El Salvador Martyrs

December 2nd is the 28th anniversary of the murder of four American women in El Salvador – Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, and Maryknoll Lay Missioner Jean Donovan.

I first learned about these women 10 years ago. I lived in Philadelphia one summer during college and worked for the School of Americas Watch Northeast. The agency’s offices were located in a large house and when I arrived, the house was known as the Maryknoll House. I soon learned that they were in the process of changing the name of the house to the Jean Donovan Community Peace Center.
This additional piece of news meant nothing to me, as I had never heard of Jean Donovan. I barely had a grasp on the School of the Americas and the Maryknolls. That summer in Philly, I felt completely out of my league – I had so much to learn about social justice and Catholic social justice was just another layer. I asked a lot of questions, including who Jean Donovan was.

I learned that she was one of four women living and working in El Salvador during the late 1970’s. They worked for different parishes during the government’s war against the poor, ministering to the communities they lived in. As the political situation worsened and the threat of violence on foreigners increased, they still stayed in El Salvador. In a letter Jean wrote during that time, she said she believed God had brought her there and wanted her to stay and so she was going to try to live up to that call.

I was struck by her conscious decision to stay. How many times do we hear God’s voice but ignore it because it’s not the answer we want? Or think we hear God’s voice but don’t act, waiting to see if we can hear something that we like better? There are many who talk about being still and hearing God’s voice. But hearing God’s voice is only half the battle. We have to hear the call – and answer it.

As I learned Jean’s story and the stories of the three other women, I noticed in myself a variety of feelings. Anger, sadness, frustration. And yet, a lot of hope. Hope in the goodness of people and the beauty of a world where we hear God’s voice.

May we all have the faith to hear God’s call for our lives. And like Dorothy, Maura, Ita and Jean – the courage to answer it.

Deb Heimel lived at the Jean Donovan Community Peace Center during the summer of 1999 and is grateful to all of the people she met there who continue to inspire her today.


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