Keeping Watch, Becoming Witnesses to Life: Ita, Maura, Dorothy, and Jean

Jen will deliver this homiletic reflection in Andover Chapel this Wednesday, 3 December, for this week’s Noon Service at Harvard Divinity School .

To begin, I’d like to read an excerpt from what would be the last letter that Maryknoll sister Ita Ford would write, with her characteristic lightheartedness, from Chaletenango, in El Salvador, to her mother in New York, dated 1 December 1980.
“Dear Mom,
I guess we’re into celebrating life—birth, birthdays, and my own grudging acknowledgement that I’m still alive for some reason. So here’s to three generations of Fords thankful for the gift of life!” (from Jeanne Evans’ “Here I Am, Lord”: The Letters and Writings of Ita Ford, 247)
In a place that had become so influenced by death and destruction, Ita Ford became a witness to life. And I think this witness has something to do with our readings as we begin this season of Advent.

We remember Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan because of the witness to life that they offered. Before coming to El Salvador, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Maryknoll sisters, had lived for many years as missionaries in Nicaragua and Chile. Jean Donovan, a lay missioner who was 27 at the time of her death, had left a business career and an engagement in Connecticut for work among the poor in El Salvador. Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, had been in El Salvador the longest of the four. As the work of God’s hands, they committed themselves to work alongside the most vulnerable among us. In the face of death, these women became witnesses to life.

These four women lived in the midst of the beginnings of the Salvadoran civil war, which was supported in large part by the US American government and lasted until 1992. This largely was a war against the poor, who made up the vast majority of the Salvadoran population. Influenced by the hope of liberation theology, the poor had begun to organize for their rights, and they faced violent opposition from those in power as a result. In the face of death, they became witnesses to life.

Ita, Maura, Dorothy and Jean kept watch and read the signs of the times in El Salvador. They worked among refugees fleeing political persecution and economic poverty. They provided sanctuary for priests who had been organizing against oppressive governments. They offered pastoral care to catechists who lived in fear of the work of the military in the midst of the civil war. And twenty-seven-year-old Jean often baked cookies for Archbishop Oscar Romero on the days that he delivered his famous homilies broadcast over Salvadoran radio. In the face of death, these women became witnesses to life.


On their way home from the airport on December 2nd, 1980, Salvadoran soldiers in civilian clothes stopped the jeep in which they were riding. Two of them were raped, and the four of them were “shot in the head at close range” (from Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints, 526).

In the face of death, these women became witnesses to life. As we begin this season of Advent, we reflect on what this witness might mean in light of our readings. In the first reading, we hear of a God who is a loving parent, that “we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands.” If we really believe in a God who is a loving parent, that we are shaped by God’s hands, we will respond in a way that reflects the example of Ita, Maura, Dorothy, and Jean. These four women understood what it means to live and what it means to love. They knew God intimately and demonstrated with the commitment of their lives that they were the work of God’s hands. They loved the people of El Salvador in the most real way that they could, one that did not allow for injustice to be perpetuated against them. Let us have the strength to watch, as Jesus encourages us in the Gospel, for those threats to life in our midst. Let us work together in service, to struggle toward justice, building up the Kingdom of God, living each day in a way that shows we are the work of God’s hands.

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