In El Salvador, families say U.S. churchwomen’s work lives on

People hold pictures of four American churchwomen during a Dec. 2 memorial service to commemorate the 35th anniversary of their murder in the town of Santiago Nonualco, El Salvador. (CNS/Reuters)

People hold pictures of four American churchwomen during a Dec. 2 memorial service to commemorate the 35th anniversary of their murder in the town of Santiago Nonualco, El Salvador. (CNS/Reuters)

By Edgardo Ayala   Catholic News Service

SANTIAGO NONUALCO, El Salvador (CNS) — North Americans and Salvadorans gathered Dec. 2 at the precise spot where four churchwomen were killed 35 years ago to emphasize that their work for the country’s poor remains alive.

“It is important for us to remember that her work for justice and peace lives on … the messenger is gone, but her work continues,” Terri Keogh told the crowd, talking about her sister, Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke, during the memorial service held to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the killings.

On Dec. 2, 1980, Sister Clarke and Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan were abducted, raped and murdered by members of the National Guard, when the North Americans traveled by car from the airport. Civil war in El Salvador had erupted earlier that year. The churchwomen were in El Salvador to work with refugees of that conflict but were regarded as leftist by the government.

The ceremony took place in the atrium of the small church located in the village of San Francisco Hacienda, in the municipality of Santiago Nonualco, 27 miles east of San Salvador.

A monument with the churchwomen’s names stands in the exact place where they were executed 35 years ago.

“Maura spent the first 20 years of her missionary life in Nicaragua, she then came to El Salvador at the request of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and she did so willingly in a dangerous place,” Keogh said.

She came from New York accompanied by Judy Clark, as well as Sister Ford’s sister and other family members.

Meanwhile, Miriam Ford, Sister Ford’s niece, thanked all those who helped their family to cope with the deaths, but especially Salvadorans and Americans that continue today the work begun by the churchwomen.

“You are witness of hope, continuing the work that the women did,” she said, crying.

“I’m sorry, I’m Irish and we don’t cry in public,” she added, laughing.

The community cooked corn and other meals for the visitors, and residents said missionaries’ spirit lives on.

“We feel happy to see all these people who come here to remember the life of the nuns,” Maria Rosa Alvarado told Catholic News Service, while serving a beverage called “arroz con leche”, a local rice pudding.

“It was very painful for us in the community to witness everything that happened 35 years ago,” she added.

SHARE Foundation representatives said the Salvadoran government is willing to declare the place of the killings as a National Heritage Site.

“To think now that I’m standing here in this spot is very powerful, I feel the life of the churchwomen right now,” Rhianna McChesney, 22, a student at Ursuline College in Cleveland told CNS.

“I feel honored to be here with these people,” she added.

On Dec. 2, in a memorial service held in San Salvador’s Parque Cuscatlan, the U.S. delegates called for the Salvadoran government to reopen the investigation in order to find the truth about who gave the orders of the killings.

It is important to “ask the Salvadoran government and prosecutors to open this case, so that the masterminds of this crime do not walk free, with impunity,” said Claire White, who came on behalf of her father, former Ambassador Robert White, who died in January.

White told CNS the U.S. government should pressure the Salvadoran authorities to do a proper investigation and not let the intellectual authors go unpunished.

The U.N. Truth Commission, established in 1992 to investigate cases of political violence during the civil war, concluded that then-Col. Eugenio Vides Casanova, director of the National Guard, knew that a unit from his command had carried out the assassinations and facilitated the concealment of the facts, which hampered the investigation. In 1984 four guardsmen were found guilty of the killings and convicted to 30 years in prison, but those who planned the murders and gave the orders have never been brought to justice, said some of the more than 100 North Americans who traveled to El Salvador to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the murders.

Isabel Hernandez, El Salvador office director of the SHARE Foundation, said: “We don’t want revenge, because we are Christians, but we do want justice, the truth, we want to know who gave the order.” She said the 1992 Salvadoran amnesty law must be repealed because it protects those responsible for the murders of the churchwomen and many other victims.

In 2002, Vides Casanova and former Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia, who were both granted residence in the United States, were found responsible by a Florida jury in a federal civil case for the torture of three Salvadorans. In April 2015, Vides Casanova was deported to El Salvador for participating and assisting the torture and assassination of thousands of victims, including the four churchwomen.

The four guardsmen were convicted because they were not eligible for amnesty, as their case was regarded as nonpolitical.

The U.S. delegates were to travel Dec. 3 to the cemetery of Chalatenango, to lay flowers at the graves of Sisters Ford and Clarke.

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