The Center for Human Rights and International Justice and the Church in the 21st Century Center co-sponsored a lecture by Eileen Markey, author of the book A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura, on Wednesday afternoon.
Markey’s lecture consisted of a description of the life of Maura Clarke, a nun who was one of four women who was brutally executed by the United States-trained El Salvadoran army during the beginning of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1980.
Markey drew upon the research and interviews that were used in the making of her book and read passages directly from her book in order to supplement her lecture.
Though she grew up in the Bronx, Clarke had close ties to Boston—she worked on the diocese of Boston’s Commission on Justice and Peace in 1977 and 1978, and spent a period of time living at St. Helena’s house in Boston’s South End. As a result, many of the attendees of Markey’s lecture knew Clarke personally or indirectly.
Markey explained that the story of the church women is likely a familiar one for many who grew up in the Catholic church.
“It’s a story I was raised with,” she said. “Like many, I grew up learning about the church women as modern martyrs.”
Clarke was one of four women—three of whom were Catholic nuns—who was executed in Dec. 1980. They were four among over 8,000 who were killed in 1980 alone and roughly 75,000 who were killed throughout the course of the 12-year civil war.
According to Markey, the El Salvadoran army would kill anyone who questioned the economic and political system in El Salvador.
Clarke, however, is not interesting because of her death—a hasty execution and a burial in an unmarked grave—but because of the life she led up until that point.
“[I wrote this book because] I wanted to understand who Maura Clarke was before she was cut down,” Markey said. “She was a threat. She was religious, of course, but she was political. She had long before chosen solidarity over charity.”
What made Clarke so remarkable, according to Markey, was that she was formed by a radical, dangerous belief that everyone mattered.
One of Markey’s main curiosities in beginning the research for her book was in finding an answer to the question “How does a nice girl like you get to a place like this?”
Clarke was born in 1931 and grew up in the Bronx. She entered the Maryknoll Convent in 1950 and moved to Siuna, Nicaragua nine years later.
“Becoming a Maryknoll sister … meant bravery and daring,” Markey said. “It was an order for roll-up-your-sleeves, can-do girls.”
With the publication of the Medellín Conference Documents in 1968 and other radical movements within the Catholic church, Maura found her role drastically shifting.
According to Markey, the rise of “familia de Dios methodology” within the church—meaning ‘family of God’—meant that “people had a responsibility to care for their neighbors.”
Clarke set out for Nicaragua in 1959 to bring Christianity to Siuna. Living in Siuna, Maura learned that God was already there and the sisters needed to listen to the people they were serving and try to understand their perspective, from the bottom.
Clarke endeavored to work with the impoverished people, not for them. Through this, she began to see first-hand the injustices that impoverished people experienced.
“Maura’s response to tyranny, once she was able to look at tyranny, was solidarity,” Markey said. “She was becoming Nicaraguan.”
Her work followed her to Managua, Nicaragua and then to abandoned cotton fields in the country, where she worked closely with communities which engaged in opposition to the Somoza regime during her last few years in Nicaragua.
After a brief return to the United States, she was called by Archbishop Oscar Romero to move to El Salvador in 1980.
“In El Salvador, she was stepping into a fully-formed nightmare,” Markey said.
Clarke continued working with the poor. She documented human rights violations, provided relief in the form of clothing, food, and medical equipment, and engaged in rescue missions in order to get people past military checkpoints.
This work, according to Markey, is what got Clarke and the other church women killed.
“I think they were worth killing,” she said. “They were keeping people alive who the government wanted dead.”
According to Markey, they were a threat to the government not because they were armed and dangerous, like the guerrillas, but because they brought people together.
“God is made present when people gather together, and that’s really dangerous,” Markey said. “Tyranny needs frightened and disorganized people.”
Markey concluded her lecture by explaining the relevance of Maura’s service to the poor in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the context of the present.
“In investigating Maura’s life, in sitting many nights with all these stories, all these interviews of Salvadorans … I think about evil,” Markey said. “I think about otherness, and I think about the horror we can commit when we label an enemy and call them a threat.”
Featured Image by Kate Mahoney / Heights Staff