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Cardinal Hickey and El Salvador

In the years following the murders of missionary Jean Donovan and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke in El Salvador, then-Archbishop James Hickey of Washington became actively involved in advocating for the Salvadoran people.  He worked to have Congress approve Temporary Protective Status for Salvadorans and to cease all deportations to the country. Then-Archbishop Hickey is pictured here testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the late 1980s. It was one of several times he testified before the committee and its subcommittees related to El Salvador. He directed the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Public Policy then located within the Secretariat of Social Concerns to advocate for these issues.  (Catholic Standard file photo by Michael Hoyt)

December 2, 2020 marked the 40th anniversary of the deaths of lay missionary Jean Donovan, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke. 

The story of one of these four women, Jean Donovan, has always had special meaning for me. I graduated from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which was also Jean’s alma mater. Jean was active in the Catholic campus ministry at Mary Washington and got to know the Daughters of Wisdom who ran the grammar school I attended, Montfort Academy, which was only a few blocks from the college. 

After her death, we learned Jean’s story in school and when the movie Choices of the Heart came out in 1983, starring Melissa Gilbert as Jean, we all watched it in class. The Daughters of Wisdom are a teaching as well as missionary order, so we would have sisters who were missionaries in Central and South America visit us and talk about their work regularly. 

The bodies of missionary Jean Donovan and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke were found several days after they disappeared in El Salvador. This photo taken on Dec. 5, 1980 shows three Maryknoll sisters praying over the bodies of the women as they were found. A memorial in the shape of a stone cross was later placed at the site. (CNS photo)

When I came to the Archdiocese of Washington, I learned that Cardinal James Hickey also had a connection with Jean and Dorothy. Before being appointed archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Hickey had been bishop of Cleveland. After graduating from Mary Washington, Jean attended graduate school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  When she finished graduate degree, she got a job with the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. But she also struggled with how she wanted to spend the rest of her life. After talking with friends, she went to the Youth Ministry Office in the Diocese of Cleveland and began working with inner city youth. As she got more involved with youth ministry in Cleveland, she learned that they had a mission in El Salvador.  

Once she learned about this opportunity, she was deeply drawn to it. In order for her to work at Cleveland’s mission in El Salvador, she had to become a lay missionary under the umbrella of the Maryknoll Missionaries. The Maryknolls had a four-month program at their headquarters in Ossining, New York, at which they trained lay people to work in poorer countries. Jean went to Ossining in the fall of 1978 and completed the program in the spring of 1979. Next she traveled to Guatemala for intensive language training and was in El Salvador by August of 1979. The Cleveland mission was in a town on the Pacific Coast called La Libertad.  

As the head of the Diocese of Cleveland, then-Bishop Hickey sent Jean and fellow missionary Sister Dorothy Kazel to El Salvador, and they served at his request and direction. According to then-Archbishop Hickey’s 1981 testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he was in regular contact with the mission, visited often, and frequently spoke with Church leaders within the country. This included Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated several months before the murder of the four women.

Then-Archbishop James Hickey of Washington met with President Jimmy Carter on Dec. 23, 1980 about three weeks after the murder of missionary Jean Donovan, and Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke in El Salvador. Here Archbishop Hickey is shown talking to the reporters on the White House lawn. Archbishop Hickey had only recently become the archbishop of Washington. In his former position as bishop of Cleveland, he had sent Jean Donovan and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel to work at Cleveland’s mission in El Salvador. Archbishop Hickey is pictured with Washington Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Kelly, O.P. who also served as the general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.  (CNS Photo by Bob Strawn)

The murder of Jean, Dorothy, Ita and Maura sparked an outcry within the United States for an investigation. In then-Archbishop Hickey’s testimony, he raised concerns that the investigation being undertaken was looking solely at the women’s deaths as opposed to including the deaths of other Americans who had died in the country. Archbishop Hickey also pointed to the human rights violations that led to the deaths of thousands of Salvadorans. He also spoke about that fact that the United States was providing arms and military advisors to the Salvadoran military who were perpetrating the atrocities. Eventually five soldiers were tried and convicted of the women’s deaths, but no one higher up was ever held responsible.   

In a 2015 photo, people participating in a memorial service hold photos of four American churchwomen murdered in 1980 in the town of Santiago Nonualco, El Salvador. Members of Catholic and human rights organizations participated in a memorial at the place where four U.S. churchwomen, lay missioner Jean Donovan, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, were killed by members of the Salvadoran National Guard during that country’s civil war. (CNS photo/Jose Cabezas, Reuters)

Cardinal Hickey was deeply touched by the tragedy that was happening to the Salvadoran people and advocated for them to be accepted under Temporary Protected Status here in the United States. He directed the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Public Policy, which was then part of the Secretariat of Social Concerns, to work on this issue.  This was a point of advocacy for the Archdiocese of Washington well into the 1990s.   

Cardinal Hickey had sent missionary Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel to El Salvador as part of the mission maintained by the Diocese of Cleveland. He said his first Memorial Mass for the four women on Dec. 6, 1980 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. In his private chapel, Cardinal Hickey also kept photos of Jean and Dorothy, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and two other young men who were killed in El Salvador. The photos surrounded this handmade crucifix which is now in the collection of the Archives of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.  

Years later Cardinal Hickey was known to have said that he believed that when he sent Jean and Dorothy to El Salvador, he was sending them to their deaths. This was a burden that he lived with, and he prayed for them every day. He kept photos of Jean and Dorothy on the wall in his private chapel along with two other young men who were killed. He also had a photo of Archbishop Oscar Romero. They were hung around a hand painted crucifix, which included images of the Holy Spirit and the growth of creation. All these pieces are now in the collections of the Archives of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.  

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.)