Rockhurst University Jesuits Reflect on Anniversary of Jesuit Martyrs


The following are reflections from members of the Jesuit community of Rockhurst University on the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs and their companions.  The former Missouri Province (now part of the United States Central Southern Province) of the Jesuits has had a long-term relationship with the Central American Province, creating opportunities for many interactions with the Jesuits and the University of Central America in El Salvador over the years. 

I taught in the Jesuit College in Belize, Central America at the time of the death of the Salvadorian Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter. The morning after the murders, my students asked me what happened, for it was reported on the Belize National Radio. I said that the Salvadorian military came on the campus of the University of Central America, rousted the Jesuits out of their beds and killed them in their garden. Then, discovering the housekeeper and her daughter in an annex to the Jesuit House killed them to eliminate witnesses.

My students said, “Why would the military do such a thing?” I responded by saying the Jesuits were pressing the government for land reform, freedom of speech, the right for the poor to own property, free and fair elections, and other basic human rights. A look of confusion came over their faces and they said, “But we have these rights in Belize, does not everyone?”

Over the years that last question has stayed with me, “does not everyone have these rights?” Clearly many, many in our world do not have these basic rights. We see this today in our own country, think Fergusson, Missouri, and in so many parts of the world, think Hong Kong. It is the call of Jesus that we work tirelessly so that all people have them. The Jesuits of the University of Central America gave their lives, as Jesus did, to protect and promote the rights of all the children of God. We can do no less.

Fr. Bill Oulvey, S.J. is a 1974 graduate of Rockhurst University and has served in the USA, Belize, Central America and at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. Presently Fr. Oulvey is the Rector of the Rockhurst Jesuit Community and a member of the University’s Mission and Ministry Office.

In St. Louis, on November 16, 1989, we were at breakfast when the phone rang. Fr. Tojeira, in San Salvador, blurted out that hours before six Jesuits and two women were shot to death. Their bodies were still out in the garden. Tojeira shouted, “Spread the news.”

He said the army was responsible and they gave ruthless attention to Fr. Ellacuria’s corpse. The oligarchy despised him for detailing their history of corruption and murder. He was relentless in revealing Salvador’s sorry history of injustice.

The power elite was certain these priests were so dangerous they had to be eliminated. They could bring down the government. Jesuits did not have grenade launchers like the one fired into their residence, yet, they were dangerous. How? Their research demonstrated the rank injustices in the social and economic system powerfully controlled by suppressing opposition. The oligarchy blatantly ignored the truth in front of their eyes: decades of killings and torture supported their privileges. Something else was certain: the powerful had much to lose by letting Jesuits proclaim the truth.

The Jesuits’ counter-certainty developed from seeing the suffering and learning why it existed. This knowledge came from researching the mechanisms of ruthless, embedded oppression. For example, choice land was owned by the powerful for growing coffee or grazing cattle; campeseno farmers were then forced to till small plots of land, even on hillsides. If they dared plant at the edge of rancher land, the army threw them out.

Others had challenged the oligarchy. In 1980 four American women [three were nuns] became dangerous so they wound up dead in a ditch. Their threat: noticing the suffering inflicted on the poor and denouncing this cruelty. Archbishop Romero also noticed the obvious suffering and condemned it: that earned him a bullet in the head during Mass. The Jesuits knew all this.
Their eyes were not blind to rank suppression because they were formed to recognize its victims. Their certainty centered on the Person crying out for justice. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of these least … you did it to me…” [Matthew 25/37ff]. They saw with different eyes, for example:

In 1986 we were in San Salvador while the civil war was on. It so happened we concelebrated Mass in a large hall attached to a church. Fr. Lopez, to be martyred in ’89, hosted us. This hall was a hideout for a couple of campeseno families who feared the army suspected them of sheltering guerrillas. They fled in terror, uncertain if they could safely return to their village. The church provided bunk beds, a barbecue pit and basic needs. That day a tanker truck happened to deliver water for cooking, drinking, bathing.
As Mass began, two small children, dripping wet from their bath, shoved up in front of the altar and sat down. Immediately, the little girl fussed in the boy’s hair. Lopez whispered: “She’s squeezing lice.” At that moment the celebrant said: Esto es mi cuerpo.
Afterward Lopez asked “Did you notice that? The body of Christ.” He saw more than a child killing lice: Christ was there, sharing her danger. Lopez’s certainty was based on belief God is everywhere, if only we notice. Poet Hopkins beautifully described it: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…”

Fr. Robert Costello, S.J. has served in many capacities during the years as a Jesuit, including as a Rockhurst University professor and SLU-High president. At the time of the murders Fr. Costello served as provincial superior of the Missouri Province, which was “twinned” with the Central American Province.

When I heard about the murders of the Jesuits and their companions in San Salvador, I was in St. Louis, studying philosophy with other young Jesuits. I had been a Jesuit for just over two years, and a vowed Jesuit for just 3 months. At first, I found the news hard to believe. Somehow, in my relative naiveté, I had imagined that the age of martyrs had passed. In the weeks and months to come, I would learn that many thousands of innocent Salvadorans had been brutalized or murdered by those who should have seen to the well-being of every Salvadoran citizen.

Almost as impressive as the horrific news from San Salvador was the news that right away, formed Jesuits from all over the world were writing to their provincial superiors, saying, simply, “Send me.” That evening, at our community mass, along with prayers for the martyrs, for their murderers, and for the nation of El Salvador, one of the brethren read from Campion’s Brag – St. Edmund Campion’s message to the Privy Council of Elizabeth I, written as he prepared for his own martyrdom. The document is at once a plea for discourse and reconciliation, and a challenge:

[We Jesuits are] determined never to give you over, but either to win you heaven, or to die upon your pikes. And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league – all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England – cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons.

To this day it humbles me that Jesuits and their companions should be counted among the many thousands of Salvadorans who have been tortured or murdered by those allied, sadly, with the forces of darkness. This is the Society of Jesus at her best: Not seeking martyrdom as a thing to be desired for its own sake, but ready in every sense to give all for Christ and for the Gospel of love and justice.

Father Dirk Dunfee, S.J. was born in Pasadena, California. He studied philosophy at Claremont McKenna College and law at Duke University, after which he practiced law in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1987. Ordained in 1997, he has served in several parishes including his beloved St. Francis Xavier parish in Kansas City. In 2009 he graduated from Oregon Health & Science University’s Family Nurse Practitioner program. For five years, he provided health care in Kansas City, Kansas, working at a clinic that serves the uninsured and underinsured. He was recently reassigned to Regis University in Denver where he teaches in the nursing school and is a project leader with Regis’ Cultivate Health initiative.

In November of 1989 I was a freshman at Saint Louis University. Still new to college life, and having never been part of the Jesuit educational network, I did not yet know who the Jesuits were or what they did. They were a mystery to me. But the 16th of that month changed everything. The martyrs opened my eyes, and my heart. I remember attending a candle-light vigil on the steps outside the College Church, and as we recalled the words of the theologian Tertullian, who said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” the candles at that vigil were, for me, a light of clarity in my own vocation.

The martyrs have been a source of inspiration for me because their life, example and witness of faith tell us something of what it means to be committed to both Heaven and Earth. To me, they represent the bridge between our broken world and the celestial court of the divine. Their lives teach us about what it means to bring about the Kingdom of God in our world today. We Jesuits are teachers, preachers and laborers. We hear confessions, give retreats, and perform sacramental ministries. But if our words and actions say something of the Gospel, so must our lives. To me, the Salvadoran martyrs are a powerful reminder of what St. Ignatius says in the Spiritual Exercises: “love is greater in deeds than it is in words.”

And so today we ask ourselves: Is there injustice in our world? Does violence threaten the fabric of social stability? Are the poor trampled under the duress of economic progress? Do impoverished nations have a voice in the international arena? Not only are the Salvadoran martyrs relevant today, they are poignant figures who loom large in the landscape of our faith. They bear the faces of Oscar Romero, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Rutilio Grande, the women and children of El Mozote, and so many more who have died, both past and present, in the struggle for human dignity….where God is most present and evermore glorified.

Fr. D. Scott Hendrickson, S.J. is a professor of Spanish at Loyola University in Chicago. He entered the Jesuit order in 1997 and was ordained a priest in 2008. As a Jesuit he has worked and studied in Honduras, Spain and the Dominican Republic. From 2002 to 2005 he taught Spanish language, literature and culture at Rockhurst University, and led immersion trips and study abroad programs to Guatemala, Spain and France.

Juan Moreno, S.J. was one of the six Jesuit martyrs of Salvador. I met him in the Fall of 1962 when I came to the Jesuit School of Theology in St Mary’s, KS. He had arrived there a year earlier to begin his four years of theology, with his ordination to the priesthood slated for 1964. The Jesuit Rector wanted Juan and several other Jesuits who had come from various countries of the world to meet a typical USA family. I had taught at the Jesuit High of Wichita (Chaplain Kapaun Memorial) from 1959-62 and knew many families there. So the Rector asked me to drive Juan and 3 other Jesuits to Wichita and spend a little time there.

We left St Mary’s on a Fall morning and arrived in Wichita in the early afternoon. The families who had agreed to be hosts picked up the 4 Jesuit visitors. Each Jesuit had a host family where he would stay until Wednesday morning with opportunity to ask them about anything they were wondering about in this country. In turn, the hosts could ask the Jesuits about their lives “back home”. It turned out to be a very enjoyable experience on both sides and one that became a staple for Jesuits new to the USA. As a result, I got to know Juan and the three others much more than I would ever have been able to otherwise. We would talk over the coming three years of his studies and how things were going for him.

After his time at St Mary’s was completed in 1965, he returned to the Central America Province and in 1966 I finished my studies at St Mary’s too. We did not stay in much touch as we entered into busy apostolic lives. Then in 1980 I was appointed Provincial Assistant for Jesuits doing Pastoral Ministry. During my 6 year term (1979-85) in that role, the Superior General of the Jesuits asked the Missouri and Central America provinces to become like “twin brothers” to each other. The Jesuits of Juan’s province were caught up in the wars and revolutions of the 1980s in Central America as they worked for justice. It was decided that the Provincial Superior of each province would visit the other province and see and experience all the ministry that was underway.

So I was chosen to accompany our Provincial on his trip through Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama. On that trip I again met up with Juan. He told me some of the story of his 15 years of ministry since leaving St Mary’s, KS a story of facing danger and persecution day by day. One story he told was of having to call the Bishop each month to receive his priestly faculties for Mass, Confession, and doing the work of a priest. I had been very busy with pastoral work but none of the stress that he faced in his part of the world. It was the kind of dangers that eventually led him to become a martyr of our Church some 25 years ago.

It made me so aware of how fortunate I have been here in the USA to go about my priestly ministry without any of these pressures and of how I need to pray for Jesuits like Juan who are even today facing the same dangers/persecution that led to the death of my friend and Jesuit brother Juan Moreno.

Fr. Luke Byrne, S.J. grew up in Kansas City, MO, entered the Jesuit Novitiate in 1952 and was ordained in 1965. His assignments have included the Jesuit High School of Wichita, KS (Chaplain Kapuan Memorial), Pastor of St. Francis Xavier in KC, President of Rockhurst High School, Assistant to the Jesuit Provincial, and Director of White House retreat in St. Louis. In 1998 he was appointed University Chaplain of Rockhurst University.

I lived in Honduras for 10 years, and during that time I had the opportunity, the privilege, the honor to have met 3 of the 6 Jesuit martyrs: Ignacio Ellacuria, Juan Ramon Moreno, and Segundo Montes. These are Jesuits that I sat around the table and ate with, talked with, laughed with, had a drink with. Because of having known them, it has made martyrdom very personal to me. It is not just something that happened 2,000 years ago in the Coliseum. It is something that is happening today, to people I have known personally.

Ignacio Ellacuria, known by his friends as “Ellacu,” gave us a retreat in Honduras the year before he was shot. By chance (or was it god’s plan?), I had a copy of one of his books in English entitled ”Freedom Made Flesh: Mission of Christ and His Church.” I thought it would be good to bring the book along to provide some spiritual reading during the retreat. During the latter part of the retreat, at one point I went to see him for a private conference to discuss something he had said. I brought the book with me, and when we finished our conference, I brought the book out and asked him if he could sign it for me. He gave me more than I had asked for because he inscribed it in reference to what we had spoken about. I consider that book to be my very own “first class relic” from a man who was later martyred for his writing things like that.
I also had met their cook, Elba Ramos, who prepared breakfast for me 7 months before when I was in Salvador for a meeting. She, and her daughter Celina, also died with the six Jesuits. One of the things that the Jesuits have always been strong to point put is that these two women were also killed. They would not let the two women fade into the background. Take a look at the posters, photos and memorials at this site, and you will visually see this point highlighted. I am very proud of this emphasis.

Fr. Dick Perl, S.J. worked half of his 66 years in the developing world: 1 year in the Philippines, 10 years in Honduras, and 22 in Belize. He believes strongly in the relationship between faith and justice. Presently he is living at Rockhurst University where he is chaplain to the ADG fraternity, while his main assignment is working with Hispanics on both sides of the state border.

2 replies
  1. Joe Damhorst
    Joe Damhorst says:

    Dick, Luke, Bob and Bill:
    Thanks much for your candid and sensitive reflections on contemporary saints and models of movement to justice and life for the poor. I cherish your friendship and your leadership in all of these occasions. Joe Damhorst, SJ

  2. George Starks
    George Starks says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories. God Bless you and all of these martyrs and their families.
    George Starks
    Salt Lake City, Utah


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