I searched for each of their names as I stood before the Wall of Memory and Truth in San Salvador on a bright day in March earlier this year: Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Maura Clarke. Thirty years ago yesterday, on December 2, 1980, the four North American churchwomen were killed by a military squad in El Salvador, a military that was being funded and trained by the U.S. Jean Donovan, a volunteer with the Maryknoll mission, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Maryknoll nuns, and Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, had left the airport in San Salvador on the evening of December 2. Ford and Clarke were returning from a Maryknoll conference in Nicaragua. Donovan and Kazel had arrived in a van to pick them up. The four women never arrived at their residences. Two days later, their bodies were found in a shallow grave. They had been raped and shot at close range.
I remember seeing a photograph of that grave in Newsweek or Time at the time of the women’s murders. I knew nothing of El Salvador or of our involvement there, but I did know something of nuns; they had been the main part of my daily life in Catholic school. Why would someone kill nuns, I thought? It was incomprehensible to me, and it seemed so remote; the world seemed bigger to me then than it does now. I could not have imagined that one day I would go to El Salvador and that I would search for the names of each of the women on a granite wall, The Wall of Memory and Truth, a wall that bears the names of some 30,000 of the estimated 75,000 civilians killed during the armed conflict. I was in El Salvador for a global justice course during the week of the thirty year commemoration of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. I had spent months prior to the trip learning about the history of the conflict in El Salvador, reading historical and theological studies. Among the more personal accounts I read were Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan by Ana Carrigan, and Here I Am, Lord: The Letters and Writings of Ita Ford, edited by Jeanne Evans. I also watched a documentary about the life of Jean Donovan: Roses in December. I say that I read these books, but I did not merely read them. I studied them, reread them, pondered them. I suppose I was asking the question everyone asks: what calls someone to such situations, and even more, what makes them stay when the personal risks become so great? An excerpt from one of Donovan’s letters to a friend, cited in Salvador Witness, reveals something of her struggle:
Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.
I thought of Donovan’s words often in the months before and after my trip to El Salvador. “The reasonable thing,” she had written. Whose heart could be so staunch? In San Salvador, I stood before the Wall of Memory and Truth and found Donovan’s name etched there, and then Clarke’s, Ford’s and Kazel’s, one by one. Looking at their names on that granite wall, it might be said that to stay had not been the reasonable thing. But perhaps Donovan and her companions had been listening to a deeper reason. It was the reason of their very being, what they had committed their lives to, and what they lost them for. I could only stand there in the sunshine and honor them with my whole heart.