Justice Issues


IHM Delegation to El Salvador

Sharing Our Delegation to El Salvador

massNovember 29-December 6, 2010

Advent is a season of journeys of the heart. To be journeying during this season to El Salvador, where signs of God’s presence and the coming of God’s Reign abound, is a special grace for which we are profoundly grateful.

From November 29 – December 6, 2010, we (Sisters Chris Koellhoffer, Donna Korba, and Annmarie Sanders) were privileged to represent our IHM Congregation on a delegation commemorating the 30 th anniversary of the martyrdom of the four North American Churchwomen: Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford, and their solidarity with the people of El Salvador. The delegation was sponsored by the SHARE Foundation and co-sponsored by Pax Christi USA and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

The SHARE Foundation is an international non-profit organization that accompanies poor communities of El Salvador as they work for economic justice, democracy, and sustainable development alternatives at the local and national levels. SHARE’s association with the people of El Salvador is one of accompaniment and establishing a global network of justice-focused individuals.

SHARE delegation GroupOur delegation included 49 members, mostly women religious but also several married couples and single women, all with a desire to be in solidarity with the Salvadoran people.

Our week in El Salvador was a graced pilgrimage, celebrating the witness of the martyrs, visiting the historic sites to pray and remember, focusing on women’s issues including femicide, immigration, community organization and micro-credits, and sharing our spirituality and how we find hope in a world full of darkness.

We hope to share in greater detail with presentations for our sisters in the near future. For now, we offer a glimpse into what this week held. Know that we carried each of you with us every day, and whenever the opportunity presented itself, we signed “Sisters of IHM” in guest books where we visited because yes, you were in El Salvador with us for these holy days.

A Land of Contrasts

From our first moments in the country, and through our orientation process, we learned that El Salvador is a land of contrasts:

We saw:

  • Huge mountains (including a volcano) whose lush foliage has returned after deforestation pesticides were dropped on them to flush out where members of the resistance were hiding from the military during the civil war
  • Elegant mansions high in the hills while down below row after row of tin shacks are propped against one another for support
  • A monument to the leader who masterminded the murder of the Jesuits in one place, while everywhere else the names of Romero and the churchwomen and “Long live the martyrs of El Salvador!” are scribbled in graffiti.

We heard of how SHARE is dreaming about the next 30 years for El Salvador and we were urged to support the DREAM Act here in the US so that some of those dreams can become reality for young Salvadorans. Our delegation leader, SHARE’s executive director Jose Artiga, told us that the events of December 2, 1980, were not in the history books in El Salvador but that it was those in the US who raised consciousness for Salvadorans about what had happened. Just recently, the government issued an apology for the murder of Archbishop Romero; Romero is now being taught in the public schools.

Romeros tombRomero

We spent a day at the Hospital Divina Providencia, visiting the small, simple room where Romero lived (Did you know he had a manual for a Toyota Corolla and an aerobics book on his shelf?). The vestments he wore when he was gunned down celebrating Mass in the chapel are preserved, the bullet holes visible and the bloodstains somewhat faded 30 years later. We spent some quiet time in the chapel, surrounding the altar and touching that holy place. We viewed a huge mural on the outside wall, depicting Romero surrounded by the people for whom he lived and died. How striking that Romero and the people around him are painted with upraised hands, all bearing the stigmata.

Women’s Groups

Representatives of ORMUSA (Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace) organized a forum to celebrate the legacy of the Churchwomen and to update us on women’s rights issues. We learned that, for women, El Salvador is the most violent country in the world.

We traveled for several hours to visit with the Pequena Comunidad in Usulutan. This is a Christian Base Community of women, active since the late 1970’s. They have walked with poor and persecuted women before, during and after the civil war, and arranged an encounter for Women Religious and women from Christian Base communities to share our experiences.

We were also treated to a performance by the Ballet Folklorico, who presented in dance the history of El Salvador and its persecuted communities. This day ended with a powerful ritual of commitment where we each laid flowers on the image of the four Churchwomen.

Ritual SiteThe Four Churchwomen

December 2 nd, the actual 30 th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Churchwomen, was full of grace, meaning, and emotion for us. We began by retracing the ride from the airport that the women were taking when they were intercepted by the Salvadoran military that night in 1980. At one point there’s a turn-off onto a narrow, deserted road, and we learned that it was at this point that the women must have known what would befall them. From that turn-off to the site where their bodies were discovered, we prayed in reverent silence. That part of the journey was truly haunting and led Chris to reflect:

What did they do, I wonder,
when the road turned toward death?
Gaze at the sleeping corn,
longing to taste harvest?
Pass by the gnarled ginger root tree,
with hope for the next day’s shade?
Did they sense the holy ones
gathered around them,
arms outstretched in welcome?
Did they reach for the hand of another
who also trembled,
finding courage and comfort in her clasp?
Did they, I wonder,
hold the shining beauty of this world
for one last fleeting moment?

After our silent journey, we arrived at the place where the women’s bodies were discovered by farmers the following day and where the people have built a chapel in their memory. We joined members of Maryknoll, the Cleveland mission team, the women’s families, and people from the surrounding area in a lively liturgy. We were reminded that we are called just as the churchwomen were to witness to our world in this time and place. At the end of the liturgy, four women processed out of church holding aloft the images of Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean, to beautiful singing and shouts of “Long live the martyrs of El Salvador!”

The day ended with a talk by Guadalupe Mejia, who is known as Madre Guadalupe and is the founder of CODEFAM (Committee for Family Members of the Disappeared). She lost two children and her husband in the civil war and was instrumental in the construction of the Monument of Truth and Memory. This Memorial Wall in a central San Salvador park lists the names of 30,000 victims—murdered and disappeared--of the civil war and resembles our Vietnam Memorial. We spent time in prayer and in laying flowers and making rubbings of names on the wall, including Oscar Romero and the four Churchwomen.

The Jesuits and UCA

December 3 rd was another intense day as we visited the Jesuit University of Central America (UCA), where the six Jesuits were murdered for their solidarity and their speaking out on behalf of those who were poor and oppressed, along with their housekeeper and her daughter because the military didn’t want any witnesses. A plaque on the grounds asks the Easter question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

We learned that the housekeeper’s husband, the gardener, wanted his family to remain at UCA because he thought it was the safest place for them to be, and that he was the one who discovered the bodies when he returned later. In their memory, he planted a memorial Rose Garden. We visited the Martyr Museum and Chapel at UCA, where we learned more about each of the individual Jesuits. In the bath robes and pajamas the Jesuits were wearing at the time of their murders, bloodstains and bullet holes are clearly visible. Photos of the bodies were painful to view, since they indicate that the priests were brutally tortured before being shot. The entire experience echoed a poem by Wendell Berry, written for his granddaughters after they had visited the Holocaust Museum:

Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry
for I know that you will be afraid…

I know there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard…

You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be your light.

We visited the UCA chapel where the six Jesuits are buried and noted that in a large mural, the bishop’s head is turned in the direction of the poor, as were all the martyrs of El Salvador. This was a fitting segue into a presentation by Suyapa Perez at the Centro Monseñor Romero at UCA. She is a woman liberation theologian at UCA and spoke about the legacy of the martyrs. She urged us also to look at those who are poor not just in terms of their poverty, but in terms of what we can learn from their deep faith.

We also heard from Dean Brackley, SJ, who came to UCA from the United States after the murder of the Jesuits. He provided an analysis of the current state of the country and noted that the legacy of the martyrs is the option for the poor.

We attended a presentation by young women who are scholarship students through the UCA Martyrs Scholarship program, which began shortly after the civil war ended in 1992 and which currently supports 50 students. The young women who spoke with us are also part of an all-girls drum group, and they honored us with a performance on the plaza, inviting us to join in the dancing with them (although we couldn’t compare to their hip motions!).

Romero and the Women, continued

On December 4th, our pilgrimage continued with a visit to the National Cathedral and Crypt in San Salvador. This was the site of Romero’s funeral mass which was interrupted when snipers from the national army threw bombs into the crowd gathered outside the cathedral and opened fire, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds more. Approximately 7000 people sought refuge inside the cathedral, a space that can accommodate 3000. Romero is buried in the lower level, so we spent time praying at his grave.

From there we went to Iglesia Rosario to meet up with the Maryknoll delegation and celebrate a liturgy for women religious with Monseñor Rosa Chavez. This church was also the site of a significant event in the late 70’s, when people gathered outside to protest a fradulent election. The military opened fire, killing over 20 people, and many fled into the church for sanctuary. They remained there for over a week without food or water, because the military waited outside to gun them down if they left. Archbishop Romero came to intercede for them, and the soldiers departed peacefully.

We went to the Museo de la Palabra y de la Imagen (Museum of the Word and Image), which was founded in the 1990s to collect and preserve memories of the Salvadoran civil war.

On our last full day, we made the long drive to Chalatenango, first meeting with the Women’s Secretariat in the community of Guarjila, a repopulated community of refugees and ex-combatants, located about 2 kilometers from the place where Maura and Ita worked.

We visited Los Ranchos, where Maura and Ita worked and also visited the cemetery where Maryknoll sisters Maura, Ita, and Carla Piette, who drowned in a flash flood not long before the others were murdered, are buried. How appropriate that the sisters are in death as they were in life, right there among the people.


After a week that focused on honoring the martyrs, connecting with the Salvadoran people, especially women, and learning about the ongoing struggles for peace and justice in El Salvador, we ended our time together with a festive dinner.

In the spirit of Maura, Ita, Jean, and Dorothy, we have journeyed to El Salvador with each of you, our sisters, in solidarity with our Salvadoran sisters and brothers. We are forever grateful to have experienced this sacred space, just as we are forever grateful for your prayer, your support, and your presence with us on this graced journey.

Chris Koellhoffer, IHM
Donna Korba, IHM
Annmarie Sanders, IHM