Thursday, December 02, 2010

Four Martyrs... 30 Years On

Hours after US Catholicism lost its most-celebrated peace activist of the 20th century, thirty years ago today brought brutally tragic news from Latin America as four daughters of the Stateside church serving the missions in El Salvador were abducted, raped and murdered as the country descended into civil war.

The attack on Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan -- a 27 year-old Cleveland laywoman who left a career in management consulting to heed the call to the missions -- began when they were stopped by National Guardsmen at a roadblock, and ended as their bodies were tossed into a shallow grave (from which, on learning the news, friends came to remove them).

Investigations following the decade-long war concluded that the four churchwomen were deliberatedly targeted, and that they had been killed "on orders from above."

Thirty years later, the tragedy is being recalled far and wide -- the Maryknoll family is marking the milestone in El Salvador today alongside events in Washington and New York, Masses are being held from LA to London, a pilgrimage has set off to pray today at the gravesite of two of the sisters... and earlier in the week, colleagues recalled the heroic work and ultimate sacrifice of the four, whose work ranged from catechesis and setting up health-care efforts to teaching the poor to read, and even, simply, how to speak.

The El Salvador conflict saw some 75,000 of the country's own killed -- and in November 1989, as the war drew to a close, six Jesuits and two women (the community's housekeeper and her daughter) were added to the number. Yet while the church's own remain widely commemorated -- above all, San Salvador's iconic Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down while saying Mass in a hospital in March 1980 (and at whose funeral 40 more were killed in the crowd) -- the degree to which most lost their lives unsung, often in cruel, chilling fashion, can't go forgotten.

In a haunting letter written shortly before the attack, the Brooklyn-born Ford wrote that she found her "fear of death 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," she wrote.

Known or not, may all the martyrs know that new life... and may we who remain -- especially for those of us accustomed to a life of relative comfort and safety -- never forget the axiom of the faith's earliest days: that their blood is the seed of this church.