The evolution of a missionary

Reviewed By Paul Moses
Sunday, April 30, 2017

Eileen Markey has written a remarkable book about Sister Maura Clarke, one of the four American churchwomen assassinated in El Salvador in 1980.

What sets it apart is the intimate account of Clarke’s faith life, amply documented through the Maryknoll missionary’s letters and interviews with those who were close to her. Markey reaches into Sister Maura’s soul, demonstrating that her actions were deeply embedded in her spirituality.

It would be easy to secularize Clarke, given the political context of her story: She developed strong feelings about the oppression she witnessed while working with the poorest of the poor in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1960s and 1970s as controversy developed over U.S. support for the countries’ military dictators. This led to friction with military authorities, and ultimately to her death: She was a heroine of resistance to a corrupt order that her own country supported in hopes of preventing the spread of communism.

Politics is surely part of this story, but Markey transcends it by establishing, with patient, detailed reporting, that Clarke was guided by a deep prayer life, reflection on Scripture, frequent retreats and discernment within her community about how to apply the values of the Gospel.

Her insight into what motivated Clarke leads to an absorbing and inspiring portrait of a woman who forged ahead with her missionary work despite the deadly danger that she faced.

Markey highlights the importance of faith for Clarke in the introduction:

"Her death and life raise profound questions about the intersection of religious conviction and political action. What does belief compel in the real world? If the holy is not only in the sanctuary but also in the street, what are the obligations of the faithful? Maura was killed because of the work she was doing. That work was an expression of her religious practice. We like our martyrs at a distance, uncomplicated by the political context. But Maura … was killed for her belief — because her belief drove her to act."

This was the path that led Clarke to an encounter with the death squad that murdered her and Sister Ita Ford, Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan on Dec. 2, 1980. But it begins in a conventional way, with Clarke’s upbringing in the Irish Catholic enclave of Rockaway Park, a seaside community in Queens, New York, that hardly seems a part of New York City.

She was born in 1931 to Irish immigrant parents, and raised in a family that prayed the rosary together, in a neighborhood where people used parish geography to identify places. God-and-country Catholicism was as rock solid as the words "Pro Deus" and "Pro Patria" that were chiseled into the limestone entrance of the elementary school the young Maura attended.

If there was any rebel streak to be detected in her world of traditional Catholic piety, it came from Maura’s father, John Clarke, who was devoted to the Irish cause. He’d migrated after fighting for the antitreaty forces in the Irish civil war in 1922.

The teenaged Maura discovered missionary life in the conventional way: a visiting priest spoke of it. She read missionary orders’ magazines that were given out at Stella Maris High School and joined the Catholic Students’ Mission Crusade. She entered the Maryknoll novitiate in 1950.

One of the pleasures of "A Radical Faith" is that Markey uses Clarke’s story to open a window on how women’s religious orders, and indeed, American Catholicism, evolved over the course of Clarke’s life.

When the Maryknoll order posted Clarke to Nicaragua in the fall of 1959, it was a far different, pre-Vatican II Catholic world than the one Clarke left. Markey deftly captures this in a scene in which Clarke and fellow sisters sing in Gregorian chant at a service held to honor Nicaraguan military dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

Picture him strutting to the front pew surrounded by bodyguards as the sisters, clad in their gray wool and starched white, rose to chant for him in Latin. In a priceless detail, Markey adds, "Later the dictator sat in the convent courtyard. Maura served him tea in delicate Belleek Irish china sent by her parents at Christmas."

Most of the book follows Clarke’s evolution as a missionary in Nicaragua, where she eventually works with desperately poor people who survived the Managua earthquake of 1972. Where once she had served tea to the dictator, by the late 1970s her home was open to the regime’s enemy, the Sandinistas.

One of the best chapters in the book tracks Clarke’s fateful decision to go to El Salvador in August 1980. As Clarke well knew, El Salvador was even more dangerous than Nicaragua. Religious and clergy the regime saw as too sympathetic to the poor were automatically suspect and frequently received death threats — or were killed. Among them was Blessed Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, who was slain some nine months before the four American churchwomen were.

But the situation in El Salvador was considered an emergency, and Sister Maura Clarke answered the call.