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Issue Date:  December 16, 2005

Maura, Ita, Dorothy, Jean left their mark on many lives

Photographer Linda Panetta, a regular contributor to NCR, traveled to El Salvador in early December for the commemorations of the 25th anniversary of the deaths of four U.S. churchwomen. Her photos from the events are featured on these pages. The following is her reflection on the effect the women’s lives had on her own path.


The same week that marked the 25th anniversary of the brutal rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen -- Maryknoll Srs. Maura Clark and Ita Ford, Ursaline Sr. Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan -- also commemorated the 20th anniversary of me being “ruined for life,” in the words of the Jesuit Volunteers Corps on those who take immersion trips with them.

Twenty years ago I was a marketing and accounting major at Cabrini College in Pennsylvania, with high ambitions to use my degree to advance in the corporate world. Little did I (or my mom) expect that two years later I would instead be climbing mountains in Guatemala. Two decades later, I have been to countless conflict and war zones. What first ruined me? It was, in fact, the story of the four churchwomen. I vividly recall sitting in my required theology course watching “Roses in December,” a powerful film with vivid footage of the bodies of the four woman being pulled from a shallow gravesite. But for me, the graphic images were a stark reminder of a terrible death of a loved one I had witnessed just months earlier. As a teenager, and one quite isolated from the realities of war (and life for that matter), I believed that I was alone in having witnessed such a tragedy.

The film not only made me realize the immense suffering that people of El Salvador have endured, but the stories of the committed and faithful lives of the women struck me profoundly. I began to realize the terrible mistake I had made in casting my first vote in a national election for a president who was complicit in the death and suffering of the Salvadoran people, whom the churchwomen called family.

Many other events would solidify my commitment to working in solidarity with the poor, including the influence of a Mayknoll priest and lay missioner who were working at Cabrini College. My decision to go to Central America was solidified by watching the proceedings of the Iran-contra affair and by learning how some at the highest levels of our government defamed the lives and work of the women in El Salvador. I developed a deep commitment to my faith and to that of the poor through my work with the homeless in Philadelphia. I had, in fact, been “infected” by the vocational work of the four women and wanted to offer my services in any way I was able. Through a program at Cabrini, I went to Guatemala, and so began my journey to live as faithful a life as I could, in solidarity with the poor.

The decision to go to El Salvador this December was an easy. I went not to commemorate their deaths, but to celebrate how they lived their lives. I was privileged to share in the celebrations and remembrances with a delegation coordinated and lead by the Maryknoll sisters. Although the majority of the 76 participants were Maryknoll sisters, there were also several Maryknoll priests, a few lay missioners and others. In additional to our group, hundreds from Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and many other states and countries from around the world came to commemorate the lives of these women whose story and lives touched so many.

National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 2005

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