Presenté: Lives and choices

by Carol K. Coburn


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A personal reflection on the four churchwomen murdered in El Salvador

Even as a child, New Year's Eve has always been a time of reflection and remembrance. During my childhood, my parents always took my sister and I to a church service on December 31, and the sacred space, music, and silence always provided the backdrop for quiet remembrance and contemplation. I would stand at the cusp of the New Year, simultaneously reflecting on the past and wondering about the future. Although I no longer attend church services, this New Year's Eve took me again to that place of transition — suspended in time — looking backward and forward as midnight approached.

In December, I traveled with the SHARE/LCWR delegation to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the murder of four U.S churchwomen in El Salvador. I had received an invitation months earlier and had immediately felt called to participate. I recall the 1980 event with clarity and emotion, horrified and stunned by what I saw and read in the media. Although not raised Catholic, I felt and understood the worldwide reaction of horror and disbelief that this really could have happened. The images burned into my brain and vividly remain even 35 years later. Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan became real to me in 1980, and I wanted to honor them in 2015.

Having come of age during the Vietnam War, I had no illusions about the purity of American foreign policy or our government's willingness to support military or political leaders who were willing to kill their own people (or those supporting them) to "save democracy" from "the creeping menace" of communism, which often translated into protecting U.S. business or geo-political interests. The story and context of this atrocity has been pieced together with many gaps still remaining because of "classified" materials kept from the public domain. Ana Carrigan's book (reprinted in 2005), Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan, although focused on Jean Donovan, provides a research-based approach to the narrative combining personal correspondence with interviews and other sources to tell the story. More recently Eileen Purcell and others, writing for Global Sisters Report and other media sources, have effectively described the larger background and context of the tragedy and its aftermath.

Similar to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, this was not a matter of being at the wrong place, at the wrong time. There is every indication that the rapes and murders of the four churchwomen were planned and ordered by Salvadoran military officials (trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia). The death squad sent to perpetrate the atrocities was not rogue and did not act without explicit authorization from official Salvadoran authorities.

But the details of this event are not what I reflected on this New Year's Eve. It was the memorial service on December 2, 2015, in El Salvador that captivated me and kept returning to me in dreams, day and night. After driving over an hour from San Salvador to attend services in Comunidad Esquipulas, our delegation's buses stopped and we began to walk to the chapel built on the site of the murders. Actually, we joined an ongoing procession of people moving slowly toward the site. As we exited our buses we were joined by dozens — which soon became hundreds — of local people who had come to attend the Mass in honor of the four women.

The small chapel, resonating with the sounds of celebration and live music, filled with people; consequently, many people stood outside or sat in white plastic chairs scattered around the three, large open doors. I entered the chapel but felt overwhelmed by the crush of people, and as I tried to find some outside space I was moving slowly through the crowd. In a soft, gentle voice I heard someone call my name. Startled, I looked up into the face of a kind, older Salvadoran man and returned his smile, realizing that I had on my delegation nametag. He had read my name in English and simply wanted to acknowledge and communicate with me in a quiet, gracious way. This experience called me to the present and connected me to the honored women in a very special way. I was very moved.

After the Mass, the crowd moved to the stone memorial in the yard to hear the stories of local people who "testified" to what they saw, provided stories about each of the churchwomen, and described how their families had survived during the tragic, 12-year civil war. As the "celebration" continued, I sat and looked up, staring at the top of the stately tihuilote tree, quiet and regal, spreading its canopy over the site — probably the last view the women saw before dying. Later that day in San Salvador we would attend a ceremony at the foreign affairs office to officially designate the site as an historic landmark, protecting the tree and chapel in perpetuity. The official historical proclamation refers to the tree as "the only witness" to the atrocity of 35 years ago.

Ironically, our week of commemoration and celebration of tragic death was joyous and at times surreal, as we marched in processions, heard more testimonials, received hand-made gifts, shared in village meals, and expressed joy, laughter and pain with all ages. Children were particularly present as celebrants to the memorial events. They sang, read self-written poems and essays, acted in plays, waved flags, danced, drummed and lit up the sky in Los Ranchos with exploding Roman candles amid the amplified sounds of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. His "Ode to Joy" blared into the night sky as hundreds of people stood, cheered and yelled "Presenté" after each woman's name was shouted out, as if the churchwomen were standing there among us. Most striking, children and adults wore T-shirts with the women's pictures on them and paraded with banners filled with empowering slogans, displaying the iconic photos of the churchwomen who lived and died, in some cases decades, before the celebrants were even born. For local people, these churchwomen and their legacy were honored the way we might commemorate a favorite sports star or celebrity in our culture. The contrast was stunning.

Part of what I had hoped to learn from this trip was how to honor the women's lives, not their deaths. Martyrdom is a difficult word for me to use or understand with its cultural and religious implications. If it were me, would I want the focus of honor to be on the way I died or the way I lived? What is the meaning of this commemoration 35 years later? I have one meaning to offer — and it is simply my own — gained from the reflection of past and present on this New Year's Eve. I am moved to see these women as real human beings, not saints, martyrs or victims. They were people who made difficult choices — choices we can all make in our lives, but rarely do. We make it too easy on ourselves if we elevate these churchwomen into something we think we could never be. Cutting them off from their humanity makes it convenient for us and takes us off the hook, since we tell ourselves we couldn't possibly be that special. These women made choices to live lives of compassion and love for others. They knew the dangers but chose to face them, and not leave the suffering people who needed their help and support.

Sometimes our ideas about "human nature" lead us to believe that selfishness and egocentric behavior are the default human responses. But they are not. God gave us free will and a capacity to make choices, bad or good, self-serving or courageous. These four churchwomen chose to be present for the people of El Salvador, making compassionate and brave decisions, knowing full well what that could mean for them. That's what makes them special and that's what we honor 35 years later — their lives and choices, not their violent deaths. This is what we meant on that dark night in Los Ranchos as we shouted "presenté, presenté, presenté, presenté" for Ita, Jean, Dorothy and Maura as fireworks and Beethoven honored their memories.

[Carol K. Coburn is a professor of religious studies and women's and gender studies at Avila University. She is also affiliate faculty for the Avila University Center for Global Studies and Social Justice. Coburn has published and presented extensively on topic of American Catholic sisters, including a co-author book with Martha Smith, CSJ, Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920.]