Six local sisters honor legacy of martyred churchwomen

Visit El Salvador with delegation 35 years after murders

By Rhonda Miska
Special to The Witness

MassatGuarjilaDUBUQUE — “It’s like those four women just died last week. Their memory is so fresh and deep,” marveled Franciscan Sister Charlotte Enright, OSF. “Their spirit is so alive.”

Enright joined five other sisters from Dubuque-area congregations – Franciscan Judy Sinnwell, Sinsinawa Dominicans Mary Howard Johnstone and Pam Mitchell, and Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Paulette Skiba and Carolyn Farrell – on a delegation to El Salvador from Nov. 28 – Dec. 5, 2015.

The delegation was entitled “Remembering Our Sisters, Carrying their Legacy Forward.” It commemorated the 35th anniversary of four churchwomen who were martyred there in 1980: Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursu­line Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan. The 117 delegates included women religious from around the U.S., as well as family and friends of the four churchwomen, and Protestant ministers. It was organized by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the SHARE (Salvadoran Humanitarian, Aid, and Research and Education) Foundation, which since 1981 has worked for women’s empowerment, citizen participation, leadership development and environmental sustainability in El Salvador.

During her mission in El Salvador in the midst of the civil war, Kazel wrote that she felt a “very REAL sense…a vivid realization that JESUS IS HERE with us.”

The six sisters from Dubuque-area congregations echoed this sense of God’s presence during the delegation, which included visiting the sites of the martyrdom of the four churchwomen, of Archbishop Oscar Romero (also killed in 1980), as well as presentations from grassroots justice and peace activists.

For Sinnwell, a powerful moment was witnessing a Salvadoran man weeping at the crypt of Archbishop Romero.

“This man was remembering. This is a country that knows its history, has learned from it, and is claiming their power to prevent it from happening again,” said Sinnwell. Watching the man weep at the crypt made her recall Romero’s words: “If I am killed, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

Another moving experience for the sisters was a visit to a river in San Antonio los Ranchos, near Chalatenango. It is where Maryknoll Sister Carla Piette, who ministered there with Sister Ita Ford, drowned in a flash flood on Aug. 23, 1980. There is a statue of Piette in the town square, reflecting the deep significance her life holds for that community. After Mass, the delegates processed to the river and were met by townspeople – including children wearing images of the churchwomen on t-shirts – singing, drumming, and holding candles.

“The whole village was out there holding candles with signs, and kids were there singing,” Skiba recalls of that evening.

“It was such a strong experience of community, remembering,” added Sinnwell.

Another powerful moment for the sister delegates was visiting the wall of remembrance in Cuscatlan Park in San Salvador, which honors the 75,000 civilians who were killed as well as the 10,000 who were disappeared during the civil war. The dedication on the wall reads: “This memorial is a gathering place, so that we never forget them, to honor their memory, to return to them dignity, to not permit the horror to be repeated and to lay the basis for a culture of peace and authentic reconciliation. A space for hope, to continue dreaming and building a more just, humane and equitable society.”

The churchwomen’s witness is personally meaningful for the sisters as they reflect on their own vocations.

“I made first vows in 1977, renewed my vows in 1980, and then again in 1983. I always renewed my vows right around December 2,” Johnstone recalled. For Johnstone – who first traveled to Central America in 1979 – renewing her vows around the anniversary of the churchwomen’s martyrdom is an invitation to deeper reflection on the Gospel call.

Farrell remembers well when she learn­­ed of the four churchwomen’s death on the radio news. “(It was a) moment of grace. They were ordinary women. We were probably the same age at the time. It was like, ‘Carolyn, what is your life all about’? They are role models for me. That has been true throughout my life.”

Another important element of the delegation was calling for the officials behind the churchwomen’s murders to be named and held accountable. SHARE has issued a statement calling on the “Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador to annul the Amnesty Law or other obstacles that would obstruct justice in El Salvador.”

A United Nations Truth Commission has named Salvadoran former Minister of Defense Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova as responsible for covering up the four churchwomen’s murders. In April 2015, after a protracted legal battle, Vides Casanova was deported to El Salvador from where he had been residing in Florida. Madre Guadalupe of the Mothers of the Disappeared, Ombudsman for Human Rights in El Salvador David Morales, and other human rights advocates are calling for Vides Casanova to be brought to trial as the “intellectual author” of the churchwomen’s murders.

“They have to repeal the impunity,” said Farrell, echoing this call. “People must be held accountable to deal with the injustice and the violence.”

Several of the sisters will present at St. Raphael’s Cathedral Parish Center on Sunday, Jan. 31 at 10 a.m. (after 9 a.m. Mass). In addition, they hope to speak about their experiences to parish groups, high schools, colleges, or social justice groups.

The sister delegates expressed gratitude for the hospitality they received and for the deepened sense of solidarity with Salvadorans. “The world gets smaller and smaller,” said Johnstone. “What affects El Salvador affects us.”


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