El Salvador Martyrs remembered 40 years after their deaths

People across the globe recall the four missionary women who were killed 40 years ago in El Salvador. (Vatican Media)

Community members, bishops and Pope Francis all recalled the brave missionary women who were brutally murdered in El Salvador as they worked to make the lives of those suffering the county’s civil war easier.

It was Dec. 2, 1980, ten months after the start of the civil war in El Salvador, and eight since the murder of Salvadorian Archbishop, now Saint, Oscar Romero, when four American women were brutally murdered.

The four women, missionaries offering humanitarian aid to El Salvador and neighbouring countries, were seen as a threat to the right wing government, and accused by the regime of fomenting political opposition.

Sister Ita Ford, 40, and Sister Maura Clarke, 49, were both Maryknoll Sisters from New York; Sister Dorothy Kazel, 40, an Ursuline Sister from Cleveland; and Jean Donovan, 27, a lay missionary who was engaged to be married, also from Cleveland. All four were raped and murdered by five members of the El Salvadorean National Guard.

Pope Francis turned his thoughts to these four martyrs at the end his General Audience on Wednesday, the anniversary of their death. He said:

“Today is the 40th anniversary of the death of four missionaries killed in El Salvador… On the 2nd of December in 1980 they were kidnapped, raped and killed by a group of paramilitary forces. They were offering their services during the civil war and they were bringing food and medicine to those who had to flee, especially to the families that were the poorest. These women lived their faith with great generostiy. They are an example for all of us to become faithful missionary disciples.”

They were just four of the more than 8,000 people who were killed in that first year of civil war alone, a war that went on for 12 years and that left over 75,000 people dead.

The five Guardsmen stopped the four women’s vehicle after they left the airport, where two of the women were landing after attending a conference in Managua, Nicaragua. They were taken to a relatively isolated spot where they were beaten, raped and murdered by the soldiers.

There were witnesses: farmers who lived nearby where the women were taken had seen the women’s white van drive to an isolated spot, followed by the sound of machine guns being fired. Then, five men were spotted leaving the scene in the same white van. The next day, on 3 December, the 4 bodies were found in a ditch and the peasants ordered to bury them in a mass grave nearby. They informed their parish priest and the news eventually reached Óscar Romero’s successor, Arturo Rivera y Damas, and the United States Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White.

The women are remembered each year on the anniversary of their death. Human rights activists and the families of the victims never ceased fighting for justice. Five National Guardsmen were convicted of their murders; and after a 16 year-long battle, the head of the National Guards, who had since emigrated to the US state of Florida, was finally deported back to El Salvador.

Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez of San Salvador, El Salvador, stops to pray at the tombs of Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke Dec. 2, 2020 in Chalatenango, El Salvador, on the 40th anniversary of what some consider their martyrdom; along with Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, a laywoman. (CNS photo/ Rhina Guidos)