September/October 2016
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September/October 2016
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Remembering the martyrs 30 years later
Maryknoll Sister Madeline Dorsey, who served in El Salvador at the time, reflects on those harrowing days and the deaths of her friends and colleagues.

The year was 1980 and El Salvador was beginning a 12-year civil war between leftist rebels seeking social and land reform and right-wing government militias suppressing them. Some 1 million people were displaced and 75,000 killed. Among the dead were churchworkers targeted as subversives because they were aiding the poor. Maryknoll Sister Madeline Dorsey, who served in El Salvador at the time, reflects on those harrowing days and the deaths of her friends and colleagues.

Siser Maura Clarke The memory of the events of 1980 will always be painful yet beautiful, as the faith of our loved ones who died speaks out to us even today.

That I survived will always remain a mystery to me. I was working with the poor and could very well have met death like my colleagues. No other Maryknoll Sister knew El Salvador’s complexities nor understood up close the government’s undeclared war on its own poor people as I did, having witnessed so much violence in the year I was alone serving 8,000 people in a poor colony in the Santa Ana Diocese. The newly founded death squad would come during the night and take away our youth and often their fathers. The poor, the youth and those working to help them meet their faith needs and basic economic necessities became the endangered species.

Lucky for me, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Lay Missioner Jean Donovan, both on the Cleveland mission team, were serving an hour and a half away in La Libertad. They worried about me being alone. Jean would call and insist I not skip one of our regularly scheduled prayer/play days.

In 1979 when the Maryknoll Sisters leadership team asked for volunteers to join us in El Salvador, Carla Piette, Ita Ford, Terry Alexander and Maura Clarke responded.

Carla arrived at the very moment Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot at the Offertory of his Mass on March 24. The shock was beyond description, not only in El Salvador but worldwide. Archbishop Romero had repeatedly denounced the violence. Now the voice of the poor was silenced.

Terry Alexander joined us for the archbishop’s burial on Palm Sunday and Ita arrived a short time later to work with Carla in Chalatenango.

Death struck Carla first, on Aug. 23. Ita had waited for Carla—gifted, lively, strong, funny—the only driver of the only jeep they had, to return from Sister Carla Piette and Sister Ita Fordher work. It was the rainy season and the river might rise suddenly as they were returning a freed government prisoner to his home. Fording the river, the jeep was knocked over. Before drowning herself, Carla pushed Ita free. Ita, serious but with a dry sense of humor, was devastated by Carla’s death.

Maura generously joined Ita in the archdiocesan social work for internally endangered and displaced refugees. Gentle, thoughtful Maura, in El Salvador only three-and-a-half months, would go to her martyrdom with Ita, Dorothy and Jean.

Before going to our Maryknoll Sisters meeting in Nicaragua at Thanksgiving time, I sent a cable to Ita and Maura saying Terry and I would try to come back on the flight with them, since dangers were heightened with the recent murder of six Democratic leaders in San Salvador. Unfortunately the flight couldn’t be arranged.

When Terry and I arrived at El Salvador’s airport, our dear friends, Dorothy, known as “an Alleluia from head to toe,” and Jean were there to pick us up. They talked about their dinner at the home of U.S. Ambassador Robert White the night before. We told them Ita and Maura were coming on a later flight and would get to La Libertad by taxi, but they insisted on going back to the airport to pick them up.

Now I share our death, entombment and resurrection story, which is the only way I can think of those days of their being missing, the long search through prayer, phone calls, contact with Church and governments.

On Dec. 3 in mid-morning Father Paul Schindler, head of the Cleveland mission team, called Terry through our telephone-telegram office in Santa Ana to ask: “Where are the girls?” Jean and Dorothy were expected at a parish meeting and Paul had already checked with the Asunción Sisters in San Salvador and Chalatenango. He asked us to come to La Libertad to help in the search.

As Terry and I surveyed the burned up minibus the missioners had driven, a man said, “This is the work of the guerrillas.” I promptly replied: “The opposition would never harm missionaries who are helping feed the hungry women and children caught in the fighting in the hills, and getting the little ones and the aged to refugee centers set up by the Archdiocese in San Salvador.”

The search went on until noon on Dec. 4, when a farmer told his pastor that he had been forced to bury “four unidentified white women.” We “flew” in Paul’s jeep to the very concealed area where they were reported buried.

Then came the painful extraction of the four—piled one on top of the other. Jean was first, her lovely face destroyed. Dorothy had a tranquil look. Maura’s face was serene but seemed to utter a silent cry, and last little Ita. I went forward to wipe the dirt from her cheek and place her arm at her side. We Sisters fell to our knees in reverence. I felt it a Resurrection moment. Yes, their dead and abused bodies were there, but I knew their souls were with their loving Savior.

Annually, on Dec. 2 the churchwomen are celebrated with liturgies, dramas and processions. In the United States works named for the four women aid underprivileged students and adults. In El Salvador a project for women and children with healthy agricultural training bears their names—as do many young women.

They live, and I can only thank God for having known, loved and appreciated these wonderful women, and their total self gift.

Sister Madeline Dorsey from Brooklyn, N.Y., now 92 years old, lives at the Maryknoll Sisters center in New York.