Love in action — the life, work and death of Sister Maura Clarke

Eileen Markey’s stunningly beautiful book, “A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura,” comes not a moment too soon. Her rendering of the life and death of Sister Maura Clarke at the brutal hands of a U.S.-financed Salvadoran military, clarifies how we are to be in a world of ascending and entrenching authoritarian governments. In the world in which human beings and the earth play second fiddle to the whims and wants of the wealthy and their minions, Maura Clarke is a stellar example of how to say a resounding “No” to the wealth-hoarders and warmongers and an almighty “Yes” to life itself.

“A Radical Faith” starts graveside — that is at the makeshift grave of Clarke, Sister Ita Ford, Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan who had been brutally killed and, for at least two of the women, raped as well. As the bodies of at least 75,000 Salvadorans killed by their own military during a 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992, the bodies of these women are illuminative. They clearly show the extent to which the military regime of El Salvador, the oligarchic families it protected, and its foreign mainstay, the United States, would go to protect and preserve an environment friendly to business, militarism and oligarchic rule. Clarke’s radical faith was that she accepted, embodied and practiced this basic command of Jesus: “You must love one another as I have loved you.”

In the opening chapter of the book, Markey asks “Who was this woman in the dirt? What forces in her life, in herself, led to this vicious death so far from home? What did that ring, slipped on the slender finger of a 22-year-old [novice in the Maryknoll religious congregation] have to do with farm laborers and death squads, clandestine meetings, and military orders?” These are compass-setting questions. Combined with Markey’s vivid opening account of the bodies found, the agonizing hours of a search for the women, and their religious comrades kneeling on the ground near the bodies, these questions and the rock-solid commitment of the religious women help to ground us in the political realities and struggles of the present moment. Where do we stand? To whom and what are we committed? In what are we grounded? Markey’s gift to the reader is not only her ability to write a compelling narrative but also that she astutely understands why we need to know Maura Clarke’s story.

There is a good reason why women came together in consciousness-raising circles to tell their stories, analyze their circumstances, uplift the personal, and work for change. Our feminist foremothers in the 1960s and ’70s well understood that the political sphere was structured along patriarchal lines and as long as no one saw or challenged that, things would remain the same. Markey notes, at the close of the first chapter, that Clarke’s story was not only a political story but also a personal story. It is Markey’s attentiveness to the details of Clarke’s life that make reading this book a life-changing experience. There is the way, for example, that Markey so powerfully helps us to see Clarke vitally alive in her work. During the first days of her missionary work, “she was keenly open, trying to absorb everything. She stretched to bridge the language gap, smiling with interest, focusing on the faces of people near her, nodding, her lean frame tilted toward them, laughing when she fumbled a word.” By the book’s end, Clarke is so consistent in her practice of solidarity, which is well charted by Markey, that one begins, if at first only subconsciously, to embody the tilt of the attentiveness and the desire to get closer to hear what the other has to say.

Markey’s inclusion and vivid depiction of Clarke’s nuclear and extended family are yet another instance of the personal dimension of the book. Native to Ireland, Clarke’s parents met during the Irish War of Independence when John Clarke, who had returned to Ireland after seven years in the United States, brought a wounded comrade to the door of nurse Mary McCloskey. John Clarke, whose dream of liberation for the Irish people was crushed by the war’s end, sailed back to the United States and was joined by Mary in 1929. Married in 1930, they were among those who “represented the tail end of a giant wave of Irish immigration that began with the Irish potato famine in 1845.” The reader meets and spends time with the family again and again throughout the book. Markey describes the remarkable ability of this family to cultivate intimacy and support while at the same time opening the doors of their home to so many of Maura’s colleagues, community members, friends and those she served. There was room for all at the Clarke family table.

In the early spring of 1959, Maura Clarke made her final vows with the Maryknoll Sisters. That fall she would head to Nicaragua to begin her mission work. Upon her death, 21 years later (and that of Ita Ford, also a Maryknoll Sister) the Maryknoll Sisters and Fathers issued a joint statement, which recognized that these women put the Gospel at the center of their lives and that they were assassinated for their love for the poor and marginalized.

Markey demarcates the world which nurtured Maura Clarke, her family and countless other Irish-Americans. The Clarke family’s Belle Harbor, Queens, New York parish of Saint Francis de Sales, just a few blocks away from the ocean, lauded both God and country. Later, when Markey describes the Maryknoll novitiate days of Clarke, one can also see what an “ordered” religious life looked like in part: “Do not loll about or lean against walls. Do not stand with hands or arms resting on chair backs.” The other and much larger part of her early life with Maryknoll, however, was the work of entering into and learning how to dwell within the root of an interior life. Again, Markey’s research and writing allows the reader to engage in the world of Clarke and the Catholic Church of the 1950s. Further, she is even-handed when writing about a church and, more specifically, Maryknoll, a religious congregation. The Maryknoll religious congregation acknowledged “that all of humanity was related, that all people were children of God, and that is was worthwhile to go far away from home to connect with some of those distant brothers and sisters.” At the same time, as Markey notes, the Maryknoll community of the 1950s would not have seen or critiqued its missionary work as imperialistic in nature.

After its introductory chapters, the bulk of “A Radical Faith” consists of Markey’s robust rendering of Clarke’s mission work in Nicaragua and, briefly, in El Salvador and the United States. These chapters also include an expert analysis of the liberation theology and movement within the Catholic Church, a synthetic and well-researched account of the political and economic structural forces at play in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the United States, and of Clarke’s personal and religious transformation. Markey makes the point that Clarke was steeped in love for other human beings and thought that everyone mattered.

In the middle and final sections of the book, its reader sees how the ecstatic love of Clarke’s spiritual life matured and embodied itself in a consistent, courageous and radical love for those whom she served in Nicaragua, El Salvador, her Maryknoll community members, and her family. The structured life imposed upon her during her Maryknoll novitiate life served her well in Nicaragua and El Salvador as we see Clarke, along with so many other Maryknoll Sisters, pray, work, teach, visit and serve from the early morning hours to late at night. Their efforts were consistent, disciplined and seemingly tireless. Clarke and her community members did their best to blend into the communities they served rather than to isolate themselves behind convent walls where they could enjoy middle-class conveniences. They were mild in manner, clean of heart and, as the years of their mission work passed on, immersed more and more in the poverty of the people whom they lived with and loved.

Mild in manner, however, did not mean simply standing by the side of the road while the military machines of Nicaragua, El Salvador and, indirectly, the United States rolled over the poor and all living things in their way. There was a rather dramatic scene in the book, for example, where we see Clarke confronting members of the Nicaraguan National Guard. Called in by rich landowners to shut down a camp that housed the poor survivors of an earthquake, they could not get past the infuriated Clarke and two other Sisters. “She shouted at the guardsmen,” Markey writes. “No one ever did that. Father [Fernando] Cardinal was there as well, and was stunned by the ferocity of the three women. It was the first time he saw the National Guard back down.”

The righteous anger of these women is indeed riveting, and one wonders what had changed for Clarke and her comrades. Instead of hustling the poor folks off the scene, why had they chosen to confront these representatives of the political and economic elite? It is hard to know how the elements come together in the action of another, but one cannot help but wonder if her Irish family’s tradition of resisting oppression merged with a new Catholic consciousness about matters of faith and justice in Clarke. A good 12 years before the confrontation with the National Guard, the Catholic Church had “opened the windows” of its ancient institution and welcomed in the “fresh air” of the Second Vatican Council. For Clarke and her Maryknoll community, the intellectual and religious development sparked by this council meant that “the Jesus of Good Friday and Easter knew what it was to fear the National Guard. He wasn’t locked up in the sky or laid flat in the pages of a holy book. This Jesus belonged to the people, came alive again when the people were united.”

Clarke was in the United States in the latter part of 1976 so that she could introduce the work of the Maryknoll missions to her fellow Americans and help them to see what life was like for folks whose lives are terribly compromised or brutally cut short by the ravages of poverty and violence. While Clarke knew and understood the political and economic dynamics that created the terrible conditions in which the people with whom she worked were forced to live, she did not subject her audience to a long and bullying talk on U.S. imperialism. Instead, Clarke offered a historical and political analysis while also speaking specifically and concretely about the humans beings with whom she moved, lived and breathed. She could talk about the dear Lesbia Taleno, a teenager whose mother was close to Maura, who was arrested for hanging political posters and then raped and impregnated by members of the National Guard. When someone who came to a talk she gave asked if the U.S. government knew what those foreign governments to whom the United States gave hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid knew what was going on, Clarke gave a slight nod of her head.

It would be Maura’s devotion, love and gentleness that would help her American Catholic compatriots see the wealth of fundamental teachings on justice that constituted Catholic Social Thought. A few months later, Clarke would again act on such teachings and engage in the act of nonviolent civil disobedience in the offices of the Nicaraguan consulate to the United Nations. Once again, Clarke’s fierce resistance to injustice issued forth. The police, as Markey notes, “looked dumbfounded. Were they really being lectured about supporting revolution by a nun?”

President Jimmy Carter, who had ignored Archbishop Oscar Romero’s pleas for him to stop sending military aid to El Salvador six months before Clarke was killed, resumed funding — including an emergency five million dollars — to the military dictatorship of El Salvador two weeks after Maura, Ita, Jean and Dorothy were kidnapped, raped, and killed. By 1982, and during the Reagan presidency, U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government would reach $64 million that year. Such expenditures were often justified by Cold War politics and by the fear of the communist threat that countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador could be to Central America, the latter of which was within what the United States considered to be its sphere of influence. Reading through U.S. military reports on the civil war in El Salvador, one also finds reference to the desire of the United States to help foster democracy within a country struggling to develop. One can only imagine that Clarke, had she been given a chance to speak to these masters of Cold War politics would ask them to see what was actually happening to actual human beings. How can we ever plan for, pay for, and justify the mass slaughter, torture, rape, and impoverishment of even one person, much less the many thousands who were killed in El Salvador alone?

From my own experience of working in the same Salvadoran communities in the Department of Chalatenango that Maura worked, I heard these questions asked by Salvadoran people there, many of whom were psychologically scarred, physically injured, or impoverished by the war, to their American visitors. They wanted to know why the Americans did not resist what their government was doing, or at least stop paying taxes which funded a military death machine. Perhaps it was because, for many Americans, they did not know or fully understand what was done in their names in Central America. Political, economic and military elites often make good use of the fog of ideology, which is all but impenetrable and does a good job of obfuscating reality. Clarke’s gift of speaking about the specific lives of human beings went a long way to break through this fog and enter into the hearts of her listeners. It is a practice we may wish to retrieve and rehabilitate in these days of authoritarian darkness.

Though Sister Maura Clarke worked with a Gospel and an institution thousands of years in the making, she was able, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, to love vitally, welcome other human beings and, as such, write a counter-narrative to the equally ancient story of death-dealing empire. That we can now know the power and beauty of her life is due to a book that reads like an act of love by its author, Eileen Markey. The radiance of Clarke’s life is also that of the good people with whom she lived and worked, her family along with its rootedness in the tradition of Irish resistance, and the Maryknoll religious congregation’s embrace of their faith, its social teachings and its liberation theology. Markey’s scholarship and her devotion to this story affords its reader the opportunity to ask the ever-renewing question: “where do we go from here?” Clarke shows us the fundamentals: love, community, nonviolence, resistance, courage and faith. Nourished by her life and this book, let our communities of resurrection get to work.

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