By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — Sisters of Humility Bea Snyder and Cathleen Real are traveling to El Salvador to honor the memory of four U.S. missionaries who were raped and murdered there 30 years ago. Helping them to prepare for the Nov. 29-Dec. 6 trip is Sister Charlotte Seubert, FSPA, who served in El Salvador and knew the four victims who were murdered by Salvadoran guardsmen.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) initiated the trip with the collaboration of Pax Christi USA and The SHARE Foundation, whose website says it “accompanies the Salvadoran people in their struggle for justice and human rights.”
“My life has been deeply touched by the story of the four churchwomen,” said Sr. Snyder, who organized prayer services commemorating the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the slayings of lay missionary Jean Donovan, 27, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, 41, and Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke, 49, and Ita Ford, 40. The four were beaten, raped and murdered Dec. 2, 1980. Five Salvadoran guardsmen were convicted of murder by a Salvadoran judge in 1984, according to Catholic News Service archives.
Sr. Snyder said she was struck by the churchwomen’s commitment to remain, in mortal danger, among the oppressed people of El Salvador. The women’s story is a “very strong message to me of commitment. It’s living the Gospel radically, which I’d love to be able to do, but I’m a chicken,” said Sr. Snyder, who served as a teacher and then ministered to the homeless for 20 years before taking her current post as director of the Humility of Mary Center in Davenport.
She invited Sr. Real, a retired educator and now advocate for the environment, to accompany her to El Salvador. Neither has been to El Salvador. In addition to honoring the memory of the four churchwomen, Sr. Real said she hopes to get a better understanding of life in that third-world country and how climate change is impacting it.
Recently, the two Sisters met with Sr. Seubert, who leads adult faith formation for Christ the King Parish in Moline, Ill. She served in El Salvador for 19 years before her community called her back to the United States in 1981 following the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and then, nine months later, the four churchwomen.
Sr. Seubert had attended meetings with Archbishop Romero and knew the four churchwomen personally. “We’d just been together for Thanksgiving, all of the Americans,” Sr. Seubert said. She remembers getting a phone call that the women were missing. Other calls followed about the discovery of their burned minibus and then of finding their bodies in a shallow grave. Sr. Seubert attended the wake for all four women and the burial of the two Maryknoll nuns. The bodies of the other two women were returned to the United States.
It was difficult for Sr. Seubert to leave El Salvador; she had been providing leadership training to peasants so that they could stand up for their rights. The training center was ransacked and broken into three times. But the training continued. One participant said to her, “Sister we might have to die someday for this.”
She has made several trips back to El Salvador, most recently in August of this year. She visited places where she’d ministered, including the parochial school she helped establish in 1962. With sadness, she viewed the memorial wall that bears the names of 80,000 individuals who were slain during the 1980-1992 civil war in El Salvador, including Archbishop Romero and the four churchwomen. Another 86,000 individuals disappeared and are unaccounted for, Sr. Seubert said.