By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Martyrs and saints inspire Mary Pimmel-Freeman.
But not until she can take them off the pedestal and know them as human beings, just like her.
“The people we look up to are saints and martyrs, but when we put them on a pedestal, we can forget their humanity,” Pimmel-Freeman told more than 100 people at a memorial service for the six slain Jesuits of El Salvador, a university cook and her daughter.
“Their lives and their struggles as human beings can teach us,” she said.
Every year in Kansas City, the massacre of Nov. 16, 1989 on the campus of the University of Central America has been remembered, largely by people from parishes with sister communities in El Salvador, many of whom have traveled to that small nation to bring what healing and solidarity they could to the nation that suffered through a civil war throughout the 1980s.
That decade of war had its bookends with the March 24, 1980, military death squad assassination of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the 1989 murders of Elba Ramos, Celina Ramos, and Jesuit Fathers Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramon Moreno, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez and Amando Lopez.
Roused from their beds in the middle of the night, five of the Jesuits were taken into the courtyard outside their campus community residence and shot. One was shot in the doorway of his room. The two women were shot in the parlor, where the Jesuits had sheltered them from fierce fighting in their home neighborhood. The mother and daughter died in each other’s arms.
Pimmel-Freeman didn’t learn of the murders until 20 years later, when she was an undergraduate student at Rockhurst University. Then she had to learn more, even travelling to El Salvador to the place where they died.
The massacre not only became the subject of her senior thesis, it inflamed her art. After learning everything possible through books, articles and even the writing of the Jesuits themselves, Pimmel-Freeman created a series of seven portraits which she calls “Falling in Love.”
It was the Jesuits’ love for the poor that ultimately led them to sacrifice their lives.
“Martyrdom bears great fruit,” she told her audience gathered at St. Francis Xavier Church in Kansas City. “The seeds sown by their deaths continues to bear great life.”
Thus it was with the Jeusits, Pimmel-Freeman said.
“The Jesuits were assassinated because they spoke the truth, and the truth favored the poor,” she said.
Pimmel-Freeman’s portraits have been displayed widely, and annually are displayed at the annual Ignatian “Teach-In” that gathers Jesuit university students from across the nation to Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of the University of Central America massacre.
By the time of the 1989 massacre, more than 70,000 people in the country of some 6.3 million had died during the war. While the Jesuits spoke forcefully on behalf of land rights and human rights for the nation’s poor, they also condemned atrocities on both sides of the conflict.
“The Jesuits were appealing for a third way, for peace through negotiations,” Pimmel-Freeman said.
“But they were called communists.”
Each priest had his own personality, she said.
Father Lopez y Lopez was called “Father LoLo” by the people he served.
“He did not teach at the university, but he was one of the original founders,” she said. “He was quiet.”
Father Moreno “seemed like a regular priest,” Pimmel-Freeman said.
“The others seemed to shine like superstars, but he could catch fire when preaching a retreat,” she said. “Now he stands as an example of following your call. His life speaks of the power of letting yourself be used by God.”
Father Lopez was a boring classroom instructor, Pimmel-Freeman said.
“But he was a great spiritual counselor, and people would come to speak with him,” she said.
Father Martin-Baro was one of the world’s great psychologists whose work on the post-traumatic stress syndrome on civilian populations made him a leading authority.
“He was said to be two different people,” she said. “On campus, he was extremely focused on his research and his work, and was always writing. On weekends, he worked at rural parishes and came to life there.”
Father Montez had a “fierce and fiery personality,” Pimmel-Freeman said.
“He could be very strong in his opinions, but also be very forgiving,” she said.
Father Ellacuria was president and rector of the university, and the main target of the military assassins that night, who were also ordered to leave no witnesses.
“He was the visionary behind the mission of the university,” she said. “He was so committed to the truth that he gave his life.”
The Jesuits were warned that they would be targeted for death, Pimmel-Freeman said. They could have fled, but didn’t.
She said Father Montez expressed it best when he wrote, “God’s grace does not leave, and neither shall we.”
“They were not going to leave the people they loved,” Pimmel-Freeman said.
It is that humanity that she hoped to capture with acrylic on canvas, she said.
“When you see a person’s face, you can’t step away without holding on to part of the experience,” Pimmel-Freeman said. “When we recognize our shared humanity, it expands our compassion.
“God gives us the strength to live out our calling,” she said. “I can only imagine that their faith in God and love of humanity kept them going.” o