‘Light to the Nations’ celebrates four church women

Missionaries killed 35 years ago are remembered

By Rhonda Miska
Special to The Witness

Church womenDUBUQUE — “Junto a tí, buscaré otro mar,” sang the St. Patrick’s Hispanic choir and an assembly of over 200. “At your side, I will seek other shores.”

These words of Cesareo Gabarain’s hymn Pescador de Hombres (Lord, You Have Come) resonate deeply with the experience of four American churchwomen missioned in El Salvador to accompany the people amid the turmoil of the 1970s. As part of the Cleveland Mission team, they remained in country after the March 24, 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the killings and disappear­ances of tens of thousands of Salvadorans. Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan were abducted, raped and executed December 2, 1980 in El Salvador. The churchwomen worked with catechists and distributed food, developing relationships of mutuality with the poor. Since they stood with impoverished peasant farmers (campesinos), they were considered to be subversive by the repressive, violent Salvadoran regime.

“One cries out: Lord, how long? And then, too, what creeps into my mind is…when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful?…There is real peace in spite of many frustrations and terror around us…God is very present in His seeming absence,” wrote Clarke shortly before her death.

Ford echoed Clarke’s commitment and sense of God’s presence amid struggle in a letter she wrote, asking rhetorically: “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 solutions 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?”

At St Raphael’s Cathedral on Wednesday, December 2 images of the four churchwomen and a colorful Salvadoran cross were placed in the front of the sanctuary. Beside each woman’s image, a pillar candle was presented to honor her witness. “Light for the Nations” was the theme of the prayer service, drawing from imagery in Isaiah 42. A collaborative effort as a part of the Year of Consecrated Life, the service was sponsored by area Catholic Sisters who have had a long history of mission in Central America and accompaniment of Central Americans.

“The courage of these four women continues to inspire people from all around the world,” said Presentation Sister Joy Peterson, Justice Promoter for the Sinsinawa Dominicans. “We seek to honor their commitment to lay down their lives for justice and to find ways in our lives to be in solidarity with the children and families of Central America who still continue to struggle…there is a long history of passion for bringing that massacre to justice shared by the women religious of our area.”

“It is so important to remember those who have given their lives in hope of a peace-filled world. These four women lived their lives boldly and with courage, knowing that their decision to walk with the marginalized people of El Salvador might cost them their lives, and it did. By remembering them, we can draw strength to continue working for justice and peace wherever it is needed,” said Dominican Sister Pam Mitchell who ministered in El Salvador from 1991-1994.

Franciscan Sister Carol Besch, who herself served as a missioner in El Salvador for ten years, offered a reflection after readings from each of the church­women’s writings. After sharing biographical details of each of the women, she quoted Pope Francis on mission to migrants and refugees: “If we want security, let us give security; if we want life; let us give life; if we want opportunity, let us give opportunity.”

Sister Carol continued by speaking about the current reality in El Salvador where a spiral of drug and gang violence has led to massive emigration from the country. Facing persecution from powerful gangs who use join-or-die tactics, thousands of children have fled the country to reunite with family in the United States.

The Sisters offered several ways for those present to take action, including: supporting the St. Raphael sister parish relationship with Tenancingo, participating in advocacy for immigration reform, donating to the Catholic Charities Office of the Archdiocese which offers legal services, and volunteering as a teacher at Presentation Lantern Center.

“We don’t need to go to the immigrants, the immigrants are coming to us. The needs are the same, the pain is the same,” said Presentation Sister Elena Hoye.

Three months before her death, Ford wrote these words to her niece: “I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning…something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for…something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead.”

Sister Carol concluded her reflection with Ford’s words, and then added this invitation: “each of us might accept this same challenge as we are called to bring a light to the nations.”



This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.