Issue Date: December 16, 2005
Maryknoll marks 25 years since martyrs' deaths
By JEFF SEVERNS GUNTZEL
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 Salvadors 12-year civil war.
Sadly, said theologian Megan McKenna, the days 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 werent 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 Fords 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 dont 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: Im taking a day off today to be alone, to think, Ford wrote from El Salvador several months before her death. Im super-saturated with horror stories and daily body count to the point that I thought Id hit the next person who told me that someone else was killed. Im 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 thats 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 Fords nephew, followed McKenna with his own call to leap from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Sixteen at the time of Ita Fords 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. Shes 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 wasnt 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 doesnt see very much of that and most dont 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 Itas way of saying You dont 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 Clarks niece, Deirdre Keogh-Anderson, offered a prayer, via one of Clarks last letters home, that both explained the lives of the four martyrs and echoed Ita Fords transmission to a passionate and eager nephew and follower.
Heres 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.
* * *
Its 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 boys name. They are remembered.
But we cant 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 2005
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