It was a convent without walls in which Sr. Maura Clarke and Sr. Ita Ford lived. They were two sisters of Maryknoll, better known as the “Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic”, who, from the beginning to the end of their religious life, immersed themselves in missionary life, alongside the poorest, to the point of martyrdom. Just over forty years have passed since their brutal assassination on December 2, 1980; since then, their witness has gone far beyond the borders of El Salvador, the place where the two missionaries worked in the last months of their lives. Many people, even Pope Francis, have remembered the anniversary of the massacre. Also killed on December 2 were Sr. Dorothy Kasel, Sr. Ursuline, and the lay missionary Jean Donovan.
It was Bishop Oscar Romero, then Archbishop of San Salvador, who called Sr. Ita Ford to his diocese, soon to be joined by Sr. Maura Clarke. They arrived in El Salvador in March and August 1980. The situation in El Salvador was anything but peaceful: between the manipulated elections and the incessant coups d’état, the political context was very unstable. The persecution, torture, kidnapping and murder of political opponents, especially of poor innocent people, continued unabated. It was precisely to support the latter that the four missionaries, who were later killed, arrived in this difficult country. In particular, Sr. Ita, and later Sr. Maura, arrived shortly after the deposing of President Carlo Humberto Romero (1979) and the rise of a military junta, with a new coup d’état.
Even today, what happened on December 2 is not very clear. What is certain is that Jean Donovan and Sr. Dorothy Kasel went to the airport of San Salvador to await the arrival of the two Maryknoll Sisters, returning from Nicaragua for a regional assembly of the congregation. Shortly after 9 p.m. the van carrying the four missionaries returned to their respective missions. At about 10:00 pm, as some local farmers testified, the van was passing through a rather isolated area and it was there that soldiers of the Salvadoran National Guard, rebels of the regime, intercepted the van and stopped it. The four missionaries were raped, then stabbed to death and thrown into a pit near the road. The bodies were found the next morning.
Despite the investigations carried out, many things remain unclear. However, it appears that high-ranking members of the military junta ordered military personnel to follow the four missionaries. Why did this happen? The most well-founded hypothesis is that their work with the poor was viewed with great suspicion. In fact, working alongside the poor, helping them to organise themselves to fight against the dictatorial regime, creating a united front of opposition composed of exhausted and innocent needy people, presented itself as a considerable threat to the already unstable military junta. This was also in view of the precarious political situation that followed the coup d’état. The missionaries received many threats because of the work they were doing. It seems that Sr. Ita had somehow predicted her death.
During the last assembly of the congregation that she attended in November 1980, she read a passage from a sermon by Bishop Romero, in which he stated: “Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, whoever commits himself to the poor must suffer the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor means: to disappear, to be tortured“. In fact, a few days later, all four of them were martyred, just a few months after Bishop Romero.
I would now like to present some very brief biographical notes on the two Dominican sisters of Maryknoll.
Mary Elizabeth Clarke, later Sr. Maura, was born on January 13, 1931 in Queens, New York. She entered the Dominican Sisters of Maryknoll in 1950 at the age of nineteen. Before arriving in El Salvador, Sr. Maura spent much of her missionary life in Nicaragua, always at the side of the poor, providing in every way for their spiritual and material needs. In August 1980, she left for El Salvador, where, immersed in a situation of great tension, she did not hesitate to immediately put herself at the side of the poor to support them in their struggle against the dictatorship.
Sister Ita Ford was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 23, 1940. After her first experience with the Marynoll Sisters ended for health reasons, she re-entered the congregation in 1971 and remained there until her death. Her life as a missionary, before responding to Bishop Romero’s invitation to go to San Salvador, took place in Chile, in the mission of La Bandera in Santiago. There too, as she later did in El Salvador, her mission was immediately clear: to help the needy who were forced to live in the midst of great hardship, deprivation and persecution because of the regime.
The two missionaries, who arrived in El Salvador a few months apart, always worked side by side until their deaths.
Contemplating the lives of Sisters Ita and Maura, we can immediately see the missionary ardour that animated their religious life from the beginning: a life always lived in the cradle of selfless love, animated by a continuous thirst for justice. If we look closely, they fully embody this reversal of perspective inaugurated by the Beatitudes. This was the most beautiful gift they put in the hands of these poor people: the powerful and hidden hope of the Beatitudes. It is astonishing to read the well-known text of Matthew and to see–without a shadow of a doubt–that Sr. Ita and Sr. Maura fully embodied this spirit: they lived from the Gospel, they were nourished by the Gospel, they consoled through the Gospel, all this, as we have said, in the cradle of love. What does this mean? In this regard, there is a letter from Sr. Ita, written while she was in Chile, in 1977, where, speaking to herself and putting herself before the questioning candor of necessity, she said: “I do not know the answers, but I will walk with you, I will seek with you, I will be with you. Can I allow myself to be evangelised by this opportunity? Can I look and accept my poverty as I learn from other poor people?” It is moving to read and reread this question: it says it all, in this sentence we savor the taste of doing everything with Christ, for Christ and in Christ. They were there to serve Christ in the last, weeping, rejoicing, sharing and living day and night with the least. The school of Sr. Ita and Sr. Maura was that of the Gospel lived to the point of total self-oblation, in martyrdom.
It is also beautiful to observe how Sr. Ita and Sr. Maura, as Dominican sisters, fully incarnated the charism of St. Dominic, who gave his name to their congregation. Dominic lived for God, he was an evangelical man, not because he spoke of the Gospel, but because he embodied that radicalism to those who no longer keep anything to themselves. He gave everything to follow him. That is why he was satisfied with everything, in all that he gave thanks to God. He could not do otherwise, because he was never tired of living in that deepest place, of communion, in which day and night he prostrated himself in silent adoration. He couldn’t help speaking with God and about God, wherever he was, because he couldn’t help showing that path that, although present in everyone–Christ–some people are unable to find, allowing themselves to be deterred along the way.
In this mirror, if we look closely, we seem to see Sr. Ita and Sr. Maura, who have succeeded in embodying so wonderfully that great balance, difficult and mature, which the sons and daughters of St. Dominic are called to live. Moreover, both martyrs learned greatness at the school of the poor and the little ones, they experienced what it meant to be hungry and thirsty by sharing the famine of justice, they listened clearly to the voice of Christ amidst the groans of the oppressed, they experienced the human and immense difficulty of loving one’s enemies and the wonder of loving one’s neighbour, but they also discovered the difficulty of loving oneself after being reflected in the majesty of the little ones. They then touched the joyful threshold of Paradise by burying the innocent dead and, finally, they knew how to perceive, live and contemplate the presence of God even in the dark crevices into which man’s brutality can lead.
Like Dominic, the one in which Sr. Ita and Sr. Maura lived was a convent “without walls”, where the reversal of perspective inaugurated by the Gospel was embodied, yes, in pain and suffering, but already veined with that joy, full of hope, which already sees victory.
We know, however, that the blood of the martyrs is not shed in vain: the eloquent cry of blood rises ceaselessly from the earth to God; and He, moved by the joy of those who so wonderfully incarnated His Son, will fill this same earth with blessings. And this voice that the persecutors cruelly wanted to erase now resounds louder than ever in the echoes of the testimony that Sr. Ita and Sr. Maura transmitted through their martyrdom.
by fr. Simone Garavaglia, O.P.