New biography tells Maura’s story

Maryknoll Sr. Maura Clarke, second from left, with a family in Nicaragua in an undated photo (Maryknoll Mission Archives)

By Eileen Markey
Published by Nation Books, 336 pages, $26.99

The churchwomen of El Salvador: The December 1980 news footage of their four limp bodies being dragged up by ropes from a shallow grave was an affront to anyone who watched. For Catholics raised on “The Bells of Saint Mary’s” and “The Trouble with Angels,” it was a tragically different view of religious women. For Americans, it was the end of an age of naive security expressed in the words, “Well, they don’t kill gringos.”

Three of the churchwomen, Maryknoll Sr. Ita Ford, Ursuline Sr, Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan, have already found their biographers. Oddly, until now, Maryknoll Sr. Maura Clarke, the oldest and the most seasoned missionary in the group, has never been the subject of her own biography. Eileen Markey’s A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura fills that void admirably.

Markey’s work is the fruit of extensive research -- conversations with Clarke’s family and friends, use of the Maryknoll Sisters’ archives, and examinations of the still heavily redacted documents from the U.S. State Department. She tells much more than the story of an American missionary caught up in the violence of Central America. A Radical Faith is very much the “story of a soul” -- the human and spiritual journey of an American woman religious from her Irish-American childhood in Queens, N.Y., to a life of missionary accompaniment with the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In many ways, Clarke’s childhood was the typical mixture of piety and patriotism of 1930s American Catholicism. Her parochial school had the motto Pro Deo et Patria over the door. Hearing the stories of the involvement of her father’s family in the Irish Republican struggle gave her an innate sympathy for popular fights against oppression. Her mother’s hospitality to friend and stranger taught her generosity.

In 1950, for reasons that were unclear even to herself, she joined the Maryknoll Sisters to prepare for a life of foreign missionary service. She adapted to the quasi-monastic formation and imbibed the idea that Maryknoll was part of America’s battle against godless communism. Longing for foreign service, she chaffed at her first placement in the Bronx but was delighted to be assigned in 1959 to a Maryknoll mission in the remote town of Siuna on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. When the mission was founded in 1944, the sisters dined with Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García. Their superior assured him, “We won’t be any trouble.”

Though Clarke is associated with El Salvador, the majority of her missionary life (1959-80) would be spent, except for furlough times in the U.S., in Nicaragua. There, she left the traditional ministry of teaching to move to Managua for a ministry of accompanying people and the formation of basic Christian communities. A particular strength of Markey’s book is that it includes the names and experiences of the women and men of these communities. The book is as much their story as Clarke’s -- as she would have wanted. It was also there that she experienced the Second Vatican Council quantum shift in religious life.

On one occasion, she confronted a member of the National Guard who had arrested a young man protesting the lack of potable water. When the soldier found out she was a nun, he said, “Oh, Sister. Go back to your convent.”

Clarke responded, thrusting her finger at the dusty street, “This is my convent!”

Clarke arrived in El Salvador in August 1980, part of the discernment of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America to strengthen their presence in the war-torn country, reeling from the assassination, just five months earlier, of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Clarke joined the other missionaries in Chalatenango, in the northwest, aiding refugees of the civil war and helping in any way she could.

In November, she had the chance to return to her beloved Nicaragua for a meeting with other Maryknollers of Central America. At the meeting, they prayed with the biblical image of the Good Shepherd who never abandons the flock, even in the face of death. On the road, returning home from the airport after the meeting, Clarke and her three companions were ambushed and murdered by Salvadoran security forces.

Markey’s portrait is skillful and nuanced. Clarke was not shy about engaging her family and friends in her missionary vocation. They were not always thrilled when she showed up at a relative’s door to cook a meal for a Central American immigrant and filled the house with smells not customary in an Irish-American kitchen in Queens. We see Clarke’s struggles to maintain relationships across continents, to balance her concern for her aging parents with her commitment to mission, and her dealing with the experience of falling in love with a priest with whom she worked. Her most persistent struggle, brought frequently to prayer, was her sense of personal inadequacy and hunger for approval.

In December 2015, I had the privilege of joining the pilgrimage to El Salvador, sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for the 35th anniversary of the murder of the churchwomen. Also in the group were Markey; her husband, Jarrett Murphy; and their two boys, Hugh and Owen.

We arrived one night by bus at San Antonio Los Ranchos, one of the communities where Clarke had worked. The people gave us candles, and we joined the procession through the dark paths to the village square. It was festooned, end to end, with banners of the four churchwomen. The parish church that was a bombed-out shell when Clarke was there had been rebuilt, and its bell rang out through the night air.

The people chanted the four names over and over -- Ita, Dorothy, Jean, Maura -- with the refrain ¡Presente! And they were present, even though only the oldest villagers were alive when they worked there. That is the fruit of Clarke’s “radical faith” that Markey writes about: an invincible faith in the God of justice in the face of violence and oppression.

[Terrence Moran is the director of the Office of Justice, Peace and Ecological Integrity of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth at Convent Station, N.J.]

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