Remembering the Martyrs of El Salvador

“Martyrs for Justice,” sketch by Sister Catherine Martin, O. Carm. Pictured from the top are Jean Donovan and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke.
“Martyrs for Justice,” sketch by Sister Catherine Martin, O. Carm. Pictured from the top are Jean Donovan and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke.
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Part 1

By Sister Betty Campbell

Today, December 2, marks the anniversary of the martyrdom of four U.S. missionaries—Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay volunteer Jean Donovan—who were assassinated in 1980 by the Salvadoran military for their advocacy on behalf of refugees and the poor. This is the first of two reflections from Sisters of Mercy who ministered with the churchwomen martyrs in El Salvador.

In 1980, Sister Betty Campbell traveled to El Salvador to accompany those who were suffering from the violence of the civil war. Sister Betty reflects on her Sister Betty writes:

We met Ita, Jean, Dorothy and Carla Piette [another Maryknoll sister] the first days at large meetings of the pastoral people. I was asked to help as a nurse in several areas where refugees were gathered, like San Roque, the basilica and the seminary.

Carla was eulogized as fogosa—“fiery.”  She built and maintained a head of steam for the refugees in Chalatenago. We talked while Carla emptied pills out of bottles and into plastic bags, tucking them in places where they would not easily be spotted in case stopped by the Salvadoran National Guard. Carla was in good spirits.  She said that as a North American she had been feeling the weight of the social sin against the people, the involvement of her own U.S. government in supporting and aiding the repression.  She could now see that the refugee assistance coupled with her solidarity with the people was a way both of countering the sinful structures that tarnish all U.S. citizens and a way of disassociating herself from U.S. government policy. 

Ita and Carla made an excellent team. One day Ita was travelling by a bus that was stopped for identification check. The National Guard took a young man aside and waved the bus on. Ita, who knew the young man, intervened: “If you take him you take me.”  The Guard let him go.

[Editor’s Note: Carla died in 1980 in a flash flood. Maura Clarke came to take her place in El Salvador.] Maura joined Ita after that.  They asked me to teach the people in the Chalatenango area first aid, how to care for bullet wounds, give injections, etc.  As I went with them they gave me the name “Maria” and never told me the names of the pueblos in case we were picked up by security forces and tortured for information.

One day when Ita and Maura went with the pastor to Mass, entering the long road to a village, a couple of teachers on a motorcycle passed them waving.  When they returned down the road from Mass they saw the teachers had been shot and killed, bodies strewn on the road.

When Maura and I went to that village a few days later, her fear from that experience was so evident. Maura could hardly walk and put her arm through mine to steady herself. Yet, Maura participated as one of the people in the village, encouraging and listening, so appreciative.

We had begun to pray and reflect with Maura and Ita about the people and the church in Central America, particularly in El Salvador.  In one session we were dwelling on the risks of being with the people in their suffering.  “Yes, but we must work fast,” interposed Ita. “We’ve got to get the food and medicine out to the villages.  Things are going to get worse.” 

We spoke of the works of mercy, responding to the call in the gospel of Matthew, and how people were persecuted in El Salvador for visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, teaching the unlettered, burying the dead.  How many people had been kidnapped, tortured, killed or “disappeared” for doing these works of mercy?

The kidnapping and killing of our four North Amercan missionaries by the security forces was in part, if not entirely a result, of their tremendous work with the refugees.  Dorothy and Jean worked mainly in the parish of La Libertad. I remember them so well.  As the repression grew they brought people fleeing the army sweeps to the refugee centers in San Salvador. We met several times at the archdiocesan offices for pastoral meetings, to consult about work or just chat over a cup of coffee. Sometimes we met in the refugee camps. Yes, a couple of times we even went out for a nice meal.

Twice the week before Dorothy was killed, she came to talk with me about a sick woman who was critically ill.  She had several children. Arrangements were made for her to go to the hospital but the care and medicine did not help her. Dorothy was of light spirit, but not those days as the number of refugees grew and the conditions in the refugee centers became more difficult. More and more we saw pregnant women in the camps. I put a delivery room in one of the offices at the Basilica.

We saw Jean for the last time on December 1st. She wanted to show us a picture of a U.S. Huey helicopter. A few days before she had been out in the countryside with a seminarian and saw a helicopter circling overhead. Suspecting that it was a U.S. Huey, being used to repress these people and to track her in her work, she phoned her mother for a picture. These five women were ordinary women with an extraordinary faith and profound love for the people. There are so many martyrs to give us life, so many in El Salvador.

Part 2

By Sister Janet Korn

There are so many martyrs in El Salvador and I had the blessing of knowing two of them. One of them was Sister Ita Ford and the other, less known, is Sister Carla Piette.  Both Maryknoll sisters, Carla and Ita worked together in Chile.  After the Chilean Military Coup in 1973 they worked diligently searching for disappeared people, healing those who were tortured and praying with those who had lost a loved one. They were seasoned missionaries. I was also living in Chile, on the other side of Santiago. Our paths often crossed at gatherings, meetings and retreats.

During the time after the coup many people were taken by the police.  They were often taken to places of torture; many disappeared, and some were never heard from again. In those days we—Ita, Carla, Anna Gleason (a former Sister of Mercy from Australia) and I—sometimes met at one of the prisons which was holding a mutual friend of ours, Dr. Sheila Cassidy, an English woman who was captured and tortured. Sheila survived and returned to England.  

In the late 1970s Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was looking for help in his own country—help doing exactly what Ita and Carla were doing in Chile.  Both countries were suffering from horrible actions and decisions made by soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in the United States.

Ita and Carla accepted the call from Archbishop Romero and made the decision to go to Salvador. Carla arrived in Salvador on March 24, 1980, the day the Archbishop was murdered while saying Mass. Her resolve to heal and help that country was only heightened.  Ita followed shortly after. They found a desperate situation and weren’t exactly sure how to minister in such conditions, but they began helping refugees who were escaping the terror of their government.

One day they were transporting refugees across a river. They left them on the far side of the river and on the return trip they encountered a flash flood. Their jeep was filling up with water, so Carla pushed Ita out of the jeep. Ita was washed ashore, where she stayed much of the night between consciousness and unconsciousness. The next day, August 23, 1980, Carla’s body was found many kilometers downstream. The Salvadoran people still remember her each year on that day. Ita recovered but remained deeply saddened by the death of her very dear friend.

In late November of that year the Maryknoll sisters working in Salvador went to a meeting in neighboring Nicaragua where they discerned about the wisdom of remaining in El Salvador. Their response was a definite yes. At the close of the meeting they boarded the plane on December 2 to return to Salvador. Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel were to pick them up.

The next day we received a call from the Maryknoll sisters telling us that the sisters’ jeep had been found burned by the side of the road. They asked us to send messages to the Salvadoran embassy demanding to know where their sisters were. Anna and I took the bus to downtown Santiago where we sent our telegram to the Salvadoran Embassy.  After sending the telegram we decided to take the bus to the Maryknoll Center House in Santiago and stay with the sisters while they awaited the news. In the late afternoon the news came that the bodies of the sisters had been found.  I believe that we all knew and felt what the answer would be, but we simply wept together.

Later in the week a Mass for the women was celebrated in the Cathedral in Santiago.  The Maryknoll Sisters made a huge sign that was hung from one side of the cathedral to the other.  The sign read: “‘We have only done what we were supposed to do.’  Luke 17: 10.”

After 35 years it feels and hurts like yesterday.  They said “yes” to picking up the pieces of lives that were broken by our own government, by the military of El Salvador and by the civil unrest in El Salvador.  Their “yes” was a commitment to standing with poor and oppressed people regardless of the cost.  They teach us how to live and how to die.