The Life and Death of Sister Maura Clarke

December 3, 2017 at 5:25 pm | Posted in Catholic sisters, Catholicism, war and violence, women | 1 Comment
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The following is a review of Eileen Markey’s splendid biography of Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke, who was one of four churchwomen killed by military in El Salvador in 1980. The review appears in the current issue of New Women, New Church,  the bi-annual publication of the US Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC). I have chosen to leave in the references to WOC  and Christian feminists because I think the overlaps with and the differences from Maura Clarke’s liberationist activism are significant.

Eileen Markey, A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2016) 336 pp. Hardcover. $26.99

A driving force behind the meeting in Detroit in 1975 that evolved into the Women’s Ordination Conference was the desire for the liberation of women in the Catholic Church. But during that same period, passion for another kind of liberation, the liberation of those under military dictatorships in Latin America, was driving some other Catholic women and men. In Eileen Markey’s splendid biography, A Radical Faith, readers become acquainted with (and will likely be deeply inspired by) one of them, Sister Maura Clarke.

Maura (née Mary Elizabeth) Clarke was like many American Catholic girls of her generation. Born in 1931 to Irish immigrant parents, she grew up in the traditional Catholicism of her working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York: attending Benediction, praying to the Blessed Virgin, listening to Bishop Sheen on the radio. And the religious congregation she entered in 1950, the Maryknoll sisters, was in many respects traditional as well. In the early years of her work as a missioner in Nicaragua, where she arrived in 1959, Maura and the other Maryknoll sisters were singing the Te Deum with members of the dictatorial Samoza family.

Several things changed all that: Vatican II, which mandated the renewal of religious life; Maura’s growing involvement with Nicaraguans who suffered enormously under the Samoza dictatorship; and her encounter with liberation theology, especially in the activism and writings of Ernesto Cardenal and his brother, Fernando.

Gradually the piety of Maura’s early years converged with the radical sense of justice that would shape the rest of her life. By the late 1960s, Maura and others were meeting and marching with Nicaraguans to protest the brutality of the Samoza regime. Maura interacted frequently with the Sandinistas, the revolutionary group that brought down the Samoza regime in 1979. When Maura moved to El Salvador in 1980, this history led the Salvadoran military to brand Maura and the three church women with she was working as subversives; on December 2, 1980, they beat, raped and murdered her and her companions.

Markey’s retelling of the political radicalization and activism that led to Maura Clarke’s death is galvanizing, but A Radical Faith is by no means only a narrative of the “assassination of Sister Maura.” Rather, it is a deeply moving study of the many dimensions of Maura Clarke’s life that shaped her heroic work for justice for the people of Central America. The extent of Markey’s research is stunning: details from interviews and letters from school friends, Maura’s interactions with her spiritual director, visits with her family in New York and Ireland, how she dealt with falling in love with a priest in Nicaragua. The engrossing portrait that emerges goes well beyond Clarke’s political convictions and actions.

At least two trajectories help to bring Markey’s extensive research together. One is the Irish history and identity of Maura’s family of origin. Maura’s father, John, had emigrated to the U.S. in 1914, but his brothers in County Sligo were active in the Irish Republican Army; he returned to Ireland in 1921 and fought in the Irish revolution. Maura’s mother, Mary McCloskey Clarke, grew up Catholic in what is now Northern Ireland, and knew well what being part of an oppressed minority felt like. From the beginning of the book, Markey uses the Clarkes’ experience of struggle against political oppression to clarify Maura’s commitments and her heroism. Already in the first chapter, Markey explains that during Maura’s childhood, she often accompanied her father, John, on his after-dinner strolls on the boardwalk beside the ocean where he

…told stories of the Irish revolution and instilled his thoughtful daughter with an understanding of the world from the perspective of the person on the bottom: the native, not the colonist, the peasant, not the landlord…of brave, principled rebels, of people who stand against the prevailing power and for the underdog. …Maura ingested the message. (27-28)

The other motif that brings Markey’s remarkable research together is Maura’s Christian faith, and, in fact, the centrality of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross to that faith. Repeatedly Markey highlights the influence of Christ’s suffering on Maura’s life and work:

…After the earthquake in Managua in 1972) Maura went with Fr. Mercerreyes as he walked through the remains of the parish…(hugging) people…crying with them and (sharing) the Eucharist. It was Christ’s broken body for a ravaged people. (141″

…(Even after death threats,) Maura had asked…”If we abandon them when they are suffering the cross, how can we speak credibly about the resurrection?” (241)

Since the 1970s, a number of feminist theologians have argued that the Christian focus on the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross is a major cause of women’s oppression. In 1975, the same year that many of us met in Detroit for the first Catholic conference on women’s ordination, the great German liberation and then feminist theologian, Dorothee Soelle, strongly criticized what she perceived as the sadism of Jurgen Moltmann’s theology of the cross, as expressed in his classic work, The Crucified God. And In the 2000s, U.S. feminist theologians Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock denounced the cross as a symbol of violence and abuse in two different books, Proverbs of Ashes (2000) and Saving Paradise (2008). After Vatican II some Catholic churches replaced the crucifix with a figure of the risen Christ behind the altar.

There can be no doubt that the cross has sometimes been used to encourage women to repress suffering and abuse rather than speak out about it. But as Maura Clarke’s life and death show, the suffering and death of Jesus have also inspired women to live and die in the hope of a resurrection of justice and peace for all. May reading A Radical Faith inspire Christian feminists, including Catholic women’s ordination activists, to reconsider and expand our understanding of the cross and other dimensions of our own faith in the months and years to come.

(Marian Ronan is Research Professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary, NY, NY, and co-author of Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (Apocryphile Press, 2017). She was the 2000-2002 president of the WOC board.

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  1. Thank you, Marian. I do think that Christianity is attractive because Jesus suffered with others and those who suffer can appreciate that. And there are instances of terrible abuse of women and children in the name of God in which women are taught that to endure it is holy. As well, there are psychological phenomena in complex childhood trauma in which there is a dissociation that can happen that is experienced as protection by the holy in the midst of abuse. …In that 3th week of Jesuit spirituality one chooses to follow no matter the cost—that discernment is serious and not for the weak. All the best! Pam

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