The quartet barely knew each other. Wildly different in personality, the four women were united in their desire to improve the lives of others as missionaries in El Salvador.
Nearly 30 years ago, headlines and news stories detailed their brutal martyrdom on Dec. 2, 1980, in El Salvador. Now, a local storytelling group is keeping the women’s memories alive by recounting their lives.
The Women of the Well troupe brought to life the stories of Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke, Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan in the presentation “Certain Women.” During Lent, the group presented the program at St. Louis Church in Pittsford; Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and St. Monica churches in Rochester; Our Mother of Sorrows Church in Greece; Good Shepherd Church in Henrietta; St. Patrick Church in Macedon; and Stella Maris Retreat Center in Skaneateles.
Donovan and Sisters Clarke, Ford and Kazel were part of a movement of missionaries who had heeded Pope John XXIII’s directive that religious should not just be guarding the church’s past, but instead creating its future, performers said.
“Four certain women felt the blast of that spirit and followed where it had led,” narrator Richeen Smith said during the March 1 performance at Our Mother of Sorrows.
Women of the Well members introduced the characters they were portraying as they stood behind portraits of the missionaries. Sister Clarke, portrayed by Mary McGuire, served in Nicaragua from 1959 to 1976 until her order brought her to the U.S. She arrived in El Salvador in August of 1980.
Sister Ford, portrayed by Deni Mack, had worked in Santiago, Chile, where she witnessed the atrocities of dictatorial rule and where she lost a dear colleague and friend. Sister Kazel, portrayed by Gloria Ulterino, went to El Salvador in 1974 as part of a team of missionaries from Cleveland.
“We taught the people that they had such great dignity and worth because they were children of God,” Ulterino’s character said. “What a threat that became to some of the men in power.”
Sister Kazel was joined in El Salvador in 1979 by 26-year-old Jean Donovan, who was not a member of a religious order. The former accountant has been called the first “jet-setter missionary.”
“She was a go-getter, competitive and loved to party, ride a motorcycle and laugh,” Marilyn Catherine said of Donovan.
The presentation, which was paired with Stations of the Cross, included the telling of the events and the worsening security in El Salvador that led to the four missionaries’ deaths. Excerpts were read from letters some of the missionaries sent to friends and family members, many of whom questioned why they were staying. Several of the missionaries said the children were why they decided to stay.
“Who would care for them?” said Catherine’s character Donovan. “Whose heart is so black in the face of their tears?”
The missionaries were last seen alive on Dec. 2, 1980, and were later found raped, murdered and buried in a shallow grave in the El Salvador countryside.
“It was very moving,” audience member Dorothy Dodd of Holy Name of Jesus in Greece said of the presentation. “I knew of this happening, but it was so long ago. It was amazing how they gave up everything for the Lord and the poor.”
“It really brought out man’s inhumanity towards man,” audience member Maureen McNellis of Our Mother of Sorrows said. “It’s still going on. It’s just incredible.”
The Women of the Well troupe was formed in January 1998 when Ulterino, then the director of the diocesan Office of Women, gathered a group to explore women of faith in Scripture and history.
“What has been so powerful is learning about the women of the church whose voices sometimes aren’t known,” McGuire said. She said she feels glad to know that parishes are using the dramatic program as a prayer experience.
Live theater gives the work a power, Ulterino said, noting that she enjoys being able to look into people’s eyes and get an instant response and feedback as she is acting.
“Storytelling has that ability to open people up,” she said. “It’s different from hearing a lecture.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details on Women of the Well, visit www.womenofthewell.com.