In December of 1980, there were four Maryknoll Sisters living and working in El Salvador. Madeline (Maddie) Dorsey and Teresa (Terry) Alexander worked in Santa Ana, and Maura Clark and Ita Ford worked in Chalatenango. In Chalatenango, Ita received urgent requests from refugees for food, medicines and transportation. She and Maura made constant trips to the countryside to deliver supplies or to pick up refugees who had been hiding in the hills for fear of government-sponsored death squads. The church in that area was labeled “communist” because they cared for the poor who were considered a threat to the military dictatorship in control of El Salvador in that time. Among the sisters’ in-country friends were Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Lay Missioner Jean Donovan, members of the Cleveland Mission Team who lived and worked in La Libertad, a village not far from the international airport south of the capital, San Salvador.
The Maryknoll Sisters in Latin America held annual regional assemblies and retreats. El Salvador was in a “Region” that included Panama and Nicaragua. Their assembly in 1980 was held in Nicaragua. Maddie, Terry, Maura and Ita traveled to Nicaragua for the assembly and had made arrangements with Dorothy and Jean to pick them up at the airport upon their return. They had been unable to book the same flight back and so Dorothy and Jean made two trips to the airport that day. They met Maddie and Terry’s 4 o’clock flight and took them to La Libertad where they had left their jeep prior to their flight to Nicaragua for the assembly. “A National Guardsman on duty in the airport watched the women and placed a call to his local commander.”
“It was 5 o’clock when Maddie and Terry drove away from La Libertad bound for their mission in Santa Ana. Dorothy and Jean climbed back into their white van to return to the airport. As they waited for Ita’s and Maura’s flight...the National Guardsman placed another phone call. The local commander who took the call then ordered five guardsmen to change into civilian dress for an unspecified mission.”
We may never have known what that “unspecified mission” was had it not been for several events. “At around ten that night, along the dusty road to San Pedro Nonualco, one hour from the airport and in the opposite direction from La Libertad, three peasant farmers watched from a pineapple field as a white van drove by. It traveled another seven hundred yards and then stopped. (Soon they) heard machine gun fire followed by single shots. Fifteen minutes later the same vehicle passed by on its way back.” The effort to draw attention away from the spot where the sisters had been murdered was evidenced by their van having been “left burning that night on the side of the road leading from the airport to La Libertad.”
In brief, the bodies had first been left in an open field the night of December 2. On December 3, when the bodies were discovered by local farmers, civil authorities had them buried in secret. But, on December 4, some of the local people went to the parish priest who then notified church authorities, and the gruesome assassinations came to light. The bodies of the four North American missioners, raped and brutally shot, had been found. They had suffered “the same fate as the poor.”
"Those of us who remember have a responsibility to tell their story and to invite another generation of women and men to follow their example of selfless love."
(Sr. Ann Scholz, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the associate director for social mission of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious [LCWR])
Sr. Maura John Clarke was born Mary Elizabeth Clarke on Jan. 13, 1931, to Irish immigrants who settled in Queens, New York. She joined the Maryknoll community in 1950. After graduating from Maryknoll Teachers College in 1954, Maura taught in the Bronx for five years. In 1959 she was assigned to Siuna, Nicaragua, as a teacher and then superior. From 1970 to 1976, she served in Managua, where she accompanied the people during the cataclysmic earthquake of 1972 and in the rebuilding afterwards. In 1977, she returned to the U.S. for three years and served on the World Awareness Team before returning to Nicaragua in 1980 and then going to El Salvador. After the death of Sr. Carla Piette in August, she was convinced her role was to stay in El Salvador and help Sr. Ita Ford minister to refugees there. She and Ita were returning from a regional meeting on Dec. 2 when two friends met them at the airport.
Sr. Ita Ford was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 23, 1940. She joined the Maryknoll community in 1961 but left after three years for health reasons. In 1971, she rejoined, and she arrived in Chile in 1973 just before the military coup. She stayed to minister to the people until 1980, when she responded to Archbishop Óscar Romero's call to serve in El Salvador. She arrived shortly after his death on March 24. She and Sr. Carla Piette went to Chalatenango in June to work with the Emergency Refugee Committee. In August, she and Piette were swept into a flash flood; she was spared, but Piette was not. Four months later, she was murdered.
Sr. Dorothy Kazel was born June 30, 1939, in Cleveland, and joined the Ursuline Sisters there in 1960. She taught for seven years in Cleveland and worked in interracial community programs. In 1974, she joined the Cleveland Diocese's mission team in El Salvador. There she trained catechists and helped form base communities, transported homeless people to refugee centers and distributed Catholic Relief aid. A month before her death she wrote of El Salvador as "a country writhing in pain." Of local religious leaders, she wrote of their "steadfast faith and courage…to continue preaching the Word of the Lord even though it may mean 'laying down your life' in the very REAL sense."
Jean Donovan, born on April 10, 1953, in Westport, Connecticut, was the youngest of the four murdered churchwomen. She had a master's degree in business administration and a well-paying job for a Cleveland accounting firm when she heard of the El Salvador mission program. She went to La Libertad in July 1979 and became a Caritas coordinator, distributing food for the poor. She was beloved for her sense of humor, and the people dubbed her "St. Jean the Playful." She and Kazel helped to establish an orphanage to care for wounded and orphaned children. She was deeply inspired by Romero, and took a turn guarding his coffin in the days before his funeral.