Eileen MARKEY, A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura. New York: Nation Books, 2016.  321 pages. $26.99 hardcover. ISBN 978-1-56858-573-4.  Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, RI.


          The story of Sister Maura begins where it ends, in a dusty cow pasture in Santiago Nonualco, a small village in rural El Salvador.  A farmer bringing his cows to pasture spotted the hastliy dug graves by the side of the road and reported this to the local magistrate.  Word spread and soon friends and co-workers, even the U.S ambassador, had come to identify the four bodies and to kneel in prayer.  The four churchwomen−Sister Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun from Cleveland; Jean Donovan, a lay worker also from Cleveland; and Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke−had been disappeared, raped, and murdered.

          On the one hand it was a familiar story in El Salvador−four bodies among the more than ten thousand killed in that country in that year alone.  Dorothy, Jean, Ita and Maura had “suffered the same fate as the poor: To be taken away, to be tortured, to be found dead” (words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, himself assassinated in March of that year).  On the other hand they were different: U.S. citizens, gringos, who had freely chosen to accompany the poor in this time of suffering and death.  “If we abandon them when they are suffering the cross, how can we speak credibly about the resurrection?” Sister Maura had asked.  Their deaths brought renewed attention to this small Central American nation, and the proxy war being fought there by the United States for “national security.”  But in the end they “became Salvadoran; they suffered with the Salvadoran people.”  

          Over the years, the stories of Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan and Ita Ford have been admirably told in excellent biographies.  And Jon Sobrino and other theologians have reflected on the life and death of the four churchwomen.  But until now Sister Maura Clarke has been simply one of the four, arriving in El Salvador just several months before being killed with the others.  What was it that drew her to volunteer for El Salvador even though she knew the risks?  What were the life experiences that shaped her into someone who had an open heart for all, for whom everyone mattered?  Eileen Markey has answered these questions and more in her in-depth examination of Sister Maura’s life, beginning with an original inquiry: “How did this woman get here?” 

          Indeed, how did a young woman who grew up in an Irish family in Rockaway, Queens, New York, come to give her life for the poor on a dusty road in El Salvador?  Her story links with larger twentieth century stories: the Irish Revolution, the Catholic Church’s changing self-understanding, the changing nature of mission work, U.S. foreign policy concerns, and the ongoing struggle for a just and peaceful world.  Eileen Mackey explores the gradual development of Maura’s radical faith by seeking “to put her back in her context, to understand her death by examining her life, to make her whole again.”  This wholeness came first of all within her family−a traditional Catholic faith enhanced by stories of the Irish Revolution (her father had taken the Irish Republican Brotherhood pledge and other relatives committed themselves to Irish liberation).  Her entry into the Maryknoll foreign mission society in 1950 was a step both into and out of “the world.”  Like thousands of other young Catholic women at the time she entered a convent life of rules, prayer and self-sacrifice.  But her first assignment in the Bronx placed her in the midst of a neighborhood struggling with crime and poverty. 

          This involvement in, but separation from the surrounding community carried over into her next mission assignment to Siuna, Nicaragua in 1959.  However, her years in Nicaragua coincided with radical transformations in the Catholic Church (Vatican II), Maryknoll’s understanding of mission (out of the convent and classroom and into the streets among the people), and liberation movements in Latin America (enhanced by liberation theologies).  Over her nearly twenty years in Nicaragua, Sister Maura’s ideas shifted radically. “In Siuna she served tea to Luis Somoza Debayle; in OPEN 3 [Operacion Permanente de Emergencia Nacional #3, a refugee settlement in Managua], Sandinistas met in her house.”  This radical shift came primarily through her living with and listening to the poor in Nicaragua, an acompañamiento that had begun in Siuna and continued through Managua.  Her generous response to Maryknoll’s request for volunteers in El Salvador brought her there in August of 1980.  “There is a feeling of quiet peace about this.  The Lord is very present here really in His seeming absence” (Maura Clarke in a letter, November 1980).

            Eileen Markey has done a superb job of bringing together the many stories that shaped Sister Maura’s life.  Drawing on personal correspondence and extensive interviews, as well as on-site visits to Nicaragua and El Salvador, she has given readers a pathway into Sister Maura’s heart.  “As much as Maura’s story is the story of the implications of belief or a window into the ugliness of the Salvadoran civil war or an outgrowth of the changing Catholic Church, or as much as it reveals about the applications of cold war policy and the power of her father’s stories of the Irish Revolution, it is at heart the story of a woman trying to stay true.”  And that is something we all desperately need these days.  Maura Clarke, Presente!