Ursuline sister, SOA prisoner of conscience, dies

Ursuline Sr. Claire O’Mara, a Massachusetts native who spent 17 years in Latin America with her order before later spending time in jail in protest of the School of the Americas, passed away Jan. 8, the feast of the Epiphany, in New York. She was 89.

O’Mara, who entered the Ursulines in 1945, was known for her dedication to the people of Mexico, Peru, and the Bronx, and to issues of social justice.

Compelled by the story of fellow Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel, O’Mara was arrested at the gates of Fr. Benning, Ga., at the age of 74 in November, 1994, along with twelve others.

Asked on the eve of her trial for the action whether she was scared of possibly going to jail, O'Mara said in a 1996 interview with NCR that she was “too old to be nervous” about going to prison.

O’Mara also said it was partly the Kazel’s story that inspired her to make a 25-hour train ride to join the protest.

Kazel was one of four U.S. churchwomen who were killed by graduates of the School of the Americas while working in El Salvador in 1980.

Now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and located at Fort Benning, the school trains soldiers from Latin America.

During the 1996 trial of the 13 SOA protesters, Judge Robert Elliot initially sentenced O’Mara and the only other female in the group, 59-year-old Mennonite volunteer Jo Anne Lingle, to probation.

After O’Mara and Lingle protested, asking to be given prison sentences just like their male counterparts, Elliot sentenced them both to two months in prison.

Partly for her witness in the SOA action, O’Mara was recognized by the College of New Rochelle, her alma mater, with a “woman of conscience” award in 1997, along with Rosa Parks and another alumna who had founded a food kitchen and pantry to serve impoverished people in the New Rochelle area.

O’Mara was also honored with the Cleveland Ursuline Sisters’ “Sister Dorothy Kazel Alleluia” award in 2000, the year marking the 20th anniversary of Kazel’s murder in El Salvador.

The website for that award says it honors those who are “serving others in the joy-filled, contemplative and justice-oriented spirit of Sister Dorothy.”

In her Jan. 11 eulogy for O’Mara, fellow Ursuline Sr. Martha Counihan reflected on how various changes in O’Mara’s life had led her to minister in places across the world, from Mexico City to Lima to the Bronx.

Even after a stroke had limited her activities in 2006, Counihan said O’Mara “propel[ed] herself around in a wheelchair, waving aside the treats and snacks urged upon her, living in the moment, reveling in so much, [and] expressing gratitude to all for everything.”

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