and journals. “Am I willing to suffer with the people here?” Ford sings. “Can I say to my neighbor, ‘I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you?’ ”

Other voices are heard as well. When the tortures of local women are described, a chorus of them takes up the song: “We keep going, we keep going. Out of the ashes, we keep going.”

And the four American women, who had come to spread the gospel, have a new understanding of why they are there. “Now I know I was called to be a witness. … I must feel every blow the Salvadorans endure. … To live out my mission, I must be found by the side of the road. Bound, gagged, at one with the people. Tortured, murdered, at one with the people.”

They rely on their faith. “To choose what is difficult all one’s days as if it were easy … that is faith,” they say.

The women, Swados said, “have been transformed by the people, and they understand why they do what they do and what it means. That transformation is a ritual.”

Their transformation is aided by their admiration for Romero, whose words are sung by a tenor to convey the sensibility of one who is higher up. “His rays of enlightenment shine on the women, and it transforms them,” Swados said.

The final transformation occurs in the people after the women’s murders. “Their deaths become for the people a reason to be strong and not give up, to point out injustice even more. The souls of the women become inspiration for the people.”

Julia Keogh, Clarke’s sister, said “Missionaries” captures her sister well. “She had been 19 years in Nicaragua first,” Keogh said. “She loved Latin American culture and the people. Even when she was home that’s all she talked about. Her whole world was being a missionary in South and Central America.”

Keogh will not be at the anniversary performances. She will spend that day at the school her sister helped start in Nicaragua.

She said watching “Missionaries” is painful. “It brings it all back. You think you’ve had the wounds so long they’re under control, but the anger, regrets and sorrow come back.”

Still, she said she is glad the show is being done because it will increase awareness of the injustice the missionaries and people of Salvador suffered.

Swados said the story should be kept alive because similar atrocities continue. “What’s changed really? Look at Yugoslavia. People keep doing something to the poor and disenfranchised, and people are trying to make change. What is the power to make this kind of mass genocide, and what stops it from happening?”

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000