New Biography Tells Maura's Story

By Moran, Terrence | National Catholic Reporter, December 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

New Biography Tells Maura's Story


Moran, Terrence, National Catholic Reporter


A RADICAL FAITH: THE ASSASSINATION OF SISTER MAURA By Eileen Markey Published by Nation Books, 336 pages, $26.99

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The churchwomen of El Salvador: The December 1980 news footage of their four limp bodies being dragged up by ropes from a shadow grave was an affront to anyone who watched. For Catholics raised on "The Bells of Saint Mary's" and "The Trouble with Angels," it was a tragically different view of religious women. For Americans, it was the end of an age of naive security expressed in the words, "Well, they don't kill gringos."

Three of the churchwomen, Maryknoll Sr. Ita Ford, Ursuline Sr, Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan, have already found their biographers. Oddly, until now, Maryknoll Sr. Maura Clarke, the oldest and the most seasoned missionary in the group, has never been the subject of her own biography. Eileen Markey's A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura fills that void admirably

Markey's work is the fruit of extensive research--conversations with Clarke's family and friends, use of the Maryknoll Sisters' archives, and examinations of the still heavily redacted documents from the U.S. State Department. She tells much more than the story of an American missionary caught up in the violence of Central America. A Radical Faith is very much the "story of a soul"--the human and spiritual journey of an American woman religious from her Irish-American childhood in Queens, N.Y., to a life of missionary accompaniment with the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In many ways, Clarke's childhood was the typical mixture of piety and patriotism of 1930s American Catholicism. Her parochial school had the motto Pro Deo et Patria over the door. Hearing the stories of the involvement of her father's family in the Irish Republican struggle gave her an innate sympathy for popular fights against oppression. Her mother's hospitality to friend and stranger taught her generosity

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In 1950, for reasons that were unclear even to herself, she joined the Maryknoll Sisters to prepare for a life of foreign missionary service. She adapted to the quasi-monastic formation and imbibed the idea that Maryknoll was part of America's battle against godless communism. Longing for foreign service, she chaffed at her first placement in the Bronx but was delighted to be assigned in 1959 to a Maryknoll mission in the remote town of Siuna on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast. When the mission was founded in 1944, the sisters dined with Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Their superior assured him, "We won't be any trouble."

Though Clarke is associated with El Salvador, the majority of her missionary life (1959-80) would be spent, except for furlough times in the U.S., in Nicaragua. There, she left the traditional ministry of teaching to move to Managua for a ministry of accompanying people and the formation of basic Christian communities. A particular strength of Markey's book is that it includes the names and experiences of the women and men of these communities. The book is as much their story as Clarke's--as she would have wanted. It was also there that she experienced the Second Vatican Council quantum shift in religious life. …

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