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Four Dead in El Salvador: Understanding the Life and Death of Sister Maura

Sister Maura’s death and life raise profound questions about the intersection of religious conviction and political action.

A mural honors the "Churchwomen": four martyrs that were murdered while advocating for human rights during El Salvador's civil war. (Photo: Alison McKellar)

In 1980, the American public was shocked when four American women — three of them Catholic nuns — were found dead and buried in a field outside San Salvador, murdered by the US-trained El Salvadoran military. In her book A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura, Eileen Markey tells the remarkable story of one of these women. Order your copy of this story of faith and compassion versus brutality by donating to Truthout now!

In the following excerpt from A Radical Faith, Eileen Markey discusses the circumstances of Sister Maura’s death, the impact it had and how Markey was motivated to put this story into context.

The grave was fresh. The soil yielded easily to the shovels. It was no trouble, really, to uncover the bodies. They were piled one on top of the other, buried quickly the day before by orders from the local military commander. In minutes they were hoisted from the narrow ground and laid beside each other in the cow pasture. Their clothes were askew and their faces dirty, their hair matted with blood. Two of the women appeared to have been raped. A tigüilote tree, its limbs reaching over the place where they lay, cast a little shade. The women had been missing a long day and a half. Now they were found.

An onlooker stumbled to the ground, fell on her knees. A veteran nun who had been working in El Salvador for four years, Maddie Dorsey had seen dozens of bodies like these: bloodied, discarded, floating in a lake or tossed helter-skelter on the roadside. They were often left in places where people could easily discover them; the bodies became a message of fear and warning for all who saw them. See what happened to her? This is what troublemakers get.

A son didn’t come home at night. A daughter didn’t arrive where she said she’d be. Then began the waiting. Finally, a day or a month later — but sometimes never — someone would find a body in a ditch and word would spread and the mother or husband or sister would go and try to claim the body, would hope to be able to recognize it. Maddie often went with them. Sometimes she simply visited the family when the grieving mother tried to have a funeral, but friends were too frightened to show their faces at the church, lest they be marked for execution as well. Now Maddie was kneeling for women she called sisters. Just days earlier she’d been at a retreat with two of them in Nicaragua. She and two other Catholic nuns, Terry Alexander and Elizabeth Kochik, prayed quietly as the bodies were lifted out.

More than 8,000 people were killed in such a way in El Salvador in 1980 alone.

The American ambassador, Robert White, had been called to the scene. He blanched and muttered the words “I am sorry” when he saw the dead women’s faces. They were four US citizens: Jean Donovan, a church volunteer who had grown up on the gold coast of Connecticut and gotten involved in missionary work when she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, after business school; Dorothy Kazel, OSU, a Catholic nun of the Ursuline order who was also from Cleveland; Ita Ford, MM, a Catholic nun of the Maryknoll order, who had worked in the 1970s in poor neighborhoods of Santiago, Chile, under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; and Maura Clarke, MM. At nearly fifty Maura was the oldest of the group; she had been a nun for thirty years. Effervescent and gracious, with emotive brown eyes and a knack for paying intense attention to people others might prefer to ignore, she’d grown up in New York City, the eldest of three children. The green skirt her mother had made her clung to her legs now as her body lay on the ground, one arm extended above her head, her pretty face turned to the right. After living and working for seventeen years with the poor of Nicaragua, she had arrived in El Salvador at the beginning of August, hoping to share the troubles of the people. Four months later, here she was.

More than 8,000 people were killed in such a way in El Salvador in 1980 alone, the first year of a twelve-year civil war that left over 75,000 people dead.

The people killed were … anyone who questioned the economic and political system in El Salvador.

The killings weren’t random. They were carried out by the country’s army, by the National Guard, by the National Police, by squads of citizens organized and trained by those military entities, and by groups of off-duty military men operating in clandestine brigades named for Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the right-wing dictator of their fathers’ generation. The people killed were members of farmworker unions and cooperatives, students, nurses and doctors who gave public health training to poor people, teachers, people involved with their parish youth groups, catechism instructors, Bible study group members — indeed, anyone who questioned the economic and political system in El Salvador. Ambassador White had been reporting all this to Washington and struggling to maintain a space for US diplomacy between a military government and a left-wing insurgency bolstered by the ranks of people who found the bodies of their loved ones in places like this cow pasture in Santiago Nonualco. A few days before this latest killing, the political leaders of a newly united opposition group, the Democratic Revolutionary Front, were kidnapped from a meeting at the Jesuit high school in San Salvador. A day later, their bodies were found, mutilated. With the loss of these men, the American ambassador lost his best negotiating partners on the left. Now, looking at the broken bodies of these four church workers, he committed to bringing to justice the military that killed them. “They won’t get away with it this time,” he said. Within a few months his diplomatic career was over.

The people who lived in the area or worked on the hacienda next door covered the bodies with the palm-like branches of the tigüilote tree. At midafternoon the Salvadoran sun was hot and close, even in December, and there would soon be flies. The branches helped a little. The soldiers, clutching their guns, stood around the way soldiers do. The ambassador and his staff filed into their vehicles, bringing with them Juan Santos Cerón, the local justice of the peace who had authorized the opening of the grave, and sped down the dirt road, back toward San Salvador to confront the Salvadoran military and send a cable to Washington.

Two days earlier, on the morning of Tuesday, December 2, a member of his staff handed Fr. Ephraím López a letter that had been left at the church office in Chalatenango, an old colonial town of narrow streets and stucco buildings built hard against the road, in the mountains of northern El Salvador. The Spanish-style church rose high and gleaming white in the sun. Taller than any other building in the provincial capital, it dominated the central plaza. Or maybe more accurately it split influence over the central plaza with the town’s other great institution: the army barracks. Military Detachment No. 1 was housed in this building.

Catholics are subversive, [Colonel Ricardo Augusto Peña Arbaiza said], because they side with the poor.

In the past year, a military intelligence unit had moved in as well. In addition to housing the soldiers and the administrative offices, the facility served as a prison for people arrested on suspicion of subversion. Many, many times Fr. López, a deliberate man whose face barely moved when he spoke, the son of local landowners, had walked into the army barracks to speak to the commander and request the release of this prisoner or that, the husband of a woman in the village of San José Las Flores, the son of a family in the town of San Antonio Los Ranchos. The commander of the base, Colonel Ricardo Augusto Peña Arbaiza, did not like priests and nuns. He kept a bible, a gun, and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking on his desk and quizzed visitors on scriptural passages. He liked to lecture on the dangers of Catholicism and communism. Catholics are subversive, he’d told one of the now-dead women a month earlier, because they side with the poor.

Fr. López looked at the paper he’d been handed. On it were his name and those of everyone who worked in the parish: the seminarians, the Salvadoran nuns, and the two American nuns — Ita Ford and Maura Clarke — who had been working in the parish the past few months. “All these people are subversives. They will be killed. It starts today,” the missive read.

Shaken, Fr. López decided to bring the message to the head of the Catholic Church in El Salvador that very day. Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas had only held the position for nine months; he was named to the role after the previous archbishop, Óscar Romero, was murdered while saying Mass in March 1980. Fr. López drove through the steep streets of Chalatenango, where he had been appointed pastor just two years earlier, past land his brother owned and where he had grown up to San Salvador. He brought the letter to the bishop at the archdiocese headquarters at San José de la Montaña, an imposing church and seminary in downtown San Salvador. Its once elegant grounds had become a makeshift refugee center for the hundreds of people fleeing repression in the countryside. The priest stayed overnight in a house his family owned in San Salvador. He knew Maura and Ita were in Nicaragua and planning to stay in another part of El Salvador the night they returned. He drove back to Chalatenango the next morning, only to learn that they were missing. By the end of December he would flee to Washington, DC.

What forces in Sister Maura’s life, in herself, led her to this vicious death so far from home?

Who was this woman in the dirt? What forces in her life, in herself led her to this vicious death so far from home? What did that ring, slipped on the slender finger of a twenty-two-year-old, have to do with farmer laborers and death squads, clandestine meetings and military orders?

In the thirty-five years since their murder, Maura and her companions have become symbols. Many forces — personal, religious, and political — combined to deliver Maura to that hastily dug grave at the edge of the cold war. This book seeks to put her back in her context, to understand her death by examining her life, to make her whole again.

In doing so we can see in this one woman a history of the mid-twentieth century: the cohesion and power of an immigrant New York neighborhood, and the romantic inheritance of the Old Country. Maura was raised on stories of the Irish Revolution, her worldview shaped as much by her parents’ experience of subjugation as by the New Deal and World War II. The circumscribed roles for working class women combined with a sincere desire to do good led thousands of women in her generation into convents. For Maura, being a nun was never about locking herself away; it was a means to lead a bigger life, to be part of the wide world. Her life tells the story of the dramatic shifts that swept through the Catholic Church in the 1960s, which reordered nuns’ role and reimagined the dictates of faithfulness in the corporeal world. Maura’s life as a missionary in Central America maps the reach of US power and delineates the Faustian calculus Washington, DC, adopted: supporting any regime that resisted Cuba or the Soviet Union. The parish priest in Maura’s first mission had blessed the planes that deployed to the Bay of Pigs. Nicaragua’s dictator came to cut the ribbon on the school she ran, built by President Kennedy’s anticommunist Alliance for Progress. The man who directed her murder was trained by the US military.

The deaths of the churchwomen, as Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean came to be called, were met with shock and confusion in the United States and kept Central American policy in the headlines for a decade. That the four were clergy became a rallying cry: surely the United States was backing the wrong side if it was arming and training nun killers, the sisters’ advocates argued. The image of Maddie, Terry, and Elizabeth kneeling in that cow pasture as the bodies were exhumed was seared into the public consciousness.

But as much as the churchwomen’s murder elicited outrage and inspired opposition to continual support for the government that killed them, it also provoked suspicion. What were those nuns doing down there? The question floated behind any discussion of the crime or its repercussions. Jean Kirkpatrick, foreign policy adviser to incoming President Reagan, argued that the churchwomen were something other than nuns: that they were social activists operating on behalf of the leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and that someone opposed to the FMLN killed them. Secretary of State Alexander Haig went several steps further in January 1981, suggesting in a congressional hearing — and in contradiction of ballistics evidence collected by the FBI — that the women may have been killed in an exchange of gunfire. It wasn’t true, but it muddied the waters and gave oxygen to a suspicion: what were those sisters doing down there?

What if following God means … working to change the circumstances of a world that insults the sacredness of most men and women?

Our cultural memory is filled with narratives of nuns’ dedicating their lives to God. These images usually involve high walls and fences, angelic voices, restrictions, penance, purity, and innocence — a renunciation of the world. But what if God, or if that word hangs you up with all its baggage, what if the sacred exists not somewhere else in rarified unattainable form, what if it’s here? What if commitment means a dedication to God in others, a seeking of the holy in the messiness and in the complexity of a real life? What if following God means not so much attempting to order one’s life into fidelity to rules, but working to change the circumstances of a world that insults the sacredness of most men and women?

Sometimes it seems we demand that our victims be powerless, that innocence — pristine separation from the world — is a prerequisite for being wronged. But Maura had agency. She wasn’t a hapless innocent. She was an actor in a fraught and shocking place, struggling to hear God’s direction in the cacophony of fear and violence, grief and terror. The repression of Salvadoran farmworkers and church members drew outrage and condemnation from human rights organizations because it was directed at noncombatants, people innocent of armed rebellion. And undoubtedly, Maura’s murder carried extra currency because she was a nun. The military regime conducted its anti-insurgency operations as though there were no innocents, anyone criticizing the regime was de facto a guerrilla sympathizer. At the same time, the military chiefs pleaded innocence, claiming to know nothing about the death squads, pledging over and over again to rout out the perpetrators of atrocities that they themselves were directing. The US diplomats wore that most infuriating trait of American innocence amid world affairs: the inability to see.

Maura changed sides. She stood … with the people getting their teeth kicked in.

But Maura could see. She rejected the innocence of blindness, and she chose to act. Her death and life raise profound questions about the intersection of religious conviction and political action. What does belief compel in the real world? If the holy is not only in the sanctuary but also in the street, what are the obligations of the faithful? Maura was killed because of the work she was doing. That work was an expression of her religious practice. We like our martyrs at a distance, uncomplicated by political context. But Maura, assassinated in a war so recent its architects and coaches are still alive, was killed for her belief — because her belief drove her to act. Her death had power. It could be used as an indictment of US foreign policy. Her murder alerted people in the United States to the carnage in El Salvador. She died just like the Salvadorans she went to help, just like the campesinos who were disappeared and tortured by their government, the tens of thousands of women who were raped, the unending toll of bodies torn from their homes by death squads and discarded on the roadside. In Maura and the other churchwomen we began to see the mass of Salvadorans cut down for the crime of asking for something better and we learned something about state violence, about the viciousness of power, the willingness of those in control to commit atrocities so as to preserve absolute privilege. Maura changed sides. She stood not with the prerogatives of the most powerful nation or its allies, but with the people getting their teeth kicked in. She died just like seventy-five thousand Salvadorans during their civil war.

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Her death was also used as an example, a model. In schools and parishes throughout the country, the churchwomen story has been taught for a generation as an example of committed Christianity. It is not difficult to read the churchwomen as Christ figures. They gave their lives, offered themselves as a sacrifice, were willing to risk everything to share the suffering of others. The very physicality of Maura’s death links her to the Christ story: The divine is not remote. It’s here in a broken body. Those nuns kneeling at the grave become Mary and St. John at the foot of the cross, witnesses to horror and great love.

But before she was any of these things, indictment, martyr, or Christ figure, she was an individual woman. As much as Maura’s story is the story of the implications of belief or a window into the ugliness of the Salvadoran civil war or an outgrowth of the changing Catholic Church, or as much as it reveals about the applications of cold war policy and the power of her father’s stories of the Irish Revolution, it is at heart the story of a woman trying to be true.

I set out to understand how a beloved daughter from Rockaway, Queens, could end up in that grave. In the course of trying to answer that question, I met a singular woman. Maura believed in love and she believed everyone was important. A profound belief in the value of every person undergirded everything in Maura’s life. But she often felt she wasn’t measuring up. She merged that insecurity, her need to feel loved and worthwhile, with a preternatural ability to connect with others. That ability drew her into their suffering and inspired her to struggle for something different. She noticed everyone, believed and acted as though everyone — customers she waited on at a gift shop as a teenager, to desperate farmworkers in a remote village — mattered. Maura’s convictions began in the personal and flowed, eventually, outward.

In Maura we watch a timid and rule-bound woman find strength. We see a woman come into her own, even as she devoted herself to others. She threw in her lot with disregarded people, and in so doing grew bold. In the end her story is about connecting the interior with the outside, the spiritual with the physical. Maura’s is a political story, but it’s a personal story.

Copyright (2016) by Eileen Markey. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Nation Books.