In The ‘Land Of The Savior’…They Chose To Die

On 2 December 1980 Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll lay missionary Jean Donovan went to the international airport in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, to meet Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke who had been at a meeting of their congregation in nearby Nicaragua. The four American women were working on behalf of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, helping refugees who were fleeing from violence.

As they left the airport, members of the National Guard stopped their van, took them to an isolated spot and shot them dead at close range. A UN-sponsored Commission on the Truth in El Salvador concluded that the murders had been planned in advance and had been carried out on orders from above. It also found that the head of the National Guard and the two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed facts. There was evidence too that the Salvadoran military and some US officials had tried to cover up the murders.

The defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1984, the first time ever that a judge in El Salvador had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998 three of the five soldiers involved were freed for good behavior.

Their own words explain why the four martyrs stayed in El Salvador despite the danger they knew they were in.

Jean Donovan

Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of this insanity. 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.

Sr Ita Ford MM

Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent? Can I say to my neighbors – I have no solution to this situation, I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you. Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness as I learn it from the poor ones?

Sr Maura Clarke MM

We have the refugees, women and children, outside our door and some of their stories are incredible. What is happening here is all so impossible, but happening. The endurance of the poor and their faith through this terrible pain is constantly pulling me to a deeper faith response. . . 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 bodies 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 precious unknown, uncelebrated martyrs. One cries out: ‘Lord, how long?’ And then too what creeps into my mind is the little fear, or big, that when it touches me personally, ‘Will I be faithful?’

The day before she was murdered Sister Maura wrote, ‘I want to stay on now, I believe now that this is right. . . Here I am starting from scratch but it must be His plan and He is teaching me and there is real peace in spite of many frustrations and the terror around us and the work, etc. God is very present in His seeming distance.’

Sr Dorothy Kazel OSU

El Salvador is writhing in pain – a country that daily faces the loss of so many of its people – and yet a country that is waiting, hoping, yearning for peace. The steadfast faith and courage our leaders have to continue preaching the Word of the Lord even though 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. Yes, we have a sense of waiting, hoping, and yearning for a complete realization of the Kingdom, and yet we know it will come because we can celebrate Him here right now.

The deaths of these four women from the USA who chose to stay in El Salvador helped remind the world of the 75,000 victims of state violence in that small country the name of which means ‘The Savior’ and that has a population of 5, 210,000 in an area of 21, 040 sq kms. This compares with the island of Negros that has nearly 4,000,000 in a land area of around 14,000 sq. kms. The civil war ended in 1992. Their deaths were a reminder too that here in the Philippines at that time there were also countless victims of state violence who were hated by the authorities for trying to live by the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Savior who came into the world as an utterly helpless baby whose own life was threatened by the authorities of his day, forcing Mary and Joseph to flee with him as refugees to Egypt.

Most of the material above was taken from