Remembering the Churchwomen of El Salvador

churchwomen of el salvador 35 years

BY CHRIS KERRDecember 2, 2015

I don’t remember the deaths of the Churchwomen of El Salvador, but I do “remember” them. I was born in 1978, so I was only two and a half years old when Sr. Dorothy Kazel, Sr. Ita Ford, Sr. Maura Clarke, and Jean Donovan were violently raped and murdered on December 2, 1980.  

I will never be able to say where I was, what I was doing, or my reaction to that event.  However, I will forever “remember” their witness, their willingness to say “yes” to the needs of their brothers and sisters, to say “yes” to Christ’s calling. Throughout my formation as a lay Catholic—as a teacher, minister, and advocate, I have been blessed with opportunities to remember the lives and witness of these four women.

churchwomen of el salvador 35 years

Fr. Robert Niehoff, S.J., (center) with mass concelebrants at the commemoration mass for the 35th anniversary of the Churchwomen murders. [SOURCE: Christians for Peace in El Salvador – CRISPAZ]

Today in El Salvador, hundreds of Salvadorans along with others from across the world have gathered to commemorate their lives. Included in this group are students from John Carroll University and Fr. Robert Niehoff, S.J., John Carroll’s president. Sr. Dorothy Kazel, a native of Cleveland, earned her graduate degree from John Carroll in 1974, and has an endowment for Latin American studies at the university named in her honor.

Fr. Niehoff and I started at John Carroll on the same day in 2005—of course, he had the role of president and I was just a campus minister. I remember walking across campus with him during his first few days. I explained that I had been tasked with leading students to the annual vigil at the gates of Ft. Benning to call attention to the role of U.S. policy and training in the deaths of people like the four Churchwomen.

The tradition of Jesuit universities being present at the gates to honor the Churchwomen, Jesuit martyrs, and over 70,000 innocent civilians killed in El Salvador’s civil war, had been evolving since the late 1990s and was the impetus to begin the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. Fr. Niehoff expressed gratitude for the presence of a JCU group at the gates, and would later be a keynote speaker at the Teach-In—but he also emphasized the importance of educating the campus community about the issues surrounding the martyrs.

churchwomen of el salvador 35 years

Bishop Elías Samuel Bolaños Avelar, S.D.B., Bishop of Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, celebrates the commemoration mass at the chapel near the site where their bodies were found.

Niehoff wanted to be sure that people understood why we might be critical of the U.S. government. He wanted to ensure that the university’s critique was grounded in a concern for human dignity and solidarity with those marginalized the actions of our country. Later that fall, he would make special mention of the Churchwomen in his inaugural address, saying:

Any real commitment to justice is a commitment to justice for all. Such a commitment has been lived out by many people in this local church. Jean Donovan, Sisters Ita Ford, MM, Maura Clarke, MM, and Cleveland’s own, Dorothy Kazel, OSU, now called the Four Churchwomen of El Salvador, lived that call to the end.”

Today, Fr. Niehoff is in El Salvador concelebrating the mass to remember their lives.  He and the John Carroll students along with students from Santa Clara University’s CASA de la Solidaridad program are representing our Ignatian network. Most of them were not alive to remember the deaths of these four women, but they will forever “remember” their witness.

And so will I.

Learn more about the Churchwomen of El Salvador here and the work of Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ), who is hosting John Carroll University’s group.


1 reply
  1. Martin Zatsick
    Martin Zatsick says:

    I was living in Toronto,Canada when the Church Women’s bodies were found in that cow pasture.The CBC had great coverage of what happened.It just had a great impact on my life.


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