By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a December day in 1980, the Rev. Paul Schindler unearthed the bodies of his friends — three nuns and a lay missionary — from the shallow grave where they had been dumped after the women were raped and murdered by soldiers in El Salvador.
Although he could not yet know it, the deaths of Sister Dorothy Kazel, 41; Sister Ita Ford, 40; Sister Maura Clarke 49, and Jean Donovan, 27, would galvanize the U.S. Catholic bishops, put a damper on U.S. military support for the Salvadoran government and probably save many lives.
"The sisters’ deaths stopped the killings," said Father Schindler, now pastor of St. Bernard parish in Akron, Ohio, who will speak on the martyred churchwomen during a daylong program in their honor Wednesday in McCandless. While El Salvador remained violent for another decade, the women’s deaths ended the daily, brazen slaughter of community leaders, he said.
Father Schindler will join Sister Christine Rody, who also worked with the murdered women, and Ed Brett, chair of the history department at LaRoche College, who has written about the impact of their deaths on U.S. policy, for a free program at the Kearns Spirituality Center. It begins at 10 a.m., but the featured talks will start at 7 p.m. For more information call 412-635-6314.
Father Schindler, Sister Christine, Sister Dorothy and Miss Donovan were missionaries from the Diocese of Cleveland to El Salvador. Despite later claims by apologists for U.S. policy, they had no political agenda, Father Schindler said.
They served 40 parishes with 140,000 impoverished people. The priests offered the sacraments and trained lay leaders as catechists. The sisters also trained lay leaders, and enrolled 30,000 children in a nutrition program. After civil war broke out the archbishop asked the sisters to evacuate women and children from war zones because he believed the soldiers wouldn’t shoot American nuns.
Although the government claimed to be fighting communism, Father Schindler believes its only ideology was greed.
When the missionaries trained lay leaders, those leaders also gained the skills to speak out against government injustice and to call for basic services such as clean water, he said. In response, soldiers and paramilitary units would kill the lay leaders, labeling them communists.
Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero came to his office as a shy conservative, but was quickly moved to condemn the government-sponsored killing. In March 1980 he was shot to death as he celebrated Mass in his cathedral and is now a candidate for beatification.
Father Schindler, who went to El Salvador in 1972, said the Carter administration tried to clamp down on human rights abuses, particularly through its ambassador, Robert White. But when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 with a strong anti-communist platform, the Salvadoran government believed it could act with impunity, he said.
Immediately after the election, "the death squads were killing 30 people a night. A couple of days before the nuns were killed they had killed five leading political opposition leaders who were meeting in the capital. The army came in, dragged them out, and shot them," he said.
Miss Donovan, whose father was an executive with a company that made military helicopters and had close ties to the impending Reagan administration, told her parents that if Reagan won, "there would be a bloodbath in El Salvador," said Dr. Brett.
"They told her that was ridiculous and naive. He won, and three weeks later she was dead."
The night before the women’s murders, Father Schindler, Sister Christine, Sister Dorothy and Miss Donovan had dinner with Ambassador White. Their deaths would move him so deeply that he left the State Department disaffected in 1981 and became a human rights activist.
On Dec. 2, Sister Dorothy and Miss Donovan drove to the airport to pick up two Maryknolls, Sister Ita and Sister Maura. When the women didn’t come to Mass, Father Schindler contacted the places they might have stayed. He then alerted church authorities that they were missing.
Word quickly reached the media. Crews from two U.S. networks were with Father Schindler when he got a call that someone had seen bodies the day before. They accompanied him to the site and filmed the discovery.
He celebrated Miss Donovan’s funeral Mass. Her parents, who had assumed they would find support from friends in the Reagan administration, were outraged when Secretary of State Alexander Haig told Congress that the women may have been shot trying to run a roadblock. The claim led to sardonic jokes about the amazing ability of the Salvadoran military to rape nuns as they sped by in a closed van.
The Donovans became public critics of U.S. support for brutal Latin American regimes.
"Conservatives are very dedicated people. Once they find out the truth, they act on it," Father Schindler said.
Similar change occurred among other Catholics, he said.
"There had been 19 priests killed in El Salvador. It had been that all the government had to say was that they were Marxist, and the American people would say, ‘Oh, they killed a Marxist.’ But you kill the sister who taught second grade at your school, and they say, ‘Wait a minute, she was never a Marxist when she was here teaching my children.’ "
Catholic publications that did not ordinarily address foreign policy wrote endless headlines on human rights in El Salvador, Dr. Brett said. The Catholic bishops drove the issue home on Capitol Hill.
"This had never really happened before in U.S. history, with the church acting with such force on a foreign policy issue," Dr. Brett said.
Dr. Brett and Father Schindler say that many factors led to democracy in El Salvador 15 years ago. The fall of Soviet communism lessened the perceived need to support self-proclaimed anti-communists. Salvadoran corruption disgusted even staunch hawks in Washington. The United Nations brokered a truce in the civil war.
But the women’s deaths "played a very large role in this. They made the United States, the church and the people, aware of what was going on down there," Dr. Brett said.
He believes that U.S. support for the Salvadoran government in the 1980s was far less than it would have been otherwise, due to this pressure from the church.
Father Schindler left El Salvador in January 1982. Now 64, he has asked his bishop for permission to return.
"I want to do the same work, but without the death squads hanging over us," he said.
(Ann Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1416.)