Although the violence, abuse and oppression by the Salvadoran military had been ravaging the country for several years, 1980 marked the true beginning of the Salvadoran Civil War. It was in that year that the world was robbed of one history’s most passionate and eloquent Catholic leaders: Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. And, in that year, the true arrogance and confidence of the Salvadoran Military was on display when soldiers kidnapped, raped and murdered four US Churchwomen living the Gospel and serving the poor in El Salvador. You will find a brief history below:
There is probably no greater voice associated with Catholic Social Justice and the Gospel in Latin America than that of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. One cannot visit El Salvador today without seeing images of him painted on walls and houses across the countryside. The international airport was even renamed the Monsenor Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport.
On May 23rd, 2015, before more than 250,000 Salvadorans (myself included) shoulder to shoulder in front of the enormous statue of Salvador Del Mundo in San Salvador, Oscar Romero was officially beatified for giving his life in service to God and proclaiming the Gospel message in a land torn apart by extreme poverty and oppression.
Who was Oscar Romero? Romero was a rather unlikely hero. In his youth and early years in ministry, he was a quiet and conservative fellow. He certainly had a respect for tradition -both within the Church and within Salvadoran Society. He was exactly the type of man that the hierarchy felt would keep the Church on its traditional path and out of the spotlight. However, as catechists, nuns and fellow priests were assassinated by the military, he found himself questioning what he had always believed about the conflict that was being waged in the countryside. When his good friend, Father Rutilio Grande was murdered by the military, Romero could no longer keep the Gospel message and Christ’s teachings separate from the reality that Salvadorans were facing.
Jesus did have a message for the military and the leadership in El Salvador: Though Shall Not Kill. Although many of his detractors accused him of being political, Pope Francis has recognized that Romero’s call for Social Justice was not political but was moral, ethical, and religious. The Catholic Church could not remain silent or blind to what was happening to the people – the same people that had been baptized and confirmed in the Church.
The murders, the violence and the repression had to stop. Salvadorans, young and old, listened on their little portable radios each weekend as Romero’s homilies would be broadcast around the country. Like Jesus, Romero walked among the people, in the streets and markets where they lived. He preached the Holy Gospel and reminded the powerful of their obligations as Catholics to obey the Word of God.
He was fearless yet humble. He chose to live not in comfort, but in a tiny apartment that was part of a hospital run by a congregation of nuns. To his core, he was humble, sincere, pious and devoted to his flock. You can see this humility in one of his quotes, ” I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us”.
On March 23rd, 1980, Romero made his famous “stop the repression” homily. “No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The Church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression” (March 23, 1980).
The next day, March 24th, 1980, Romero was in the chapel of Divina Providencia across the road from where he was living outside of the capital. He had been asked to give a memorial mass in honor of the mother of one of San Salvador’s wealthiest men. As he stood before the altar, a car stopped in front of the main doors and a single .22 caliber bullet penetrated Romero’s chest. The nuns ran to his aid but it was a mortal wound.
With one tiny bullet, the military had silenced one of the most eloquent and most brave shepherds that the Catholic world has ever known. But, the violence was only beginning. During his funeral at the Cathedral, military sharpshooters fired upon the masses of funeral mourners in the streets – grenades exploded and 30-50 people lost their lives. By the end of the war, more than 70,000 had died and the fabric of the society had been forever shredded.
During Romero’s beatification in 2015, at the moment when he was declared Blessed, a rainbow appeared in the sky. It was a sign of what he had remarked just days before his death: “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people”.
Clarke and Ford were Maryknoll Sisters, Kazel was an Ursuline nun and Donovan was a lay woman who had decided to leave her job with Arthur Anderson in Cleveland, Ohio, and join the Maryknoll lay missionary team in El Salvador.
These four churchwomen were working with poor women, children and families. Dorothy and Jean worked in the port town of La Libertad on the Pacific Coast. Maura and Ita worked in Chalatenango in the north. As the Civil War was fought in the countryside, flocks of war orphans and refugees streamed towards the cities in search of safety, water, protection and shelter. The Churchwomen were living in true solidarity with the people – doing all that they could to help protect and serve those in need.
Reviewing Jean Donovan’s personal journal, it is clear that the women understood that the same violence that was destroying the Salvadoran society could quickly target them, as well.
The military would dump bodies in the street waiting to see who claimed them – then, they would target those friends and relatives, as well.
Back in the USA, the women’s families were concerned for their safety. They pleaded with the women to leave but they would not abandon the Salvadoran people. Jean Donovan famously wrote that she would leave “except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
On December 2nd, 1980, Maura and Ita were returning from a seminar in Nicaragua. Jean and Dorothy had taken the mini-van to pick up their friends at the airport. Upon leaving the airport, the Salvadoran military pulled them over and took them to a desolate area where they were raped, murdered and buried in a shallow grave.
A local farmer had heard the gun shots and risking his own life, went to see what had happened. He found the hastily made graves and notified the local priest who called CLAM member Father Paul Schindler who drove from the Port of La Libertad to this remote location and ordered the exhumation of the bodies and identified his murdered friends.
The US government, at that time, was supporting the Salvadoran military and it took the Herculean efforts of Senator Edward Kennedy to help bring the bodies home. Secretary of State Alexander Haig even testified before Congress that it was possible that the Churchwomen were responsible for their own deaths. US government policy was that the Salvadoran military was battling leftist – communist insurgents and any casualties had to have been leftist sympathizers.
There is no doubt today about who was responsible. There were the four guardsmen present for the murder who ultimately went to jail. But, the Courts wrongly declared that they acted on their own, without any instruction from the military. This ruling meant that they would not be offered amnesty following the war and their testimony against military officials would never go on the record. But, we do know that the Salvadoran military leadership was responsible for ordering and then covering up the murders.
The war would claim more than 70,000 victims before its end in 1992. The murder of the Jesuits at the UCA in November of 1989 finally brought enough pressure upon the US government to end its financing and support for the Salvadoran military. Without that support, the Salvadoran military couldn’t finance its war of oppression which lead to an eventual truce, amnesty and Peace Accords (1992).
Jean Donovan’s body was returned to her parents in Sarasota, Florida. Sister Dorothy Kazel’s body was returned to her family in Cleveland, Ohio. And, as is the custom, Maryknoll sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford were buried among the people that they served in life in Chalatenango, El Salvador.
December 2nd, 2015, marks the 35th anniversary of their murders. Although two Salvadoran generals have finally been expelled by the US Courts and have returned to El Salvador, final justice for the Churchwomen is yet to be realized.
Yet, their legacy lives on in countless churches, schools, social action groups, and individuals, inspired by their lives and sacrifice.
Today, you will find this chapel which has been built upon the site of their murder. Local families keep the keys and open the gates to all visitors.