Roses in December

Paul Fitch

Good morning friends, community, family. Greetings from my second homeland, El Salvador, where I have been for the last three weeks, and will remain until early April. I am pleased that, although we are physically far apart, we are close together in our hearts and in the spirit.

This is the second Sunday in Advent, and the theme is peace. The gospel reading I chose jumps ahead to the pronouncement of the old man Zacharias who says, “you child…through the tender mercy of God, with which the Dayspring on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” I chose this version because of our beloved Dayspring, our place of retreat, of gathering, and of silence. Dayspring represents for us the promise of peace in the present, in the times yet to come, and in the time of the saints who came before us.

Among the saints who came before us, and who yet guide our feet in the way of peace, are the four North American churchwomen who, in El Salvador forty years ago this week (on December 2nd 1980), were raped and murdered by Salvadoran National Guardsmen, as they were heading home after two of them were picking the two others up from the airport. They were Maryknoll sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan. They were killed because they accompanied the poor and gave their all, because, out of a deep love and with great generosity, they brought them food and medicine, even as the land became increasingly engulfed in a cruel war against the poor. They were killed because they brought comfort to the poorest families, because they rescued from death, out of the hands of soldiers, anybody even a little suspicious of working with others for a better future for their families, communities, and country, and they shed light upon and made known to the world the darkness which cast a deep shadow across the land.

Each of these women came from a different place and has a different story. What they had in common was a life of faith within which each one prepared herself and became a seeker of ways of being of service to the poor, and each chose to be a missioner to Latin America. Although they each, in their own way, sought adventure and challenge, they simply carried on with what they were sent to do, or, at times, what the spirit, their lives, and their experiences led them to do. 

They didn’t set out to do anything spectacular. Much less did they expect to lose their lives in the process, but, even as they lived through the history of calamities, coups, and revolutions taking place around them, and even as the Catholic Church they were all part of began a process of transformation through Vatican II, bringing about a theology of change and preferential option for the poor, each one of them became ever more deeply converted. Their faith, their engagement with the poor, their compassion led them, individually and together, experience the pain, the suffering, and the joy of the people they came to serve. In the end they shared the same fate as many thousands of the poor who were killed that same year in El Salvador. Their deaths reflected what Archbishop Oscar Romero once said in response to the killing of priests and other church people, that it would be a disgrace if the Church, which accompanies the poor in their lives and struggles, would not suffer their same fate.



Maura Clarke       Jean Donovan          Ita Ford           Dorothy Kazel


I will share a little about each of the four.

Dorothy Kazel was in El Salvador the longest, having come here in 1974. She was sent as part of the Cleveland Diocesan Latin American Mission team. She came from being a high school teacher and counselor working with disadvantaged youth in Cleveland to doing pastoral work, leadership training, health and food distribution in small towns near the coast in El Salvador.

Dorothy witnessed the emergence of social movements, including of Christian base communities, labor, peasant, teacher, and other grass roots organizations, these were met by an ever-increasing repression.

She saw what was coming, but could not bring herself to leave. She said, in a letter to a friend two months before her death, 

“We talked quite a bit today about what happens if something begins… We wouldn’t want to just run out on the people…I thought I should say this to you because I don’t want to say it to anyone else because I don’t think they would understand. Anyway, my beloved friend, just know how I feel and ‘treasure it in your heart.’ If a day comes when others will have to understand, please explain it for me.”

Jean Donovan was the youngest of the four, arriving in El Salvador in July of 1979, also as part of the Cleveland Team, at age 26. She grew up in comfort with a father worked as an aircraft engineer for the company that manufactured “Huey” helicopters used in the Vietnam War. She had a big heart, loved to ride horses and motorcycles, loved to joke around, but she had a yearning for meaning in her life that went beyond the privilege of her upbringing. She came to be led to leave behind the beginning of a lucrative career in accounting, to become a missionary in El Salvador.

Towards the end of that first year she wrote, in a letter, “El Salvador is such a beautiful country! Where else would you find roses in December.”

In standing with the poor, with the ones being abducted, tortured, disappeared and killed, Jean’s point of view of coming from a conservative political upbringing shifted radically, and her heart went out especially to the children. Seeing Huey helicopters attacking the people also served as a wakeup call.

 In a letter to a friend just two weeks before her death she wrote: 

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 would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.

Ita Ford and Maura Clarke were Maryknoll missionaries, with long experience in Latin America, who responded to Oscar Romero’s urgent plea for more international missioners to serve the burgeoning needs his persecuted people, but they arrived only after he had been killed. 

Ita had gone to work in Chile in 1973, just months before the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet crushed the progressive, democratically elected government of Salvador Allende (a coup where the CIA was involved). The following years of repression took the lives of thousands of people, including friends and neighbors of Ita.

In 1977, she wrote, 

“Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless? Can I say to my neighbors, ‘I have no solution to this situation? I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you.’”

Ita arrived in El Salvador in April of 1980.

Maura had worked in Nicaragua since 1959. She was a teacher, school director, community organizer, and pastoral worker who accompanied the poor in their suffering and their struggles. In Nicaragua, she lived out the transformation of the Church through liberation theology, she experienced the excesses and neglect of the Somoza dictatorships, and, finally, witnessed the beginning of broad social change in a time of revolution in the late 1970’s. Although her heart was very much with the poor of Nicaragua, she, after a period of “reverse mission” in the United States, went to neighboring El Salvador, where she felt the need was greater, in August of 1980.

Maura and Ita formed a team, working in the northern mountainous province of Chalatenango, where some of the worst violence was occurring. They delivered food and medicines to communities in need, and of even greater importance, they rescued people escaping from the marauding soldiers and they also arrived at military garrisons to demand, and often obtain, the release of community members held in military barracks, who otherwise would have been tortured and killed. One time when soldiers stopped a bus Ita was on and detained a man riding on it, Ita told the soldiers, “you take him, you take me too.” The man was released, but Ita did not live much longer after that. 

They worked sometimes in conjunction with other missioners, including with Jean Donovan. The military resented this interference, and they considered the communities they helped, and the nuns themselves, to be subversive. Their names, along with many others of the church, appeared on a death list.

Maura wrote:

“If we abandon them when they are suffering the cross, how can we speak credibly about the resurrection?”


One cries out, Oh God how long? And then too what creeps into my mind is the little fear, or big, that when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful?

Yes, she was.

Ita wrote: 

This is a very bad time for young people here today. The reasons so many people are being assassinated are very complicated, although there are some clear ideas about this. One is that the people have found a purpose in living, for sacrificing, for fighting, and even for dying. Their lives reach sixteen, sixty, or ninety years; for them their life has had a purpose.


“I truly believe that I should be here, and I can’t even tell you why.… All I can share with you is that God’s palpable presence has never been more real.”

Our reading from the letter of Peter says that, “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you.”


At the site where they were murdered. A chapel has been built there.


So it is that forty years has gone by since these four beloved countrywomen of ours, our companions in the faith, passed on from their earthly life. Much has happened since then, but a lot has remained about the same. The higher up military officials in El Salvador who gave the order for Maura, Ita, Jean, and Dorothy to be killed have not been held to account, and neither has the United States that funded and partially directed a twelve-year long war here resulting in stalemate with much destruction and wounds that yet fester. Official investigations here, that had finally begun, into the role of the military in the worst massacre of the war, in a place called El Mozote, 39 years-ago this week, have been stalled, due to non-cooperation by the military. There is current violence, threats of violence and widespread poverty incongruously intermixed with exclusive gated communities and U.S. style shopping malls. The escape valve consists of going to the United States but that is risky and those that make it are not welcome, although the wealth that their labor generates is.


Graves of Ita and Maura in Chalatenango


But here in El Salvador the churchwomen’s lives are yet celebrated, and their contributions to life in the communities they served, a life that yet lives on through the spirit of people working together, are acknowledged.  Even now, in time of pandemic, people cautiously come together to remember them, and to commit themselves to live their same commitment. The numbers were much fewer than they would have been otherwise, and almost no people from other countries came. I was one of the privileged few who had compelling reasons to be here in El Salvador and thus was able to be in two events remembering carrying on their legacy. 

Their lives were ones lived with joy. At times, as they were out carrying out some mission and were becoming discouraged, they would break singing the popular hymn, Vienen con Alegria (they come with joy). Even on the last day of her life, Jean Donovan called up parish priest and co-worker, also of the Cleveland mission team, Father Paul Schindler (who is known here as Padre Pablo), telling him to get ready for a party when the four returned from the airport.

I heard this same Padre Pablo at the service at the simple chapel built in their memory at the place where the missioners were killed. He had returned, in 1982, to be a pastor in Cleveland for 26 years but, in retirement, returned to his beloved El Salvador in 2008. These are the words he spoke:

We are celebrating, not only here and in Chalatenango, but in Rome, England, and in the United States. We also need to carry on celebrating, as the Psalm says, ‘blessed are those who come in the name of the Lord.’ Brothers and sisters, the sisters came in the name of the lord, to give of themselves, to serve. We also must respond with our lives, giving always testimony to the most eloquent word that we have lived, that is the life of the sisters, inasmuch as we had the luck of knowing Dorothy, Jean, Ita, and Maura, and all the rest of those who have been giving their lives. May we continue to celebrate! This is what is important. 40 years have gone by quickly. Soon it will be 50, up until eternity. May we continue celebrating!

On the same day, at the cathedral in the town of Chalatenango, not far from the cemetery where Maura and Ita lay, Jose Luis Alas, the current Archbishop of El Salvador, spoke these words, “We come together to not lose the memory of their presence with us. Without a historic memory, there is no future. It is not easy to keep alive our history when there is so much noise that stupefies us, that is distancing us from the true reality, and the presence of God… We are in advent, time of waiting, and of hope. God came, is on the way, and will come. God is with the poor everywhere. God comes every day.”

Moving towards conclusion, as I borrowing some words from very long-term religious leader in the solidarity movement Margaret Swedish.

 The Meaning for Us Now

In any historical moment, we are called to enter the reality in which we live and together to read the signs of the times. The violence and injustice experienced by the people of El Salvador was the foundation from which the four U.S. churchwomen discerned what it would mean to accompany the poor and to follow Jesus in their time.

So what of our time? How do we understand this moment in the human journey as we come to the end of this traumatic year?... We must ask ourselves: Where will we take our stand in the midst of such uncertainty?

The answer requires a process of discernment done not in isolation but in community. Discernment sometimes feels to me like a lost skill in a culture where we never seem able to take the time to just stop and think about what we are doing and why… 

I learned from these women about the courage of stepping into reality and allowing it to touch you, to change you or, as Maura put it, to “strip you and show you God.”

I fervently wish that a younger generation will come to know their story because it expresses a historical thread that runs through our history to this day. It runs to our southern border where hundreds of Central Americans are languishing in misery because we refuse to open our border to them and in the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years.

As justice becomes more elusive, as our democracy remains fragile and endangered, as the damage we have done to the living communities of this planet become increasingly irreversible, threatening our human future, it seems we all have a lot to discern, especially about where we will place ourselves as conditions deteriorate. The point is not to flee the danger but to find our place where we can be of service and to choose to stay.

Which brings us back to the question Maura asked: When the time comes, will I be faithful?

Well, here is our time. Will we?

So I end here as I sit the midst of this beautiful land of El Salvador, with a green volcano looming above, and tropical plants all about, where there are roses in December.