U.S. martyrs in El Salvador met terror with love, faith


Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International, sings with the congregation that packed St. Joseph’s Chapel at St. Teresa’s Academy Dec. 6 to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the murders of Jean Donovan, Sister Dorothy Kazel, Sister Ita Ford and Sister Maura Clarke in El Salvador. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Afraid? They were absolutely terrified, said Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International.

“I’m not up for suicide,” wrote Jean Donovan in a letter to a friend shortly before she, a lay missionary, and Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel were tortured and murdered together then buried in a single shallow grave on Dec. 2, 1980.

None of them were about to give into terror, Dennis told more than 100 people who packed St. Joseph’s Chapel at St. Teresa’s Academy Dec. 6 to mark the 35th anniversary of their murders at the hands of an El Salvador National Guard death squad.

“It is essential to retell the story of these women, the story of (Blessed) Archbishop Romero, the story of thousands upon thousands of faithful people who gave their lives for life and dignity. It is essential to retell their stories now because they refused to be paralyzed by fear, refused to be dehumanized,” Dennis said in keynote reflection.

Donovan was only 27. She had earned a master’s degree in business administration at Case Western University in Cleveland, but instead answered the call, along with Ursuline Sister Dorothy, of then-Cleveland Bishop James A. Hickey to serve on diocesan mission teams in Central America.

Donovan’s head told her to flee the civil war that had just begun to rage after the assassination of Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero eight months earlier, and the program of systematic terror conducted by the government’s military on the poor.

But her heart wouldn’t let her.

In her own words in the same letter, read again 35 years later in Kansas City: “Several times I have decided to leave. I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of adult lunacy. Who would care for them? Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

Maryknoll Sister Maura believed exactly the same thing.

“My fear of death is being challenged constantly as children, lovely young girls, old people are being shot and some cut up with machetes, and bowies thrown by the road, and people prohibited from burying them. A loving Father must have a new life of unimaginable joy and peace prepared for these unknown, uncelebrated martyrs.”

Maryknoll Sister Ita: “I don’t know if it is in spite of or because of the horror, terror, evil, confusion, lawlessness. But I do know that it is right to be here, to walk in faith one day at a time with Salvadorans along a road filled with obstacles, detours and sometimes wash outs. This seems to me to be what it means for us to be in El Salvador.”

Sister Dorothy: “The steadfast faith and courage of our leaders have to continue to preach the word of the Lord, even through it may mean laying down your life in the very real sense, is always a point of admiration and a vivid realization that Jesus is here with us.”

That’s what it means to be human, Dennis said. And that’s why the only solution to terror and violence is love and solidarity.

“To be human is to be vulnerable. To be human is to love, to forgive, to cherish life.” Dennis said.

“That is exactly what Maura, Ita, Dorothy and Jean did,” she said.

“Terror stalked the communities where these women worked and lived, brutality as vicious as that of ISIS, Boko Haram or the Assad regime in Syria was occurring daily,” she said.

“Yet when corpses were piled high in the garbage dumps outside of San Salvador, when flyers saying, ‘Be a patriot; Kill a priest’ were posted everywhere, when bishops, generals, the nuncio and the government demanded neutrality from the church, these four women chose to accompany a people made profoundly vulnerable by war and by repression,” Dennis said.

“They loved deeply and lived the virtue of solidarity. Poor people, they believed, were one place of God’s revelation in history, an opening where the God of hope and possibility was repeatedly being discovered in the midst of suffering and fear,” she said.

St. Teresa Academy students Bella Pichardo, Molly Muehlbach, Rose Genaris and Connor Hodes sing the meditation “Nada Te Turbe” (Let Nothing Disturb You) at the Dec. 6 memorial for the 1980 murders of four women missionaries in El Salvador. The poem was written by St. Teresa of Avila and set to music by modern composer Joan Szymko. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

The lesson of the four women is not to let fear rob us of our humanity, Dennis said.

No matter how wealthy, no matter how privileged, we are all vulnerable, she said, even those at a small Wednesday evening Bible study group at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Columbia, S.C.

“Dylann Roof sat with the group in the sanctuary for an hour or so, then proceeded to slaughter nine of those with whom he had just been praying,” Dennis said.

“Not even in the sanctuary were they safe, not even as they read the Word of God were their lives spared,” she said.

“But the families and loved ones of those who were slaughtered would not let death have the last word, Dennis said. “Even as they struggled through the intensity of their own grief, they claimed the fullness of their humanity and forgave the one who had committed the horrific crime.”
Thus it was in El Salvador, in 1980.

“The instinct of these four women to immerse themselves in communities confronting unthinkable violence and injustice is particularly instructive to us now,” Dennis said.

“They found in El Salvador a vibrant expression of community that was not only enabling its members to cope with extreme violence, but also nourishing them with the Word of God and the Bread of Life to be fully alive and fully human,” she said.

“Deep in the human heart is an indelible sense of the value of each human life and an instinct to be human, to love — an instinct for solidarity that accompanies, responds to, and needs to shape our conversation around the topic of security that is too often manipulated for political gain or ideological reasons, yet will be central in many ways to the future of the human community and the integrity of creation,” Dennis said.

“Inclusive human security, as opposed to national security or personal financial security, would guarantee access to food, clean water, health care, education and employment for all,” she said.

“This kind of security would emerge from a globalization of solidarity, international cooperation to meet the basic needs of all people in a manner that nurtures right relationships within the community of all life,” Dennis said.

“It seems to me that the global groaning we are now experiencing is about shifting from one definition to the other, from pursuing security by building higher walls and stronger fences, inventing more powerful weapons systems or dominating the global economy to pursuing security through the adoption of a new — or perhaps a very old — vision that sees and values the whole community of life, and through collaborative attention to ensuring that the basic needs of all human beings everywhere are met,” she said.

In 1986, Dennis was part of a delegation of 20 people who attempted to accompany 500 Salvadorans who had been living in a refugee camp back to their home village where, for the first time in years, they could plant their own crops.

A few miles short of their destination, they entourage was stopped by the Salvadoran military, and the international delegation was ordered to leave.

“We and they were not sure they would survive, but they did,” Dennis said.

She knew this because, a year later, she received, somehow in the mail, a small packet of corn kernels and black beans from the Salvadorans’ first harvest.

Flash forward to Sept. 11, 2001, “I lost my cousin in the World Trade Center. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and left his wife and two very young children,” Dennis said.

“About a week after the attack, I wound my way down to the site of the devastation and planted a few of those seeds from El Salvador in a small park as close as I could get to the destruction. It was a futile gesture, indicative of my inability to imagine a more practical gesture of support for his family,” she said.

“On the other hand, those seeds carried great weight, the weight of what might blossom were we to live humanly even in the face of terror and unrelenting structural violence, if we were to love generously, if we were to embrace nonviolence and the kind of global solidarity lived by the four women we honor today,” Dennis said.

“Over a year later, I returned to Ground Zero with my family. I found my way back to that little park just to see it after the debris had been cleared,” she said.

“There was a tall stalk of corn where I had planted the seed,” Dennis said. “It was unbelievable, but a powerful sign of hope to me.

“The seeds of solidarity that nourished us, North Americans and Central Americans together, will bear rich fruit personally, nationally and globally, if we are willing to risk planting them again in these troubled times,” Dennis said.


  1. December 23, 2015 at 10:14 pm #

    thanks so much for the story

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November 27, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph