Category: Archive

20 years later, families recall devotion of slain nuns

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

Relatives of Maryknoll nun Maura Clarke flew to El Salvador last weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of her murder and the murders of three other women.

Clarke, the daughter of Irish immigrants, Ita Ford, also a Maryknoll nun, Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, and Jean Donovan, a lay missionary, were sexually assaulted and killed by soldiers of the Salvadoran National Guard on Dec. 2, 1980 and buried in a common grave.

Their deaths intensified the debate about U.S. involvement in Central America, in particular its support for the repressive Salvadoran government, which was at the time fighting a peasant uprising. The conflict ultimately claimed 75,000 lives.

"I guess we’re trying to help ourselves; we’re trying to find something of her — to feel close to her," said her sister Julia Clarke Keogh, of Old Brookville in Long Island. She is being accompanied by three of her children, Peter, Deirdre and Scott Keogh, who are visiting Central America for the first time. Members of Ita Ford’s family, who are originally from Brooklyn and now live in New Jersey, also traveled with the Keoghs.

Maura Clarke, who was 49 when she was murdered, grew up in Belle Harbor in Rockaway, Queens. She was the eldest child of John and Mary Clarke, who were natives of Skreen, Co. Sligo, and Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, respectively.

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"My parents never got over her death," Keogh said. "They wrote to her every week. They knew what was happening. Parents always blame themselves when a child dies."

Maura Clarke studied to be a teacher at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. She completed her education at Maryknoll after she joined the Catholic missionary order. She spent the first five years of her career teaching at a school in a lower-income neighborhood in the Bronx. Then in 1959 she left New York for Nicaragua. "She worked there with the poor for 17 years," Keogh said.

"I’m a little bit at peace with it, because she worked and died for the people of Latin America, whom she loved," she said. "She found out what was important for her in her life. Many people go through their lives thinking they will find it at the next shopping mall.

"She saw Christ in everyone, and lived her life that way," Keogh said of her sister. "I can see her so clearly. She was generous, outgoing, full of life, all the traits that have been attributed to Irish people."

After a period in the late 1970s promoting missionary work in the United States, she returned to Nicaragua following the overthrow of the Somoza government by the Sandinistas. Shortly afterward, she moved to Chalatenango in El Salvador in response to an appeal for help from Ita Ford and another Maryknoll nun based there. Both Clarke and Ford were inspired by the teachings of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was himself assassinated at Mass by government troops.

Like Romero, it is believed that the four women were targeted because of their outspokenness about human rights violations. Before their deaths, a written warning appeared above the door of their building. It said: "All who enter here are communists and all will be killed."

Maura Clarke wrote: "My fear of death is being challenged constantly as children, lovely young girls, old people are being shot and some cut up with machetes and bodies being thrown on the road and people prohibited from burying them." She continued: "One cries out: Lord how long? And then, too, what creeps into my mind is the little fear, or big, that when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful?"

After the women’s deaths, the recently appointed American ambassador, Robert White, was on hand for the exhumation of their bodies from their temporary grave. He became a bitter critic of Washington policy in the region and was fired by the Reagan administration in 1981 shortly after it took office. White believed that rebellion was understandable after decades of injustice and that outside factors, such as interference from Havana and Moscow, were overemphasized by those backing the Salvadoran government

The killings of the four women became a point of contention between supporters and opponents of U.S. government policy. At hearings in 1981, Alexander Haig, Reagan’s secretary of state, referred to the women being killed in an "exchange of fire," a statement their families regarded as a smear.

Before she was appointed Reagan’s UN Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick was quoted as saying: "I don’t think the government was responsible. The nuns were not just nuns, the nuns were political activists."

In 1984, five former soldiers were convicted of the women’s murders. But the Clarke and Ford families continued to wage a battle with authorities at home and in Central America to find out who ordered the killings.

The 20th anniversary comes just a month after a Florida court found that two former Salvadoran generals were not liable in the women’s deaths. A civil action had been brought by family members, under the terms of the Torture Victim Protection Act, against General Jose Guillermo Garcia, the former minister of defense, and Carlos Eugenia Vides Casanova, the former head of the Salvadoran National Guard. Both men live in Florida.

Julia Keogh, who sat through the entire trial, said that the enlisted men did not act on their own initiative. "That’s impossible to believe," she said. "There are truly evil people living in this country who are responsible for 75,000 deaths," she said.

Keogh expressed disappointment at the verdict, which she put down to the jury’s tiredness and confusion, at the end of a long trial. She said though that it was positive development that the men were brought to trial.

In the meantime, she’s returned to Chalatenango, in El Salvador, which she first visited for her sister and Ford’s funeral and burial in 1980.

A number of other commemorative events were held at the weekend in New York and Washington to mark the anniversary. One of them, attended in Manhattan by Julia Keogh’s husband, Peter, and other family members, was a benefit performance of an opera about the women by Elizabeth Swados, entitled "Missionaries."

Part of the proceeds have been set aside for the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center in Brooklyn.

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