Jacqueline HANSEN MAGGIORE, Vessel of Clay: The Inspirational Journey of Sister Carla. University of Scranton Press, 2010. pp. 171. $18.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-58966-217-9.
Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, RI 02906

The cemetery in Chalatenango is a short walk downhill from the center of that Salvadoran city. The graves reveal a deep concern and affection for those who have gone on to new life in this country that has seen so much suffering and death. Near the center of the cemetery the graves of three Maryknoll missioners--Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Carla Piette--remind the visitor of those who chose to accompany the people of El Salvador and to remain among them even in death. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke are well-known to many in the U.S. because of their brutal murder at the hands of National Guard soldiers in December 1980. Less well-known is Carla Piette, a Maryknoller who died several months earlier in August 1980, drowning in a flooded river while working with refugees. A number of books have been written about Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and the other two churchwomen who died with them, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan. But until now Carla Piette’s story has remained relatively unknown. Jacqueline Hansen Maggiore’s biography has changed that, bringing the reader on this “inspirational journey” from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Chalatenango, El Salvador.

The author, called “Hansen” by Sr. Carla, first met Carol Ann Piette in kindergarten. They grew up together in Appleton, Wisconsin, went off to Marquette University together after high school, and remained close friends after Carol (Carla) joined Maryknoll. She brings to this writing a personal quality that invites the reader to enter into the Piette family, the Maryknoll community, and the lives of the people whom Sr. Carla served in Chile and El Salvador. A retired social worker who remains active in peace and justice work, Jacqueline Hansen Maggiore gives us an honest straight-forward narrative based on Carla Piette’s writings (letters, poems, songs), the remembrances of those who worked closely with her in mission, and the Maryknoll archives.

Born in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1939, Carol Piette grew up in an ordinary family as the youngest of four children. The later conflicts she experienced in her own personal life as well as with other family members have their roots here, and the author explores them, often from first hand experience. It was during her freshman year at Marquette University that Carol read a small brochure on vocations written by Fr. George Ganss, S.J., who later became her spiritual advisor. Attending a sodality talk by a Maryknoller, Sr. Maria del Rey, moved her to join Maryknoll after her freshman year in September 1958—-much to the disapproval of her mother. In 1964 her first mission assignment was to Chile where she lived and worked among the “poor ole beat-up people” for the next sixteen years, moving through the excitement of Vatican II, the social and political changes happening in Chile, and a deepening commitment to the poor and oppressed. Through all of this the author provides valuable historical background, personal anecdotes, and insights into Carla’s spirituality drawn from the many sources cited above.

In July 1973 Ita Ford joined Carla to work among the poor in Maryknoll’s mission in the poblacion of La Bandera in Santiago—Ita’s first mission assignment. Together they accompanied the people of this poblacion during the early years of the Pinochet dictatorship, eventually moving to the small settlement of Coelemu far south of Santago. While here they discerned that they should respond to Archbishop Oscar Romero’s call for missioners to accompany the people of El Salvador. Carla arrived in El Salvador on the evening of Archbishop Romero’s assassination; Ita several days later. Their work was primarily with internal refugees displaced by the ever increasing violence, murders, disappearances—a very dark time in El Salvador. In a July 1980 report to Maryknoll leadership they acknowledge the struggle: “We realize that a lot of our energies just go into trying to keep walking down this dark road without becoming as dark as the situation.”

Throughout her life Carla Piette had to struggle with internal darkness along with this societal darkness—periods of depression, bronchial problems, discouragement. In addition to seeking professional help for these, Carla developed a spirituality of trust, surrender, relationship with the Jesus of the Gospels. It was essentially Ignatian, rooted in her time at Marquette University as well as the spiritual direction of Fr. Ganss, S.J. and others. Isaiah 43 comes up over and over in Carla’s writings as a source of strength. Writing from El Salvador: “As yet we don’t have a place of any stability which we can call our pad and prayer room, but as beat-up pilgrims, we are walking the road and trusting that needs will be met since we haven’t been abandoned by the Lord of the Pilgrim. Isaiah 43 is still my guideline... ‘I am doing a new thing.‘“ Both Carla and Ita relied on “deep centers of solitude” to sustain themselves in the midst of the violence and horror, commiting themselves to quiet prayer and fasting. For Carla embracing radical poverty was an essential part of this spirituality. “The Lord is calling me to be poor with his poor.” Living and eating as poorly as the poorest and owning nothing was one dimension of this “new thing” Isaiah spoke of. Her few possessions could be carried in a small shopping bag.

Carla Piette died on August 23, 1980, drowning when the jeep in which she, Ita and two seminarians were riding overturned in a flash flood. Each year she is remembered by the people of San Antonio de los Ranchos and others throughout Chalatenango. This well-written biography will ensure that her memory and example continue to inspire others. She was indeed a “vessel of clay” who “lived what she proclaimed.”


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