Another killing in a land where persecution was the norm

Archbishop Romero was far from being El Salvador’s only martyr, writes Greg Daly

El Salvador was already a country in turmoil when Fr Rutilio Grande was murdered on March 12, 1977, but the Jesuit’s death began more than a decade in which the persecution of the Salvadoran Church became the norm.

Fr Octavio Ortiz, the first priest ordained by Oscar Romero, was one of the first priests to follow Fr Grande in earning the martyr’s palm, murdered along with four youths in a retreat centre on  January 20, 1979, and Archbishop Romero himself, of course, was shot while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. 

More attacks followed, perhaps the two most famous of which being the abduction and killing of four American women missionaries in 1980, and the gunning down of six Jesuits along with their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989.

Dublin-based Therese Osborne was a missionary in El Salvador in 1980, and a friend of Jean Donovan and Sr Dorothy Kazel.  It was largely due to Sr Dorothy that Therese joined the Cleveland Latin American Mission in El Salvador in 1979, after falling in love with the country during a visit two years earlier.

Deep desire

Describing the Cleveland Ursuline Sr Dorothy as “kind, sincere and enthusiastic”, Therese explains how Sr Dorothy joined the mission in 1974, and had embraced pastoral and catechetical work with a “real preferential option for the poor”, and a deep desire to empower them as Christians. 

Among those who influenced Sr Dorothy, she says, was a lay missionary called Rosemary Smith, who believed it was important that missionaries should “never do anything for people that they could do for themselves”.

Whether working with children, catechists, or volunteers in the Caritas food programme, Sr Dorothy’s “happiness was contagious”, says Therese, who says her friend “could frequently be found singing and dancing with the people”.

Jean Donovan, who had studied for a year in UCC, and who attributed her inspiration for mission to UCC’s then chaplain Fr Michael Crowley, was “full of energy and full of fun”, according to Therese. “In La Libertad,” she says, “Jean put her accounting and business skills to good use in organising parish pastoral programmes.”

As the violence in El Salvador intensified after Archbishop Romero’s death, she explains, Jean and Sr Dorothy began helping the Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Carla Piette rescue people fleeing from conflict areas.  On August 23, 1980, Sisters Carla and Ita were caught in a flash flood as they tried to cross a river in their jeep. 

“Ita survived,” says Therese, “but Carla’s body was swept away, only to be discovered several days later by Jean Donovan.  This experience so marked Jean and Dorothy that they decided to work even more closely with the Maryknoll Sisters in their rescue missions.  Barely three months later, on December 2, 1980, Ita, Maura, Dorothy and Jean were themselves captured and put to death.”

Only a few weeks earlier, according to Franciscan Fr Ciaran Ó Nuanain, who was a missionary in the parish of Gotera at the time, Jean had visited Ireland for a friend’s wedding and had returned with a bottle of Irish whiskey. He describes how at Thanksgiving Fr Gerry Moore had visited the parish where Jean was based, and as the night’s festivities drew to a close Jean produced her bottle of whiskey, saying “we’ll drink it over Christmas”. She was dead just days later, only 27 years old.

Ultimately, Therese says, her friends and the other missionaries were sharing the fate of the Salvadoran poor. “Every family had lost someone. They chose to stay,” she says, pointing out that they had all been given the option of leaving. “They wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else, because they saw the need of the people.”

Stressing that the deaths of Jean and Dorothy weren’t more important than the deaths of others in El Salvador, Therese nonetheless says that “their families and the Church used their deaths to wake up people in other countries”.

Jean’s parents travelled widely across the United States, telling their daughter’s story and explaining what was happening in Central America, appealing for military aid to be stopped.  

Therese once remembers saying to Jean’s mother Pat that if Jean had lived another twenty years in El Salvador, she would not have had the impact she made through her death, in terms of waking the consciences of people.  Pat agreed, saying “I’m absolutely convinced of that”.

Shortly before the massacre of the six Jesuits in 1989, there were reports that an attack was imminent, according to Fr Ciaran. “Two weeks before, an ex-catechist who was a guerrilla got word there’d be an offensive, and urged them to leave their parishes,” he says, explaining that “they got together, and their sympathies were with the guerrillas, but they decided that during the offensive they would take no sides.”

They suspected that the Irish Franciscans were the most likely targets, he thought, making it all the more shocking when on the night of November 16, 1989, armed men burst into the home of the Jesuits Fr Ignacio Ellacuría, Fr Ignacio Martín-Baro, Fr Segundo Montes, Fr Juan Ramón Moreno, Fr Joaquín López and Fr Amando López, and shot the six priests along with their housekeeper and her daughter.

Fr Moreno had been his confessor, says Fr Ciaran, adding that Fr López had studied theology in Ireland, and wanted to work in Gotera with the Irish Franciscans with whom he had been “very friendly”.

Fr Ciaran warns against forgetting how it was not just religious and missionaries who suffered for their faith during the war. “Before the Second Vatican Council, evangelisation depended on priests and nuns, and was very clerical,” he explains, “but after the Council, especially in Third World countries, lay people were encouraged to take part in evangelisation. In terms of martyrs, the Church is still very clerical – it remembers Romero and the nuns etc, but we have to remember the lay martyrs as well.”


Over the last 10 years, in a project initially financed by Trócaire, he has been working to gather information on people killed because of their faith during the civil war, and has completed the investigation of five of the country’s six dioceses. “We taped about 800 testimonies and we consider that 500 of those would classify as martyrs.”

When Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, postulator for the cause of Oscar Romero, came to El Salvador to announce the date of the archbishop’s beatification, the Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, cited Fr Ciaran’s figure and said that the Salvadoran Church was “collecting testimony of more than 500 brother priests, religious and laity, especially catechists who gave their lives for their faith”, with the aim of presenting the case to Rome “so that in a given time they also may be declared martyrs” .

In the meantime, as in life, Archbishop Romero will have to represent his fellow Salvadorans.