This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  December 16, 2005

Maryknoll marks 25 years since martyrs' deaths

Maryknoll, N.Y.

Twenty-five years ago this month, four North American churchwomen were raped and murdered in El Salvador by government soldiers. Maura Clark, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel, drawn to El Salvador by the work of the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero, went missing on Dec. 2, 1980. Their bodies were discovered two days later buried in shallow roadside graves by villagers who had discovered their bodies the day before.

Maura Clark and Ita Ford were Maryknoll sisters, working in El Salvador as missionaries. Last week Maryknoll marked its martyrs’ deaths with a special Mass and an afternoon of reflection in upstate New York. Families of Srs. Clark and Ford, friends of all four women, and reverent strangers filled a chapel and later a conference room. It was a crowd into which the four women would have blended perfectly, had fate not joined them to the estimated 70,000 victims of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.

“Sadly,” said theologian Megan McKenna, the day’s featured speaker, “we sometimes remember these women more for the way they died than the way they lived.”

McKenna sought to turn an autumn memorial into a call to action: “Today we are supposed to go home converted -- turned upside down.” Her attempt to facilitate that conversion experience turned on a message antithetical to the myth of martyrs: These were ordinary women who lived extraordinary lives.

Quoting the poet Mary Oliver, McKenna punctuated her call to conversion: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“These women weren’t any different than us,” McKenna said. “They were scared all the time. … They thought they were never doing enough.

“What they shared in common,” she said, “was an openness to being changed. An openness to not just live with the way things were -- but to let the way things were alter everything they did.”

McKenna read from a book of Ita Ford’s letters home, just published by Orbis books: “The challenge that we live daily is to enter into this mystery with faith,” Ford wrote from Chile in 1977. “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.”

That was Ford at her best. In weaker moments, she sounded more, well, ordinary: “I’m taking a day off today to be alone, to think,” Ford wrote from El Salvador several months before her death. “I’m super-saturated with horror stories and daily body count to the point that I thought I’d hit the next person who told me that someone else was killed. I’m not sure how you get ‘acclimated’ to a country that has an undeclared civil war going. But sometimes you have to have a break.”

The grief, McKenna explained, was enormous. And the grief, she surmised, was what conquered fear: “Grief is fueled by love. Fear is fueled by violence. Grief was their antidote to fear.

“They sided with the poor,” she added. “And that’s what got them killed. It was guilt by association. You want that kind of guilt when you get to the gate of heaven.”

* * *

Bill Ford Jr., Ita Ford’s nephew, followed McKenna with his own call to leap from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Sixteen at the time of Ita Ford’s murder and 10 years older when he first visited El Salvador with his father, he bristled when people there used words like “martyr” and “saint” when they spoke of his aunt. “How dare you?” he thought at the time. “She’s not some plastic figure of a saint. I am not ready for anyone to describe someone who lived and described herself as a Ford with those words that our church preserves in a sacred way. No. This is private. This is ours.”

In El Salvador, Ford said, he was hit “with a Gospel I wasn’t anywhere near ready for.”

Visiting the spot where Salvadoran soldiers had murdered six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, the Jesuit priest Jon Sabrino commented: “All of these were killed because they have shown such a great love. The world doesn’t see very much of that and most don’t know how to respond.”

Bill Ford was back in El Salvador one year later with an open ticket. He traveled the country on motorcycle, working for the Jesuit Refugee Service and visiting repopulated communities, where families forced out by the war were starting to return.

Debilitated by dysentery and put up in “a very modest home,” a Salvadoran nun with perfect English gave him a local remedy and told him, “Take this. You will be better and less of a problem for us all.”

It was, he believes, his Aunt Ita’s way of saying “You don’t have to be exactly where I was …” And this, if anything, was the message of the day.

“Ita had traveled a long distance,” Ford said, “thoughtfully, lovingly, sometimes disregarding all risks, and had ended up in El Salvador. And yes, her life was taken from her -- not by bullets, but by the Gospel of the Salvadoran people who had drawn it out of her by their own transformative way with her.

“So Ita was simply saying: ‘Find a people, find a place, and be ready to have your life drawn out of you.’ ”

Maura Clark’s niece, Deirdre Keogh-Anderson, offered a prayer, via one of Clark’s last letters home, that both explained the lives of the four martyrs and echoed Ita Ford’s transmission to a passionate and eager nephew and follower.

“Here’s a lovely prayer by Thomas Merton,” Clark had written, “that I find has a lot of meaning for me these days …”

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road although I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

* * *

“It’s been 25 years,” McKenna concluded, “and everywhere I travel, in all of South and Latin America, everyone knows their names. People name their kids after them. I meet Itas and Jeans and Mauras and Dorothys all over the place. Even boys. Jean and Ita seem to be a big boy’s name. They are remembered.

“But we can’t live on 25 years ago,” she added. “What are you going to do with your one wild and passionate life now?”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer living in New York City. His e-mail address is

Commemorations in El Salvador

National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: