Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last October, at the the canonisation of Oscar Romero in Rome, Pope Francis donned the blood stained cape the archbishop was wearing when he was assassinated while saying Mass in San Salvador in March 1980.
Romero was killed because of his passionate opposition, duirng the last four years of his life, to the military dictatorship in El Salvador. In the words of the Pope, “He left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to live his life according to the Gospel – close to the poor and close to his people.”
Romero was not alone in his commitment to social justice. In the 1970s and 1980s, revolutionary movements in South America had begun to confront wealthy elites who denied human rights to millions of the people. Many Catholic priests and religious sisters, radicalised by the theology of liberation, which urged christians to challenge the unjust political, social and economic structures, supported them. Nor was Rome alone in paying the ultimate price. Among those who were killed was Sister Maura Clarke, a first generation Irish American.
Sr Maura’s formative years in New York were shaped by Catholicism and the Irish revolutionary spirit. It was a world that was romantically portrayed in films like Bing Crosby’s, ‘Going My Way’ and more accurately rendered in the limpid novels of Alice McDermott.
Sr Maura’s father, John, a native of the parish of Dromard in West Sligo, emigrated to New York in 1914. Six years later he returned home to join his brothers in the fight for Irish freedom. When convalescing from an injury in a Antrim nursing home, he met and fell in love with Mary McCloskey, who worked there.
The 1920s were a very uneasy time in Ireland. The camaraderie of the War of Independence was soured by the civil war. Dreams disintegrated into disillusion. So in 1930, John and Mary left for New York, where they married and set up home. Their eldest daughter, Maura, was born the following year.
According to her biographer, Eileen Markey, Maura was deeply influenced by her father. He told her ‘stories of the Irish revolution and instilled his thoughtful daughter with an understanding of the world from the perspective of the person the bottom: the native not the colonist, the peasant not the landlord … of brave, principled rebels, of people who stand against the prevailing power and for the underdog’. Her mother’s hospitality taught her generosity. There was always room for others at the Clarke family table.
After a conventional Catholic education, Maura decided to become a religious sister. She joined the Maryknoll Sisters, a congregation that specialises in missionary work.
Sr Maura spent 17 years in Nicaragua, where the corrupt Somoza dynasty had ruled for decades. In the 1970s, the revolutionary Sandanista movement challenged the dictatorship and civil war broke out. Political murders were common. Maura discerned the sufferings of Christ in the oppression of the people with whom she worked. She organised education, health and food projects. She supported women who had been raped because of their involvement in the revolutionary movement. She was called ‘Sr Comunista’ by soldiers. She showed her feisty spirit when the National Guard tried to arrest one of her former students who had joined the ‘Sandenista National Liberation Front’. When she called on a soldier to release him, he ordered her to return to her convent. Pointing dramatically at the dusty street, she declared, ‘this is my convent’.
Sr Maura left Nicaragua in 1977 to take up an appointment in the United States. In 1980 she returned to South America, this time El Salvador. It was a dangerous assignment in a country divided by a bitter civil war. She continued her ministry of mercy for those who were broken in spirit. Mutilated in body and marginalised.
On December 2, she and three of her friends Sr Ita Forde, Sr Dorothy Kozel and a lay missionary, Jean Donovan, were ambushed as they drove on a lonely road from San Salvador to their parish. Three of them were raped and all of them were killed. It is appropriate to reflect on their martyrdom during Holy Week.