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Maura Clarke
File:Maura Clarke.jpg
Born January 13, 1931
Queens, NY, United States
Died December 2, 1980
Cause of death murder by military death squad
Resting place Chalatenango, El Salvador
Occupation nun
Employer Maryknoll
Religion Roman Catholic

Template:20th century persecutions of the Catholic Church Maura Clarke (January 13, 1931 – December 2, 1980) was an American Roman Catholic Maryknoll nun and missionary to Nicaragua and El Salvador. She worked with the poor and the refugees in Central America from 1959 until her death in 1980. She was beaten, raped, and murdered, along with fellow missionaries Ita Ford, Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel in El Salvador, by members of a military death squad of the military-led right-wing government fighting the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front at the time of the Salvadoran Civil War.


On the night of Tuesday, December 2, 1980, Maura Clarke and three other Catholic churchwomen joined the more than 75,000 people who were killed in the civil war.

On the afternoon of December 2, 1980, Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, picked up two Maryknoll missionary sisters, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford from the airport after the pair arrived from attending a Maryknoll conference in Managua, Nicaragua. The women were under surveillance by a Salvadoran National Guardsman (La Guardia Nacionál) at the time, who phoned his commander for orders.

Acting on orders from their commander, five National Guardsmen changed into plainclothes and continued to stake out the airport. Donovan and Kazel returned to pick up a second pair of Maryknoll sisters: Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, who were returning from the same conference on a flight not due until 9:11 pm.[1]

The five National Guardsmen, now out of uniform, stopped the women's vehicle after they left the airport in San Salvador. Clarke and the three other women were taken to a relatively isolated spot, where the soldiers beat, raped, and murdered them.[1]

At about 10:00 pm , three hours after Donovan and Kazel picked up Clarke and Ford, local peasants had seen the sisters' white van drive to an isolated spot and then heard machine-gun fire followed by single shots. They saw five men flee the scene in the white van, with the lights on and the radio blaring. The van would be found later than night, set afire at the side of the airport road.[1]

Early the next morning, Wednesday, December 3, the bodies of the four women were found by local residents, who were told by local authorities; a judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders; to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field. Four of the local men did so, but informed their parish priest, and the news reached the local bishop and the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, the same day.[1]

The shallow grave was exhumed the next day, on Thursday, December 4, in front of fifteen reporters, Sisters Alexander and Dorsey, several missioners, and Ambassador White. Jean Donovan's body was the first removed; then Dorothy Kazel's; then Maura Clarke's; and last, Ita Ford. The next day, a Mass of the Resurrection was said by the bishop, Arturo Rivera y Damas; and on Saturday, December 6, the bodies of Donovan and Kazel were flown to the United States for burial. The bodies of the Maryknoll sisters, Clarke and Ford, were buried in Chalatenango, El Salvador.[1]

Subsequent history

As news of the murders was made public in the United States, public outrage forced the U.S. government to pressure the Salvadoran regime to investigate. The earliest investigations were condemned as whitewash attempts by the later ones, and in time, a Truth Commission was appointed by the United Nations to investigate who had given the orders, who had known about the crime, and who had covered it up. Several lower-level National Guardsman were convicted, and two National Guard generals were sued by the women's families in the federal civil courts of the United States for their command responsibility in the incident. After the murders of the churchwomen, US President Jimmy Carter suspended all aid to El Salvador, but domestic U.S. right-wing political pressure forced him to reinstate it.

Unlike President Carter, succeeding US President Ronald Reagan favoured the Salvadoran military régime; he authorized increased military aid and sent more U.S. military advisors to the country to aid the government in quelling the civil/guerilla war. In El Salvador's Decade of Terror: Human Rights Since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero, Human Rights Watch reports:

  • "During the Reagan years in particular, not only did the United States fail to press for improvements . . . but, in an effort to maintain backing for U.S. policy, it misrepresented the record of the Salvadoran government, and smeared critics who challenged that record. In so doing, the Administration needlessly polarized the debate in the United States, and did a grave injustice to the thousands of civilian victims of government terror in El Salvador. [23] Despite the El Mozote Massacre that year, Reagan continued certifying (per the 1974 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act) that the Salvadoran government was progressing in respecting and guaranteeing the human rights of its people, and in reducing National Guard abuses against them."

According to the Maryknoll Order:

“The U.N.-sponsored report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded that the abductions were planned in advance and the men responsible had carried out the murders on orders from above. It further stated that the head of the National Guard and two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed the facts to harm the judicial process. The murder of the women, along with attempts by the Salvadoran military and some American officials to cover it up, generated a grass-roots opposition in the U.S., as well as ignited intense debate over the Administration’s policy in El Salvador. In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in Salvadoran history that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behavior. Two of the men remain in prison and have petitioned the Salvadoran government for pardons.”[2]

The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become Salvadoran Minister of Defense in the government of José Napoleón Duarte.[3] After their emigration to the U.S. state of Florida, Vides Casanova and his fellow general, José Guillermo García, were sued by the families of the four women in federal civil court.

Clarke's Quotations

  • "God is very present in His seeming absence."
  • "My fear of death is being challenged constantly as children, lovely young girls, old people are being shot and some cut up with machetes and bodies thrown by the road and people prohibited from burying them. A loving Father must have a new life of unimaginable joy and peace prepared for these precious unknown, uncelebrated martyrs."
  • "I see in this work a channel for awakening real concern for the victims of injustice in today’s world; a means to work for change, and to share…deep concern for the sufferings of the poor and marginalized, the non-persons of our human family."
  • "If we leave the people when they suffer the cross, how credible is our word to them? The church's role is to accompany those who suffer the most, and to witness our hope in the resurrection."[4]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Judith Noone, The Same Fate as the Poor, Orbis Books (1969) pp. 1-2. Text not available online. ISBN 1570750319.
  2. Martyrdom in El Salvador by Maryknoll Sisters.
  3. Biography InterReligious Task Force of Cleveland; accessed October 7, 2005.
  4. "Ita, Maura, Dorothy, and Jean" December 5, 2006 edition of National Catholic Reporter; column by John Dear, S.J., quoting Clarke "just weeks before her death." Accessed online December 10, 2006.

Further reading

  • “Hearts on Fire: The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters,” Penny Lernoux, et al., Orbis Books, 1995.
  • “Ita Ford: Missionary Martyr,” Phyllis Zagano, Paulist Press, 1996.
  • “The Same Fate As the Poor,” Judith M. Noone, Orbis Books, 1995. ISBN 1570750319
  • “Witness of Hope: The Persecution of Christians in Latin America,” Martin Lange and Reinhold Iblacker, Orbis Books, 1981.

External links

fr:Maura Clarke

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