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CHURCHWOMEN-30TH Nov-29-2010 (780 words) With photos. xxxn
Colleagues recall commitment of churchwomen slain in El Salvador
By Laura Dodson
Catholic News Service
MELBOURNE, Fla. (CNS) -- Dec. 2 marks the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, lay missionary Jean Donovan and Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, the four churchwomen of El Salvador who were savagely brutalized and killed for spreading the good news and teaching people to read and pray.
"I can't say this to anybody because they wouldn't understand," Sister Dorothy wrote to her former missionary partner, Sister Martha Owen, in October 1980. "I want you to explain why I have to stay."
El Salvador was experiencing civil unrest, repeated military coups and finally civil war. Amid the death squads and countless disappearances, the four churchwomen attempted to bring life to the communities they served.
"Dorothy had a true and genuine concern for people," Sister Martha said. "She was always open to both sides of an issue -- trying to bring light, not heat, to the issue. The preferential option for the poor was in her heart even before we went. She felt the needs of the poor so deeply within herself that she identified with them. She was willing to sacrifice anything. She offered herself for the violence to stop."
Sister Martha had shared a one-room hut with Donovan.
"Jean had a call there and tried to follow that," she said. "She was easy to be around. She was involved with the young people and totally committed to the kids. Jean was everybody's sister and daughter and maybe God had exactly that in mind."
Maryknoll Sister Margaret Dillon recalled the decisive moment in the lives of fellow Sisters Maura and Ita. During a retreat in Nicaragua of U.S. religious at Thanksgiving, Sister Maura, who had been working in Chile, discerned, "God wants me to be in El Salvador," and then turned to Sister Ita, who had experienced several months of the unrest there, and said, "We will go back together."
Father Gregory Chisholm, a Canadian missionary serving in Pucallpa, Peru, was a member of a delegation of six who flew into the San Salvador airport that fateful December day and was greeted by Sister Dorothy and Donovan, who were awaiting the arrival of Sisters Maura and Ita.
"They were very nervous," Father Chisholm said. "They told me to go with the Canadians because the situation was 'very tense.' Dorothy said, 'Pray for us.' We got into a minibus -- the same vehicle in every detail as the sisters'. Out of a ditch came military guys who stopped us and when we said we were there for the bishop, they started cursing us.
"We told them, 'We're Canadians!' and they told us, 'Get out of here,'" the priest recalled. "We learned that 45 minutes later, they stopped and killed the nuns. On our return trip to the airport, we passed by their burnt-out minibus."
"Sister Dorothy was my mission partner in 1974," Sister Martha said. "We went down together to study the language. We were raising the consciousness level of the poor and middle class -- bringing them an understanding of their dignity and their rights.
"We taught the people how to say their name in public. They were so frightened they wouldn't look at you," she continued. "We made the people catechists -- teaching first Communion classes, Liturgy of the Word sessions, they distributed Communion and developed lay leadership.
"Once war broke out, the catechists were seen as an underground guerilla movement," she added. "There was a disconnect totally between a better economic situation and being committed to the poor. Faith does have consequences in the real world."
The sisters helped the poor to find food and build shelter. They also taught the farmers about runoff and implemented health care programs. The people distributed food, which became a form of leadership development that gave a sense of dignity and self-worth.
"Teaching people to read, teaching people to think, gives them a tool to further develop their sense of consciousness and depth of prayer," Sister Margaret said. "They can read the Bible and know their dignity. It became good for the folks, but subversive to the powers that be.
"The greater sense was the service we could provide -- whatever that might be -- not living in harm's way, but for something. We weren't fighting against the government but for the church and God's reign of peace, justice and love," she said. "It's a life wish."
Sisters Dorothy, Maura and Ita and lay missionary Donovan are remembered every year in the little towns where they served and at the chapel built at the site where their bodies were found. Fellow sisters planned to travel to El Salvador to be with those honoring their lives Dec. 2.
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Contributing to this story was The Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Orlando.
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