When the Saints Go Marching In: The Martyrs of El Salvador

by John O’Boyle, Guest Contributor to Catholic Majority


There aren’t many North American saints. While there are numerous Irish saints, Italian saints, and saints from elsewhere, we Americans seem like the lost children of Israel. Growing up, I often wondered why.

Carmelite nunLooking back on my childhood, it seems as though I learned about the Catholic faith through the process of osmosis. Each Christmas Eve, when my father would come home from his mail route, he would take a few bags of hard candy over to the local convent. My mother, who came from Ireland, was working as a nanny on that route when they met. On many Sunday afternoons, she and her friends would take a streetcar and a bus out to a place called “the Carmelites.” I was pretty sure that it was a place where all the Irish maids gathered.

After they were married, when my mother would return from a visit to the sisters, my father would ask her, “Who did you see?” She would answer “Nora” or “Bridget” or “Agnes.” Then my father would say, “She’ll be mentioned in the ‘Litany of the Saints.’” That was the way my parents were.

The Litany of the Saints was a very long prayer, sometimes chanted at special masses. The altar boys would be decked out in the reddest of cassocks and the whitest of surplices, and the pews would be filled with fidgeting people. Sometimes after a saint’s name they would chant, “virgin” or “martyr.” So by osmosis, I figured that all martyrs were saints, but I could not figure out what “virgin” was all about.

Archbishop Óscar Romero & the Martyrs of El Salvador

Conflict has ever been the way of the world in Central America. It seem that each country at any given point in time was ruled by the wealthy landowners, who were kept in power by the militia and police. The United States was deeply involved in maintaining that status quo. The CIA was as prevalent in Central America as the mosquitoes in a field. Militia officers and other personnel were trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

American foreign policy was directed to fight the spread of Communism, a policy that aimed to prevent what had happened in Cuba from replicating in other countries. Any attempt by the peasantry to form a union, gain a bit of land, or get a fair deal, was labeled as Communist-inspired. Those who aided the poor were called communists and viewed as enemies of the state.

The Cleveland Mission Team had been in El Salvador since the mid-1960s. Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel had joined the group in 1974, signing on for a five year period.

Almost half our parishioners live on the volcano, Conchagua. It is almost impossible to reach some of them, but we do our best to help wherever we can[…]. We continue, living thru earthquakes, walking in dust and water up to our ankles, removing knife victims from the main streets, building houses, fighting malaria and dysentery, and just having a great time in the name of the Ursulines and Christ who is Lord.

martyrs of el salvador
Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U.

In 1979, El Salvador men and women religious were being killed, defamed, and driven from the country. The situation was so dangerous that the United States pulled the Peace Corps out. Archbishop Romero (then the archbishop of San Salvador) asked Maryknoll to send sisters. They were volunteers who had experience in South and Central America. Ita Ford, Carla Piette, and Maura Clarke answered the call. They were experienced in refugee work.

The sisters of the Cleveland Mission Team would drive shotgun with any priest who traveled to the small towns. Many times they were stopped and frisked. There was a belief at the time that ‘they don’t shoot American sisters.’ Dorothy Kazel volunteered to stay an extra year to train her successor.

Jean Donovan joined the Mission Team, too. She was 26 years old and an account executive with a large accounting firm. She was headstrong, brash, and had a way of exercising her will. She had spent her sophomore year of college at the College of Cork in Ireland. There, she came under the influence of an Irish priest who seemed to always have a project going for working with the poor. It was a life changing experience.

martyrs of el salvador
Jean Donovan

Back in Cleveland, Jean joined another group working with the poor. She volunteered for the El Salvador mission, struggled through language school, and began her journey. Jean was given the job of running the Caritas food program, which fed about 6,000 migrant workers. She was working cleaning pots and pans and caring for the children while their parents were in the field.

I keep getting very frustrated and wonder what I am doing here as opposed to being married and living in lollipop acres. Sometimes I’ll think, O my God, I’m twenty-six years old, I should be married. I shouldn’t be running around the way I am. Am I ever going to have any kids? And then I sit here and talk to the Lord, and I say, why are you doing this to me? Why can’t I be just your little suburban house wife? And you know, He hasn’t answered me yet. I don’t know. Sometimes I get mad at Him. Sometimes I tell him I am going to chuck the whole thing. I’ve had it.

In 1968, the Latin American Bishops held a conference in Medellin, Columbia. There, the conference defined a new role for the Church, calling upon its ministers to look at the problem of justice and poverty. Not that the Church would ignore the powerful, but it would call on them to consider and alter their sense of entitlement. There was division among the powers-that-be in the Church. The conservative faction called it “liberation theology.” The progressives believed the goals were more in line with the words of Jesus, and with the Corporal Works of Mercy.

martyrs of el salvador
Archbishop Óscar Romero

Monetary gain and political power were the main tenets of those who governed Central America at the time. Injustice, persecution, and intimidation were the order of the day. But Archbishop Romero walked with the poor. Each Sunday morning at the 8 o’clock mass he would broadcast to the nation a list of the injustices, atrocities, and killings that hat been committed. His voice was feared by the powers-that-be. The radio station would be bombed, yet he continued his work. He spent his days walking the streets of the city, comforting the widows and the orphans. In the evenings, he would visit the dumps to look for the dead bodies of his friends. He lived in a modest room in a convent.

Archbishop Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, as he said Mass. According to the witnesses and the audio recordings, he was killed as he celebrating the Eucharist, elevating the chalice. Militia officers had cast lots to see who would plan the assassination.

His funeral mass was held on an open plaza where there were over 200,000 people in attendance. During this mass, militia soldiers fired from the roofs of government buildings, killing over 40 people. Bishop Hickey of Cleveland was among the clergy standing on the upper steps of the cathedral. He took refuge inside, beneath the pews. Later he met with the Cleveland Mission Team, asking if they wanted to close down. They said they would remain in El Salvador as long as they could do some good.

When Bishop Hickey’s return to the United States, he named the first new parish in the Cleveland diocese Holy Martyrs Church. It was in a rural area, built on a hill surrounded by maple and elm.

The Maryknoll Sisters continued to travel by bus all over El Salvador, looking to be wherever they were needed. They were needed everywhere. Finally, the vicar appointed them the Refugee Committee of the Chalatenango Province. They purchased an old half-truck, half-car, and christened it La Tonquito, Miss Piggy. Both the Maryknolls and the Cleveland Mission Team were working 24/7. They performed work with the refugees, opened orphanages, and when they had the time, they wrote letters home.

Carla: When I go to a catechist meeting I think I should be going to a stevedore and chauffer’s group. That’s what I primarily do. Drive priests. Drive sisters. Bring refugees down from the hills. Me and La Tonquita!

Carla was killed during the summer when she and Ita were driving a young former prisoner back to his village. On the return, there was a storm and the vehicle was caught in the water of a fast rising creek. She pushed Ita out of the window but could not save herself.

Two young men, Carlos and Armando, who helped the Cleveland Team around the church were shot dead in the plaza in front of the church. They had just attended a movie with Jean. Jean wrapped their bloody heads with sheets from her bed.

The missionaries continued to write letters:

Dorothy: We’re pretty much into the refugee problem. These people are mostly women and children. They can not stay up in the hills. I might leave by mid March… I don’t know… nothing is ever definite. Do keep praying for us. We are all fine.

Jean: Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could… except for the children… the poor bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch… as to favor the reasonable thing… in a sea of their tears and loneliness. Not mine… dear friend… not mine.

Ita: The front of the seminary and the chancery got bombed the other night. Also a member of the Human Rights commission and a priest from here were killed. […] Someone remarked the other day that all our conversations are about death. It’s probably true because it’s all around us… And often so barbaric. I guess this is a “I’m still breathing” note.

Maura: It was good to get your letter, Pop, telling me about Mom resting on the couch after supper. I can see you so well with the eyes of my heart.. And have so many precious memories of you always.

Holy Martyrs Church was dedicated in early October of 1980. A chapel was to be built to honor Archbishop Romero. The autumn colors were on full display in the surrounding wooded area.

martyrs of el salvador
Sister Ita Ford, M.M.

In early December, Dorothy, Ita, Maura, and Jean were all martyred. It was the end of Thanksgiving weekend. The Maryknoll Sisters had attended a Thanksgiving gathering of Maryknoll Sisters in Nicaragua. Dorothy and Jean had driven them to the airport and were to pick them up on Tuesday. Upon their return, their vehicle was waylaid by the militia. The missionaries were tortured, raped, and murdered. Three of the militia had been trained at the School of the Americas.

martyrs of el salvador
Sister Maura Clarke, M.M.

When the church on the hill was built, the chapel was dedicated to Archbishop Romero. There are four distinct areas honoring Dorothy, Ita, Maura, and Jean, martyrs of El Salvador.


Learning through osmosis is a funny thing. Lessons permeate one’s being with little or no effort by the recipient. Sometimes it comes from youthful example. Other times it comes from experiences along the pathway of life. It is seldom found in text or theology.

As my father would say in the days of long ago, ‘I knew Archbishop Romero and the martyrs would be mentioned in the Litany of the Saints.’

Archbishop Romero and the martyred missionaries are looked upon as saints in El Salvador and in many corners in the world. However, it seems that in the Vatican, they were looked upon in a different manner.

And then came along came the most unlikely pope, Pope Francis. He has removed whatever blockades existed for the canonization of the Archbishop. He has an affinity for the poor and the misbegotten, and the tireless workers who labor in the field. He has opened doors and windows and allowed fresh air to enter the Church.

Osmosis is a funny thing. It taught me that martyrs are saints.

And that today, the martyrs of El Salvador are held in reverence in the beautiful church on the hill.

[John O’Boyle is an Irish historian and retired employee of the US Postal Service. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the same neighborhood as Sister Dorothy Kazel. He is the author of Martyrs of El Salvador / Their Tapes and Lettersand the play, They Don’t Shoot American Sisters, which dramatizes the events in El Salvador.]

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7 Replies to “When the Saints Go Marching In: The Martyrs of El Salvador”

  1. Thank you for posting this wonderful article. I have in-law family from El Salvador who left the country as things were starting to get really bad. At the time, they were just children, and didn’t know why they had to leave their home. They were lucky that there was family in the U.S. ready to welcome them. I will be sharing this article with them so that they can gain some insight into their own history.

  2. Thank you for sharing some of the history of the Martyrs. Your words give us pause to remember and pray for these women and for peace.

  3. Dear John – what a lovely reflection on the sacrifices of the Four Churchwomen. You’ve done a great job of weaving their story into today’s context of Pope Francis’ concern for the poor and his respect for Msgr. Romero’s life and defense of the poor. You’ve also gone beyond that to weave it into eternal salvation history with the Litany of the Saints, which is indeed long, and always growing, thank God!

  4. John O’Boyle, The Bard of Saint Thomas Aquinas School. Great job as usual. You’ve got the gift. It’s always a pleasure and educational to read/hear your incites.
    Keep on keepin’ on.
    Your friend and classmate,
    denis m burke