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40th Anniversary of the Murder of 4 US Church Workers in El Salvador

December 1, 2020

It was 40 years ago today that the bodies of four US church workers – Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan – were exhumed from where the spot they were clandestinely buried the day they were murdered.

Ita, Maura and Dorothy were nuns in the Catholic Church and had been working in Central America for some time before they were killed. Jean Donovan was a successful accountant with Arthur Andersen, but in 1977 she decided to leave all that behind and work for justice through the lay religious order of Maryknoll.

The four women had been invited to work with internal refugees in El Salvador by the Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1979. They women became good friends of the bishop up until his assassination in March of 1980. The women were present at the funeral for Romero where Salvadoran soldiers opened fire on the crowd of mourners, killing roughly 30 people.

Jean Donovan wrote that things became more dangerous by the day and that friends of hers were being killed on a regular basis. When asked why she didn’t leave, Donovan said, “I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

On December 2nd, Jean and Dorothy drove to the Salvadoran airport to pick up Ita and Maura. After they left the airport they were pulled over by Salvadoran Security forces. The four women were murdered, the bodies taken to a clandestine location and buried. After the bodies were exhumed it was determined that the four women were raped before they were murdered.

This injustice took place at the end of the Carter administration, which did nothing to hold the Salvadoran government accountable. The incoming Reagan administration was quite friendly with the Salvadoran government and even suggested that the four women were responsible for their own deaths.

However, family members of the four women and former US Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White fought hard for an investigation and in 1984 five Salvadoran National Guardsmen were sentence to 30 years each for the murders. The Truth Commission findings in 1992 determined that the murders were planned and that the soldiers were following them from the airport.

As a young man I was inspired by the dedication and courage that these four women demonstrated in the face of repression. Their deaths and the murder of Archbishop Romero months earlier both played a major role in my decision to become involved in solidarity work in Central America in the 1980s.

The self-less love that the 4 women demonstrated is what led several of us to start the Koinonia House in Grand Rapids in 1984, on the 4th anniversary of their death and then to declare ourselves a sanctuary for Central American refugees in 1986. Two years later I went to Guatemala to work with Peace Brigades International (PBI) and follow the tradition of the four women in doing solidarity work with people who were being terrorized by US funded death squads.

The courage of Ita, Dorothy, Maura and Jean were part of what influenced my own work and the work and lives of countless other people. It is because of this that we honor their memory today.

Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Jean Donovan…….Presente!

The video link below, is most of the film entitled Roses in December, a 1982 documentary about one of the women murdered, Jean Donovan, as well as a powerful indictment of U.S. foreign policy in Central America. When I was a seminary student at Aquinas College, we screened this film on campus.

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