Concordia sisters help commemorate four murdered churchwomen

November 18, 2015 by

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On Dec. 2, a group of American women religious — including two Sisters of St. Joseph from Concordia — will be in El Salvador to mark the 35th anniversary of the brutal murder of four Catholic churchwomen in 1980.

For one of those Concordia women, Sister Anna Marie Broxterman, it will be her third visit to the tiny Central American country that remains wracked with violence.

Sister Anna Marie Broxterman

Sister Anna Marie Broxterman

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Sister Janet Lander

In October 1985, she spent a month there with Peace Brigades International during her time in neighboring Guatemala, where she lived for two years. Sister Anna Marie had been instrumental in establishing a sanctuary for Guatemalan refugees in 1983 at Manna House of Prayer in Concordia, which led to her decision to travel there to learn the Spanish language and more about the people.

Then, at Christmas 1987, she returned for a week with six others from across the U.S. under the auspices of Pastors for Peace to be an international presence for the people who were returning to Salvadoran villages despite escalating violence.

Travelling with her on this trip will be Sister Janet Lander, who has not been to El Salvador before. They are leaving Nov. 28 to be part of a delegation organized by the SHARE El Salvador Foundation, a San Francisco-based humanitarian organization that was founded a year after the four churchwomen were raped, murdered and left in a shallow grave.

The six-day trip is timed to commemorate the savage murders by the right-wing Salvadoran military — then supported by the U.S. government — of Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark and Maryknoll lay volunteer Jean Donovan.

But also, Sister Anna Marie said, “SHARE is showing that 35 years later, the situation is not that much different.”

In fact, some say that while the names have changed, the violence remains the same.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the country was wracked by sporadic conflicts between left-wing revolutionary guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary death squads.

The assassination of Archbishop Romero on March 24, 1980, pushed the country into full-scale civil war. When 250,000 mourners gathered for his funeral, snipers attacked the crowd, killing 42 and wounding more than 200.

The deadly fight for political control of the country continued until 1992 and the signing of a peace agreement between the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and a U.S.-backed Salvadoran government; that ceasefire remains in place.

Estimates vary on the death toll during the 12-year war, but numerous historians cite 85,000 people killed, 8,000 missing and 1 million displaced.

The peace accord brought an end to the political upheaval, but not to the violence.

As John Allen reported in Crux last May, “El Salvador’s gangs are, in fact, an American export, having been forged in Los Angeles in the 1980s by young migrants who fled the civil war, and who often found themselves in the States with no family and no work. The 18th Street gang, for instance, is named for a street in the Ramparts section of Los Angeles.

“A restrictive American immigration law in 1996 resulted in many of those gang members being deported back to El Salvador, where they recreated their networks.

“Al Valdez, a 28-year police veteran from Orange County, said returning so many gang members all at once to a small country utterly unprepared for the influx was akin to ‘putting an Ebola virus into a petri dish …. it’s going to grow like crazy.’ ”

And grow it has.

Consider this: El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, is one-tenth the size of Kansas and yet has double Kansas’ population. In Kansas last year, there were 101 murders; in El Salvador, there were 3,912 — an average of between 10 and 11 every single day over the course of the year.

The numbers may be even worse for 2015. The deadliest day in El Salvador since the end of the civil war was this past Aug. 18 when — in the midst of a national police crackdown on gang violence — there were 43 murders reported, according to Jonathan Watts with The Guardian newspaper.

And unlike the years before and during the civil war, when the peasants rose up against the landed elite and their government, Watts wrote, “When rival gangsters kill one another today, it is almost always a case of the poor killing the poor.”

Which explains why SHARE El Salvador remains committed to the Salvadoran people as they struggle for economic sustainability, justice, and human and civil rights.

Part of that commitment is remembering the people who were martyred during the civil war and continuing to tell the story of El Salvador, through education and sponsoring delegations like the upcoming one.

This trip is being co-sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose members are leaders of American Catholic religious congregations.

The group’s itinerary includes visits to the National Cathedral where Archbishop Romero was killed, the memorial to the disappeared and victims of the civil war, and the site of the murders of the four churchwomen. There will also be meetings and discussions with Salvadoran and international women religious on their continuing work in the country, as well as a meeting with Salvadoran women who have been elected to office.

“I’m hopeful that life can be better for the people there,” Sister Anna Marie added. “And it is a powerful commentary that we remember these four women and their commitment to the people.”

Agreed, said Sister Janet Lander: “I was deeply moved by the stories of the four churchwomen. Their grace gave me courage during some of the harder experiences of my own work as a missionary.”

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