Looking Back at the U.S. Nuns Murdered in El Salvador

It is hard to believe that this past December marked 30 years since four U.S. Catholic churchwomen were murdered in El Salvador. Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel have gradually changed from being people some colleagues knew as friends to historical figures–women in photographs, martyrs, flattened versions of their vibrant selves. Like Mary and Martha, Theresa of Avila, Joan of Arc, even Dorothy Day, for today’s young adults they are names in a litany rather than flesh and blood women. History moves rapidly but the women’s multivalent witness remains.

Mary Judith Ress has captured that flesh and blood, their stories conflated with the stories of so many other religious women who went to Latin America, in a powerful novel, Blood Flowers. It is a page-turner and it is fiction, but the many dimensions that characterize these women–dimensions we tend to forget and that get erased as the photos fade–come alive on her pages. Ress tells the story of violence from the inside: She herself has lived in Latin America for 40 years. Ress is a former nun who married, had children and has remained committed to the struggles for justice about which she writes so graphically.

The main story in Blood Flowers is that of Meg, who finished novitiate with her equally idealistic friends Molly and Theo. She and Molly ended up in Chile during the Allende years while Theo went to El Salvador.

Meg ministers in a poor Santiago barrio with a lot of other gringas. She falls in love with a priest, who is killed. In the process, she learns about sex and loss, love and longing, the stuff of most human lives. Eventually she makes her way to El Salvador to begin another tilt at the vicious windmills of Latin America. Theo has worked there for a long time and welcomes her to a new challenge. Molly stays on in Chile, only surfacing at the book’s end. The three women are paradigmatic of the many religious women who lived in humble circumstances and under deadly threats, all in the name of solidarity.

Life in El Salvador was dicey in the years leading up to the 1980 rape and murder of the four U.S. women. Peasants were killed, their villages plundered, their children maimed, their women violated. The churchwomen accompanied them, suffering not only “the same fate as the poor,” as Archbishop Oscar Romero preached, but the extra humiliation of being raped as gringas.

While the book is fiction, the events bear an unsettling resemblance to what happened to many such women. What privileges the gringas possessed with their blue passports melted away by their own choice. They become part of the soil on which they ministered. Still, it is hard, perhaps too painful, to think of these and other women as real people. They loved and lost, cared for one another with a kind of love that few have explored, and loved “the people” as much as they loved themselves.

I have been lucky to know many such women in my years in and out of Latin America. They are a special breed—idealistic to a fault, fun-loving and pisco/wine swilling, possessed of a depth of faith I can only imagine, committed to one another and to the struggles of humanity down to the youngest child. My friends in Chile, for example, lived in barrios where cab drivers did not want to take us. Some were beaten in demonstrations against Pinochet, risking their lives for the rights and dreams of their adopted people. Some were feminists. Some were not. None were divas. All were amazingly courageous.

Ress captures not their blind faith but their boundless love; not their commitment to any institutional church but their unwavering commitment to free and democratic ways of living; not their piety but their courage. It is tempting to try to line up the characters and the real women—that one is Ita, this one is Maura. It does not work that way and in the end does not matter. The point is that all of these women were more than the cardboard figures history makes of the best of us.

I suspect that not even their families think of religious women, both members of canonical congregations and those who are more freelance in their approaches, in three dimensions. In this novel, the psychological aspects are most telling. What compels someone to leave a comfortable life in a developed country for the rigors of urban or rural life in a developing one? What kinds of relationships sustain these women? What motivates people to cast their lot with people they don’t even know? What might they be running away from?

The last word in this book goes to Molly. In a posthumous letter to Meg, she becomes the final witness to the goodness and complexity of her classmate. Seems they both loved the same man and one another. Molly remains an enigma, maybe even to herself. But she adds depth and texture to her friend. We all want friends like that.

Women’s lives are complicated. Catholic women have their own brand of complexity. If we internalize and try to put into practice the values of our tradition, we come up against many an obstacle. These Catholic women who chose to go abroad in answer to their church’s request are in a class by themselves. But we all try to find our way in a world we did not create, in a church we do not control and in roles that we are constantly reinventing. In this case, add the very difficult burden of justice-making in countries where U.S. women were seen as collaborating with the forces of change, with the people most in need, and it is a deadly recipe.

I see the same dynamics with some friends today who are using the best years of their lives to assure the end of the death penalty, the achievement of reproductive justice, human rights for all, a living wage, proper health care, immigration reform and so many other social-justice issues. Many of them are religious women, including mothers and grandmothers, as well as members of communities. Each of them has a story, a full textured life and a host of friends to sustain them.

I am reminded by this book to look more deeply at their lives, to see the many dimensions. I try to ferret out the experiences and values that have made them so powerful in their witness, so indefatigable in their efforts and, finally, so attractive to the rest of us that we want to become them.