This morning was an early start as we left the Hotel to pick us Sister Carol and Fr. John Spain. My heart was already heavy knowing what we were about to do. Today is the day that we drove out to the sight of where four women, three sisters, and one lay missioner were martyred during the Civil War.
Throughout our time at Santiago Nonualco, Father John told us what he remembered of this horrific event 31 years ago. When we arrived on sight, Father had us gather around the road and he first told us the events leading up to finding the women.
Summarizing Father John’s Words:
Sister Ita and Sister Maura flew from Nicaragua to El Salvador on December 2nd. Jean Donavan and Sister Dorthy went to the airport to pick them up and take them back into the city in a white van. Somewhere on the ride back, the National Guard overtook their van and drove it to the farm land. The people of the village remember seeing a white van come up the road at 10:30 p.m. right around curfew time. After that they heard machine gun shots and two single bullet shots. The van went down the hill again but this time it was playing loud music and the doors were open.
The next morning a farmer found the four bodies in the gulley by the road. He went directly to the judge of the town. The judge with his secretary went out and looked at the bodies, made drawings of what he saw, took off and kept personal identifying items, and then decided the best thing to do was to bury them. He had the farmers that had gathered around cut the fence, dig a shallow grave and lay the bodies to rest.
The people of the town were afraid. As the civil war continued more and more bodies would show up alongside the road and what they typically would do in the past, bring the bodies to the church and wait for the families to come and identify them, was not typical protocol anymore. Due to this it was not uncommon for El Salvador families to find the disappeared in shallow graves but very uncommon for Maryknoll.
When the people of the village heard what happened they got word to the priest who then got word to the Officials. The first person on sight was Robert White who came at 8:00 a.m. on December 4th. The Friday before the events occurred six prominent opposition people were killed and their funerals were on Wednesday. Because of this, numerous newsrooms had their cameramen on sight in El Salvador. It was not until Wednesday afternoon that the women became officially missing.
At this point Father took a break in telling us what happened that week and we got ready for Mass. He continued during his homily. However, instead of starting where he left off he first reflected on the Gospel and what it meant in El Salvador in the 1980’s. The Gospel you see was on the Great Commandment, the Commandment of Love.
He stated that the teaching comes out of controversy. It is in the struggle where some of the best places are where we can witness the gospel. This happened especially in El Salvador in 1980. The people were not just using words but were able to witness with their lives. Father John made it a point to tell us that no one was naive in being in El Salvador. Everyone knew the dangers but stayed as this is where they felt God calling them to be.
Throughout the Civil War for every religious that was murdered or disappeared, numerous lay El Salvadoran people, with the same faith were martyred. The church was being persecuted because it was trying to work blamelessly. Oscar Romero changed the attitude of the people. Romero knew that Father Grande was doing the correct things in his parish. He could see that Christ was suffering in the people; Christ was suffering in the Church
At this, Father John turned back to the events of Dec. 2nd. Sister Dorthy and Jean had already gone to the airport once that day to pick up two other sisters that flew in from Nicaragua. At the time, they thought they were going to pick up all four but because the flight was oversold, Sister Ita, and Sister Maura made the decision to let the two others go before them. Sister Dorthy and Jean brought the two sisters to the convent in San Salvador where they dropped off a bag of duty free candy on the table and took the Jeep up into a village in the Mountains. When Father Paul, another Maryknoll priest, saw that the Jeep was gone and the candy was on the table he assumed everyone had made it back safely. He thought it was a little strange that Ita and Maura missed breakfast but thought that they had went up to the capital that morning. When they missed an afternoon meeting he with the others got alarmed that something was wrong.
On the morning of December 4th Father Paul and another sister drove to the airport and saw the white van. It was left by the side of a different road, burned out, as a decoy. They got extremely worried and waited for further news. Sometime during the day, they heard of the grave and Father Paul went to identify the bodies. The only way that the Judge would allow for the grave to be dug up is if they could identify the women without a doubt. In this, they showed them the Maryknoll ring that every sister wears and then the judge knew it was indeed the four American Church women. In the afternoon Father John came with another priest in a pickup truck. They called the funeral home to come and take the bodies back to San Salvador but they never showed up. Father John and the priest ended up bring the bodies back to San Salvador in the back of the pickup truck.
The story of the women went around the world overnight. In this, the families made it a point to say that this was happening every single day, around the country of El Salvador, to innocent victims and that the world needs to pray that it stops.
As we drove away from the sight, I kept going back to Father John’s comment “This was not uncommon for El Salvador but very uncommon for Maryknoll.” My prayer is that it will never again feel common for people in ones country to be shot and for no one to talk about it.
As we drove into the city of San Salvador it had already been a long morning and all of us were extremely hungry. That morning at breakfast we had talked about all the fruits and vegetables that we had already tried in El Salvador and both Erica and Darren made it a point to tell us that we needed to try Avocados. I immediately chirped up and stated that I for one would not be partaking in eating an avocado as my body does not process them well, so much so, that I tell people that I am allergic to them. At lunch, we quickly put in our orders and I ordered the burrito. Three fourths into my meal, I glanced down into my burrito, to see green stuff oozing out. I was sitting next to Darren, and as I looked at him, he looked at my burrito, tried the green stuff, and we both realized that I had eaten a good amount of avocado. I was a sad sight to see. As the rest of the group was able to go to the University of Central America where the Jesuits were Martyred, Darren and I headed back to the hotel so that I could deal with getting better quickly. For the most part, I recovered by supper and knew that I would be ready for our Friday adventure.
– Sarah Pauline