A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura

Via The Transcripts John McDonagh speaks to Eileen Markey, author of the book, A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura, the definitive biography of Maura Clarke, M.M. – may Sister rest in peace.

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(begins time stamp ~ 12:59)

John: Now I’m going to speak of a woman who came from Rockaway, Queens and anybody who’s born and raised in Queens knows what Rockaway means to you. I know they call it ‘Acapulco’, the ‘Irish Riviera’ but if you grew up in the ’50’s and ’60’s and you were in Woodside you were waiting for that bus at 61st and Roosevelt to take you down Woodhaven Boulevard to Cross Bay to go to that bungalow – this was it – this was Miami Beach to us. And your parents would always throw you out to go up to Rockaway at 116th Street and ‘get a bit of colour’ which means get burnt but don’t get so burnt that you’ll have to go to the hospital because when we came back to the neighbourhood you had to show you ‘had a bit of colour’. Well, this story revolves around the Irish community out in the Rockaway area and the book that Eileen Markey has out is called: A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura (Clarke). And Eileen, are you there with us?

Eileen: I am.

Yeah, maybe you could give just a bit of background about Sr. Maura Clarke and her family and her father – just to give about the type of upbringing she had before she joined the Maryknoll nuns.
Sr. Maura at her work in Nicaragua

Yes. Maura Clarke was an Irish-American woman born in the Bronx but raised in Rockaway, in the Rockaway Park neighbourhood, in the ’30’s and ’40’s.

She’s known to us now because she’s one of four North American women who were killed in 1980 in El Salvador by the US-backed military government of El Salvador – so she’s one of those Maryknoll nuns. But I wrote this book to tell what her life was before she was killed and that life as a child was very much that – the Irish Riviera in Rockaway. She was one of the few year-rounders, right. So many people spent their summers out there – like you taking the bus out or many other people relocating from other boroughs to these bungalows for the summer – but Maura’s family was one of the year-rounders. So she grew up in that – you know close and communal Rockaway world, Irish-immigrant world and went to Stella Maris Academy and then like lots of girls in her day joined the convent.

John: And then her father was an immigrant from Co. Sligo. Maybe you could tell about the effect – we’re playing here about what went on in 1916 – but what carried on then was the Revolutionary War that lasted until 1921.

Yeah, exactly. Her father emigrated from Sligo in 1914 but then, like so many people, went back to join the revolution. So he wasn’t there for ’16 but he went back in ’20 and fought for the end of the revolution and then became an anti-treaty IRA man during the Civil War and then made his way back to the US in the mid-20’s but remained a – you know he had made vows to the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) in his late teens, before 1916, and so when he came back to the US after the war he kept up those ties and especially told those stories. So he had you know, he had all these revolutionary guerrilla stories that Maura grew up hearing about and you know, old Sligo partisans were always coming to whatever house the family happened to live in in Rockaway and Sundays filled with these old rebels coming to tell stories and sing songs and she very much grew up hearing all of those heroic stories and these poems and songs and that really shaped how she understood things years later when she found herself in Central America.

And she joined the Maryknoll nuns. Maybe you could give a brief history of the Maryknoll nuns and why she was attracted to that.

Eileen: Yeah, The Maryknolls are really interesting. So there’s always been orders of nuns and there’s always been missionary orders but the Maryknolls were an American order; they were founded in the first decade of the twentieth century as a women’s missionary order so they’re all American girls who served overseas – first in China, then The Philippines and then eventually in Latin America.

And these were ballsy, adventurous, exciting girls. There was a lot of press about the Maryknoll sisters in the 1950’s and I found this great article I think in Time magazine that described the kind of girls the Mother Superior looked for which were: Not shy, not shrinking violets but well-rounded, healthy girls who had dates and were outward looking. So I spent a lot of time early in my research for this book speaking to Maryknoll sisters now in their eighties and I said: So why did you want to become a nun, Sister? or Why did you want to become a Maryknoll? And they said: They wanted to serve God, they were deeply religious but also for a blue-collar, first generation girl in the 1940’s and ’50’s – there wasn’t much for those girls. They weren’t going to college from those neighbourhoods. They weren’t going to be able to join the foreign service so becoming a Maryknoll sister meant joining up for this organisation that served the wide world – you were going to have an adventure.

You were going to learn a new language, you were going to work in the jungle, you were going to ride on mules up through the mountains and go down rivers on rafts and meet people very different than you and be very much part of the wide, expansive world – not the hemmed in world of what was available to girls, in particularly to working class girls, in those eras. So Maura was attracted to that. She’d grown up I think – you know my kids read National Geographic – but for her it was reading the magazine of the Columban Fathers and Maryknoll magazine and that looked like an adventurous life and so she was attracted to that. She wanted to do something big with her life and that led her into Maryknoll as a place where you could be part of the big, wide world and meet people very different than yourself.

John: Well you talk about part of the big, wide world – I mean now we’re having conversation here in this country about how Russia has influence on our election but nobody has a bigger influence on elections, particularly in Central America – I was down in Nicaragua in the early ’90’s for the election down there and speaking to the people there – we had an embargo in Nicaragua, we were training the Contras with US tax dollars and telling the people of Nicaragua: If you don’t elect the person we want we are going to continue the war down there – El Salvador was the same thing – so even though she’s getting spiritually involved with the Maryknoll nuns it gets very political when you end up in countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador and you see what our country is doing to these countries.

Eileen: Yeah, exactly and so Maura’s story is this. It’s all a Cold War story. The book begins – I begin the book at the end of World War II and what that felt like in Rockaway with the war ending. But of course the end of World War II was the beginning of the Cold War and Maura being killed in the Salvadoran Civil War – the Salvadoran Civil War was its own thing, its own revolution, but it was certainly a proxy war in the Cold War, right? From the time of President Monroe the US believed that it had the right to control the hemisphere – to control what happened in any of these countries – and we did. We invaded Nicaragua multiple times in the beginning of the twentieth century, we supported and propped up a dictator there throughout, you know until 1979 when he was overthrown (that’s Somoza) and similarly in El Salvador we were very invested in making sure that the government in El Salvador kept markets open for US goods and for US business interests. And because Maura’s work was working with poor people she came into conflict with that. You know, she set out as this very kind of naive and sweet missionary to the mountains of Nicaragua to work with very poor people, to run a school in an isolated gold mining community but she’s there as Vatican II begins to happen and the nuns are asked to look critically at their work to figure out: Well, what’s the work you do and how does that bring about the Kingdom of God?

And so their work in the middle of the ’60’s shifted from running a school for poor kids in this gold mining town to really doing adult-based education but that meant reading the Bible and saying: Well, what does Jesus want? What’s the kind of world that Jesus wants us to build? And if you look at those things sincerely, or at least when she looked them sincerely, it led her into opposition to this dictatorship in Nicaragua and so she transforms from – you know, everybody in power loves the nuns when they’re just educating people and teaching them about sin and helping them stay as part of the social structure that exists – but in the mid-’60’s the nuns and so many other people and all these lay people starting saying: Well wait. Maybe this system is corrupt. Maybe I’m not poor because I’m lazy. Maybe I’m poor because the whole thing is arranged against me and maybe I need to be doing something to shift the structure of this society that makes me poor. And that’s really what the middle years of her life were about – was working to change the structural conditions.

John: And Eileen, you write about the effect now of her father’s influence on her with the letters now she’s sending back from Nicaragua and El Salvador. Explain what were the letters to her father like?

Eileen: Yeah, so in like 1970 she goes away from this gold mining town and into like this squatters’ encampment outside of Managua to continue doing this adult faith formation which is really political, right? You’re getting poor people together to talk about what their lives mean and what God wants for their lives and that quickly becomes opposition to the Somoza regime. And then as the ’70’s wear on the resistance to Somoza is rising and the Sandinistas are gathering steam as a guerrilla revolutionary force and a lot of the kids she’s been working with – you know teaching those as altar boys and that she teaches in a youth group and a Confirmation class, they’re coming to the convent door saying: Bless me, Sister. I’m leaving. I’m going to join the Sandinistas in the mountains. Give me your blessing before I head off. And Maura writes home to her dad during these years saying: You know, it’s heart-wrenching to see these young people leaving. They’re taking up arms and that’s a complicated thing. And she’s afraid that they’re going to die but she also says: Dad, it reminds me of what you went through. So she’d been raised on the stories of the Irish revolution and the IRA and she recognises these young people in Nicaragua in the mid-’70’s as her dad in another guise.

John: And Eileen, I just now want to get up to: What exactly happened to her? How did she end up in El Salvador and the effect of her death on US policy in Central America?

So she ends up – you know she works in Nicaragua for about two decades and then the Maryknoll sisters have this rule that you have to come back every so often and do service to the headquarters. So she spends the late ’70’s in the US doing consciousness-raising workshops with middle class Catholics. It’s not the old-fashioned ‘Hey, give money to the missions’ – it’s Catholic social teaching – you know – what does the world require, sort of – so she’s doing that in the late ’70’s as the revolution’s about to occur in Nicaragua. And during this time – 1980, the beginning of 1980, Archbishop Romero, who’s the archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador, he’s assassinated but before he was assassinated he asked for more Maryknoll Sisters to come to El Salvador to do this same work – organising and spiritual care work with the people in El Salvador. There’d been some nuns there for a long time but he wanted more.

And so Maura, as a veteran Latin American missionary, she’s asked: Well, do you think – you could go back to Nicaragua when you’re done this US work or you could go to El Salvador – we need more people down there with your kind of experience. So after a lot of thinking and praying and discerning she decides she’s going to go to El Salvador. So she spends just a couple of months in the Fall of 1980 in El Salvador doing really amasing work and (you know I’m switching from Nicaragua to El Salvador here) there’d been a people’s movement for land rights, for human rights, for economic reform that was met with a really vicious, directed campaign of state terror on the part of the Salvadoran government of which we were arming and advising. And she and the other women she’s killed with, along with seventy-five thousand Salvadorans, are killed by this government.

So on December 2nd 1980 she and these three other women are stopped at a checkpoint set up just for them – the military was looking for them – and they’re killed and their bodies dumped by the side of the road – and you know, nine thousand other people were killed that way, nine thousand other civilians were killed that way in El Salvador that year, in the first year of that civil war, seventy-five thousand over the course of the war – but for people in the US it was like: Wait! What? They killed nuns? They killed North American nuns? And I think for a lot of people in the US it was this shocking – you know these wars are going on in Central America but most Americans don’t really know anything about them or don’t really know which end is up. But when a US ally kills four American women and three of them are nuns I think it made a lot of people in the US sit up and say: Wait! What’s going on? And which side are we on? Are we on the side that’s killing nuns? So it had this tremendous impact in the US throughout the ’80’s of really keeping US policy in Central America on the front pages. And you know, it involved many people in the US in resisting those wars and in arguing against Reagan, against continued support for the Salvadoran regime.

John: (station identification) And we’re speaking with Eileen Markey. She has a book out called: A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura (Clarke) and Eileen, thanks for coming on. And can people – are you doing any book readings around the New York area?

Eileen: Not any more right now but hopefully we’ll schedule more. In the Fall I’m going to be at Glucksman Ireland House. I’ll let you know when that happens. I’ve got a Facebook page, Eileen Markey/Author, where you can see where I’m going to be. I’ll be at Notre Dame in a couple of weeks.

You’ll be out in South Bend talking about the book. And what is the reaction you’re getting all these years later about her life?

Eileen: It’s great! People seem to like the book. It’s a beautiful story. I mean, it’s a sad story when you begin thinking about this killing but the book really is about who she was when she was alive and how she got there. We only know about them as these dead women and the book is really bringing her back to life and understanding all the disparate influences that led her to be who she was. And she’s a lovely person to spend – I enjoyed spending five years with her.

She’s a lovely person to spend three hundred pages with so people seem to like it and it brings up really important issues about what religion and politics mean and how you work for justice in the real world so I think people are enjoying it.

John: And that’s Eileen Markey. Her book is: A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura (Clarke). You can get it on amazon and all – what’s left of – any bookstores here in the United States. Eileen, thanks for coming on.

Eileen: Thanks a lot John. Have a great day.

John: And talking about the impact that the 1916 Uprising had on her – father from Sligo and the letters that she was sending up – and seeing the comparisons in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

(ends time stamp ~ 29:10)

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