Finding what’s true in the stories of women religious

Author: Eileen Markey

Markey at Banquet TalkEileen Markey

The following reflections were delivered on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, at the closing banquet for the 11th Triennial Conference on the History of Women Religious, Commemoration, Preservation, Celebration, hosted at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. 

I want to begin by acknowledging all the people with us—Kathleen Sprows Cummings and the Cushwa Center staff and our hosts, the Sisters of the Holy Cross. But many others, tambien.

Here, we are on the traditional homelands of Native peoples, particularly the Pokégnek Bodéwadmik / Pokagon Potawatomi, who have been using this land for education for thousands of years and continue to do so. They are here.

We are in this space where the Sisters of the Holy Cross arrived from France and established their first educational mission 175 years ago. They are here.

I want to acknowledge the sisters who first convened in 1987, who, recognizing the value and importance of their history, birthed this conference that has become a living font of so much knowledge—and hopefully wisdom. They are here.

And I want to welcome in Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, the Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Chileans who converted them, as well as the 75,000 Salvadorans whose fate they shared, who continue to give us an education of the heart and of the soul. They are here. Presente!

It gets a little crowded sometimes, carrying around all this memory, no?

I became a journalist because I believe that if we know more, we can be better—and because I love stories. I know that stories soothe and agitate, compel and make sense, draw the borders between what we believe and what we condemn. We construct our reality from the tales we tell. They are the history we inherit and the future we dream. I think of Mary Magdalene, who briefly contained the whole of the church as she ran. She had news and she hurried to tell it.

Writing A Radical Faith

Maurac Camp PhotoMaura Clarke, M.M., as a young girl at Baker Camp, Harriman Park, NY, late 1940s

I wrote a book about Maura Clarke, a Maryknoll sister assassinated in 1980 by the military government of El Salvador, a military trained and armed by the United States. She was one of the four women who came to be known as the churchwomen of El Salvador. I grew up learning their story from the Sisters of St. Joseph, who did the work of running my diocese in Springfield, Massachusetts.

I thought I knew the story. It was my formation: the churchwomen, St. Óscar Romero, Dorothy Day. These were the stories that kept me Catholic. They were the stories that determined where I lived, the work I did, the choices I made, and what I taught my children to value. And honestly, when I was disgusted by the criminality, veniality, and gangsterism of the institutional church revealed again and again by the sex abuse cover-up crisis, it was their stories that made it impossible for me to leave. I knew this part was true: the sacrifice and the love. The body broken and the community formed. This was true.

But when I examined what I knew of the churchwomen story, I realized I had only a couple paragraphs, a few oft-reprinted quotes, a sense of sacrifice and outrage, something about liberation theology and the Cold War. But no depth, precious little context, no texture. I wanted to use my skills in journalism—which I think of as a cross between history, sociology, and being a confessor—to unearth a story I thought I knew.

Maura was killed, we were told, because she worked with the poor. She was a holy victim, as limp and lurid as any virgin martyr. Still, the story had value. It told us something about sacrifice, commitment, and laying down your life for your friends. But let me tell you, it’s more interesting than that—and more dangerous, more disruptive. She had agency. She had ideas. She acted.

She was killed because of her participation in a people’s agitation for the society that they believed they deserved. It was a social movement. She was killed because she told the truth, that the political and economic structure of that country was a sin, that it desecrated the image of God in the human person. She’d reconsidered where God was, not only in the church, but in the street; not only in the prayers, but in the power of community coming together to create a new world, to topple a dictator, to acquire land rights. So much of it is the long, long story of what happens after 1492. That is a story of Christianity, power, race, violence, collaboration, hope, becoming. To understand Maura and to be able to draw any insight on living from her life, I needed to understand the founding of the Maryknoll order and U.S. imperialism, the Irish revolution that formed her father, and the genesis of the Sandinista movement in church youth groups. I needed to understand an export-oriented coffee economy, her mother’s reticence and how the great migration of African Americans fleeing state terror in the U.S. South shaped the Bronx where Maura had her first teaching assignment—where she began to understand injustice and the contempt with which the oppressor treats the person under their heel.

My job was one of resuscitation and contextualization. The story we know begins in death, but there was a life first, and I wanted to breathe it back into her. I organized myself around four questions: Who was this woman in the dirt? How did a nice girl like her get to a place like this? When did the nuns change? That is to say, when did we go from The Song of Bernadette to Dead Man Walking, from Spellman to Romero? Why them and why then?

I won’t get to all those questions tonight, but I’ll talk a little about my approach, and why I think Maura’s story and the stories of all these women religious and their congregations matter—not out of some grim responsibility to honor the past. This is not a funeral project. No. We need them because they offer a key to the future.

Studying the History of Women Religious

Chwrgroupphoto2Participants at CHWR 2019

I think of a drop of honey preserved in a pharaoh’s tomb and unearthed by archeologists, or the DNA of an extinct insect locked in amber. These congregations of women religious centuries ago, decades ago, and this week on our own brutal border, have done the things that the rest of us urgently, existentially need to learn. Particularly around questions of power, leadership, allegiance, humility, place, and race, of organizational and personal change, of transformation, many congregations of women religious hold a map that the rest of us urgently need to study.

We need these stories of women religious because they offer salvation. They hold a history of going out, of relocating the center to what temporal authorities would call the margin, of choosing allegiance with people ostensibly different than themselves. Sister Caroline Mbonu introduced us to a lay Irish woman, Mary Marin, who was formed in Nigeria under Mother M. Charles Walker and went to Ireland to launch new order. They change sides. As Maura’s years in Central America accumulated, she had these difficulties coming home: Nicaragua began to make more sense than Long Island. So many sisters’ lives raise these questions of where we belong and whom we are with. They blur the boundaries. These sisters’ stories offer an example of embracing precarity, of encounter and exchange, of changing sides.

We all know that you see from where you stand. So, the Sisters of the Holy Cross, coming out into this flatness and establishing a mission, understood the world differently—which is to say, understood God differently—than when they were in Paris. Maura Clarke went to Central America expecting to teach the people how to be better Catholics. She learned, claro, that God was already there. The problem was that he was being crucified in his people. She learned that if she was going to be faithful to her vows, she needed to follow God to all these unlikely places—and to get him off the cross.

Because nuns have for so long stood outside and away from male authority, in closeness to poor people and oppressed people, their records offer a way of seeing. So much of it is engagement with suffering. It is lying in the wounds or, like Veronica, offering comfort to the condemned. Magdalena witnessed the resurrection because she’d gone to perform the rites for the body.

I think a lot of our hearts are on the border and thinking about the cruelty our country continues to inflict. In the discussion after one of her talks here at the conference, Margaret McGuinness of La Salle University referred to the fact that nuns are there at the border. This is the global South evangelizing the North, work I think we need to really study. And of course, it’s cycles of history. There are sisters working on the border now who were part of the sanctuary movement and solidarity movement of the 1980s. Sisters had worked in Central America in the 1960s and 70s and understood the political and human rights situation, because they were converted by the people they served. So, then, when people were fleeing U.S.-engineered state violence in the 1980s—the war that killed Maura, a genocidal campaign in Guatemala, a counter-revolution in Nicaragua, all of which had sisters of many orders serving as stalwart Veronicas—the nuns, in concert with organized movements in those countries, and with diasporas here, operated an underground railroad to ferry Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and Guatemalans into this country. They hid people in convents and convinced parishioners to support them. Among other outcomes of this was that in 1986 President Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty law, legalizing these many people who had fled U.S. wars. Nuns had so very much to do with that: from receiving people at shelters in the Rio Grande Valley (as is happening today) to walking the halls of Congress and bending the ears of senators. We need to study that movement to figure out how to do it again.

What’s happening on the border today is a continuation of a militarization begun under President Bill Clinton, ramped up under President Barack Obama, and reaching its fascistic zenith today. In the aftermath of those wars and especially after Clinton’s 1996 immigration law (a breathtaking merging of the ideologies of mass incarceration and xenophobia), we’ve exported destabilization and gang violence to the Northern Triangle of Central America. Sisters know this. And sisters are back there at Annunciation House in El Paso and the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, back into the spiraling history. If we study, listen, and document, we can figure out what to do next—how maybe to interrupt this ugly call and response of history. It all has to do with what we remember and what we don’t.

There are clues and we’ve studied some of these clues at the conference.

Heidi MacDonald’s paper told us about Canadian sisters organizing themselves into the Canadian Religious Conference to be a megaphone at a time of dwindling numbers but rising influence. How do you pull off that magic? We need to learn it.

Elizabeth Smyth taught us about Sister Albion, on a water fast in front of the White House 40 years before Flint and Standing Rock.

Kathleen Washy of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden illuminated this for us in the preservation of the social justice work of the 1960s and 1970s.

Rosa Bruno-Jofré said we need a rebirth from the ashes for this broken church. The phoenix is feminine. And of course, it is a symbol of Christ. It is a symbol of resurrection.

In a country where the wounds of racism are gangrenous, where the demons of conquest and displacement just find new hosts to live in, where individualism and materialism are contributing to suicides and deaths of despair so high that the statistical life expectancy has declined, where greed and studied ignorance are driving us to environmental apocalypse (and this was all before 2016), we need their lessons. We need the sisters as models of traitors and rule breakers. The sentence above is a dark litany of worldly crises. 

But as Sister Patricia Wittberg of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate underscored yesterday afternoon, the church in the United States is in crisis too: it is dwindling and losing affinity as Americans assimilate into secular, post-religious “nones.” We’re strangled by what the pope calls the disease of clericalism. If we study the nuns as laity—because they are part of and yeast in the laity—maybe we can free ourselves. Because through them we need to understand that the lay lead. We need to understand that the body of Christ, whose feast we celebrated Sunday, has always been vastly and primarily a lay body. The church is carried forward every day by lay people.

One of the most important lessons in the archives, I think, is the ongoing story of sisters evangelized by the global South, by indigenous peoples (Jessica Lauren Criales helped us understand this in her study of the indigenous nuns of Oaxaca), then turning and influencing the structure of the institutional church with what they learned. In this way, the sisters evangelized the elite girls’ schools and mothers’ groups and Congress.

Clericalism has nearly killed us. It’s the disease in which the sex abuse cover-up was incubated: clericalism and secrecy. But the church is not locked up in the chancery. It’s out here with everyone: vast, experienced, tested.

These stories we want to unearth and resuscitate are not, or not only, the stories of heroic foundresses. We need the stories of floundering and failure. We need the stories of attempts that flopped and tensions that threatened to—and sometimes did—tear asunder. Some holders of these stories, archivists and leadership teams of women’s congregations, fear that telling the whole story will be unflattering. But what can be unflattering in the story of God’s people searching for God? How does a closed archive tell the Good News?

The history of communities of women religious does not belong to them. None of our stories are ours alone. These are the stories of the church. These are the stories of God at work in God’s church, imperfect, implicated, broken, holy. Transfiguration doesn’t come in safety.

Commemoration, Preservation, Celebration

Mclarke VisitingdayMaura Clarke, M.M., with her family on visiting day at her Maryknoll convent, 1951

When I began researching Maura for her biography, I encountered stories of Maura, but they were pale. She was nice. She was sweet. She was a nun. But if she were a nice little nun, she’d still be alive. The family kept telling me that she gave away her shoes. But you know, no dictatorship resents charity. They fear justice. I had to learn the family stories—and not only the happy ones. It took about three years until Maura’s sister could tell me her father was an alcoholic. I needed to know that not to air dirty laundry, but because it told me who Maura was. It made it possible to understand her need for approval, her craving of acknowledgement, her deep desire to please, her attraction to severe and withholding people. This is part of how she got there.

Then there was the fantastically named Father Valentin, a Basque Jesuit in Nicaragua. Maura fell in love with him in 1974 while they both worked in Managua in a squatter’s camp after the earthquake. On long drives to find displaced parishioners whom they had been organizing into base Christian communities, she was moved by his commitment, his zeal.

For a woman 25 years into a vow of celibacy, it was destabilizing and alarming. Confusing. What was God asking of her? Why these feelings?

This time, Maura’s sister wanted me to know (I think she was gratified that her sister had a human experience), but her Maryknoll sisters were circumspect. They demurred until I gave them the sign. I said, “Look, Judy knows.” 

“Oh, well, OK,” they said. “We all fell in love. It was part of being human. A further way of understanding God. Some of us left and pursued a relationship. Some of us integrated the experience and recommitted to our vows. But we’d grown closer to God by understanding another aspect of God’s life.” I needed to know that. Maura’s whole story is of trying to grow closer to God.

I couldn’t have written the painstakingly researched and emotionally resonant book I wrote in 1985 or 1990. I would have asked the wrong questions and people wouldn’t have felt free to talk, which is why we need to preserve records until the questions we want to ask them can ripen.

I learned the most about Maura’s conversion and the history of the church and the countries in which she worked from people whom no one had ever interviewed before. This is why we need a robust and comprehensive oral history campaign—and urgently. It must be focused on people far from the centers of power. They have great knowledge—and different knowledge. But they’ve been elided. The story of liberation theology is told by the bishops and the universities and the conferences. It focuses on men. This is galling. But it’s also poor history. It’s bad journalism. It tells an incomplete story.

In the Maryknoll archive is a document from the 1978 Chapter, about 30 pages long, typed neatly with this title: “How Does a Revolution Begin?”

Sister Estelle Coupe, M.M., was talking about the Nicaraguan Revolution, and because someone saved that piece of paper and because Ellen Pierce (the Maryknoll archivist at the time) didn’t say, “Oh, this might be unflattering,” we now know more about the work of the Maryknoll sisters in establishing consciousness-raising workshops and women’s empowerment groups across Nicaragua (and throughout Latin America) in the years that preceded the uprising. It’s a whole under-history. The clarification of thought and interpretation of scripture that became liberation theology were lay and often female. They were the people of the church speaking to each other. Later on, the bishops and theologians codified it. Because of the Maryknoll archive, when I went to Nicaragua I could ask the right questions—and find the people who really knew.

Malachy McCarthy, a respected archivist of the Claretian order, said in his presentation that we need to tear down old structures, old barriers. We tear them down not to destroy, but to preserve. If we are going to tell these stories—and we want to because we know they hold the truth—we’ll need to see all the stories. This isn’t about the past. This isn’t necrophilia. This is about the future we have yet a few years to build. You’ve all read the United Nations climate change report. Time is running out.

I think a great deal about time and these circles. It’s very Celtic. We have chronos, the chronological, historical time, and kairos, the time of possibility. This moment of preservation and celebration is a kairos moment. It can give life.

I love the frescos in the chapel here at Saint Mary’s College. They show Ezekiel and Father Moreau floating together in plaster, millennia apart but together. There’s an altarpiece at Fordham University Church that I love to contemplate: it’s the crowning of Mary as Queen of the Universe and All Knowledge—very appropriate for us. The whole gang is there: Joseph and Francis of Assisi; Ignatius Loyola and John the Baptist; Genevieve, Isaac Jogues, and Patrick; Augustine, Basil, and John Chrysostom. I love it because it muddles time. First-century Palestine and 15th-century Spain, fourth-century Ireland and 17th-century North America. The past isn’t past. It’s swirling around about us. Catch it, and we might flatten it out, write a different future, spiral forward.

What if we had different memories? What if we could tell a different story? What if Scheherazade-like we could talk ourselves to freedom? But these would be true tales: documented and cited, footnoted and catalogued. It could change our conception of what the Catholic Church is. Not a sclerotic cabal of abuse enablers and wealth flatterers, but a people building Eucharist, getting that body off the cross or standing witness at its foot.

We have a proud image of an army of 19th-century nuns, foot soldiers of the church who built Catholicism in North America. And that’s true. But what if we make a memory of them as agents of transformation and encounter? That’s also true.

This is hiding in plain sight: innovators of community, of liturgy. They cultivated collegiality. They practiced de-centered authority, trust. The nuns at Vatican II actually implemented church teaching, changed their governance, went finding God in the people. And, of course, they found Her. They are still doing that with the excellent Nuns and Nones project. I know there is this keen grief at the approaching loss of many congregations. It is a loss. But those of us who’ve been lucky enough to be close to sisters’ communities are infected. The charism does transmit. And these true stories are what can live—just as surely as that crowd of people I called into the room at the beginning.

Finding Sister Maura Clarke

Maura Clarke ImageMaura Clarke, M.M., speaks with friends, members of one of Managua's first base Christian communities in the early 1970s. Maura's relationships transformed her understanding of God and history.

I learned the true story of Maura Clarke by digging and by listening, by making space, by piecing together some sort of Picasso stained glass until a live woman emerged.

There was a protectiveness about the churchwomen. A desire to guard their honor. It was chivalry, really. I don’t use that word admiringly. “They weren’t political. They weren’t doing anything. They didn’t deserve it.” As though the 8,000 Salvadorans who were killed in the same way that year did? That somehow, because they were nuns, they were not of the world and so did not deserve to meet such a physical, worldly fate.

But God became flesh and dwelt among us. If that is true, it holds deeply political implications. And over time, Maura knew that. Her life and her death were about drawing closer to that body.

There was a story I kept hearing from Maura’s friends. It was almost too good. But when I went to Nicaragua to do reporting, I started hearing it there too.

There was a day in 1975 or 1976 when young men were meeting in the sisters’ house in the barrio where they lived outside Managua. At the time the neighborhood—a dusty, desperate collection of people displaced from squatters’ encampments in the city by the earthquake a few years earlier—was in the midst of a long campaign for a fair price for water. The water fight represented everything wrong with Nicaragua and everything that could be right with this movement of people for dignity. Water was delivered into large barrels, something like 50-gallon drums, and parceled out delicately for cooking, bathing, drinking. The sisters explained how they took showers in three scoops of a coffee can: one dunk to get wet; then lather soap and shampoo; one scoop to rinse the body; and one scoop to rinse the hair. And then, as the water ran off your body, you leaned down in the tub and raced to capture it in the coffee can before it escaped down the drain. You’d sprinkle this scrap of water around the house, a wooden shack, to keep the dust down. But the community learned that in the neighboring barrio, the wealthy one beyond the wall, people were paying half the price for water. Here they had flush toilets and bathtubs, carefully-tended gardens and swimming pools. You didn’t need to be a Marxist to see that it was unfair. Agitation for a fair price for water began with letters, a meeting with the water company, a protest march, a hunger strike. Like any ongoing campaign, it necessitated dozens of planning and strategy meetings. One of these was taking place in the sisters’ house when the National Guard rushed into the sisters’ yard and grabbed a young man standing watch at the door. It was the special anti-terror squad from Managua. These were the guys known for handcuffing young men’s hands behind their backs and tossing them down a high hill in Managua until their necks broke. To be arrested by them meant definite torture and very likely death. The guardsmen were hustling the young man into their vehicle when Maura came tearing out of the house. She was a self-effacing and mild woman, but now it was like she was on fire. 

“What are you doing to that young man?” she demanded. “Why do you oppress your own people? He’s only asking for a fair price for water. Water is a human right. It’s given to us by God.” Maura threw her body on the front of the truck, banging on its metal hood. She reached her arm and grabbed the lieutenant’s wrist. The other sisters were shocked. Maura was touching a lieutenant of the National Guard. 

“Who. Are. You?” he asked this tall, ferocious white woman in the midst of the wretched barrio. 

Maura pulled herself up to her full height and fixed her eyes on the guardsman. “Yo soy Hermana Maura Clarke,” she said. 

The lieutenant scoffed. This was no threat. This was just a harmless nun. As though speaking to a pet or a small child, he said to her, “Oh, sister. Go back to your convent.”

Maura had been learning for 10 years that the convent, her life as a nun, wasn’t some fenced-off space, safe from the agony of the world. Her vows had taken her deeper and deeper into the painful experience of the people she loved, people she believed embodied the God she’d kneeled before and made her vows to as a young nun in the Maryknoll chapel. “This is my convent,” she shouted, thrusting her finger to the dusty, dry ground. “This is my convent.”

This is why we need reporting—and digging. When I heard the story in Nicaragua, from middle-aged men who had been teenagers at the meeting, I asked, “who had been arrested?” 

“It was Humbierto,” I was told. 

“What happened to him?” I asked anxiously. 

“Oh, he works down the block now.” 

So I went to speak with him. Because of the sisters’ intervention, he was taken to the local police station—instead of being whisked away to central Managua where death at the hands of the anti-terror squad was very likely. The sisters kept vigil so that someone was in the station 24 hours a day. In this way, the guardsmen would not be able to kill Humbierto. It worked. He was tortured for three days, but he was not killed. When he was released, he could not walk. This was a teenage boy the sisters had known since he was 11 or 12, a kid playing soccer in the dirt alleys of the shanty town. They’d trained him as an altar boy, listened to him articulate his thoughts in the dialogue Masses, prepared him for Confirmation. Now the sisters carried him home and he stayed in their house for 15 days, until he could walk again: a militant of the first Sandinista cell in that barrio. You don’t need to assent to every or any aspect of the revolution he participated in to see that this was the Pietà, a broken body and great love. Maura found God in the wounds: open, vast and inclusive.

Eileen Markey is assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Lehman College. She is the author of A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura (Nation Books, 2016), from which portions of this talk were adapted. 

All photos of Maura Clarke are courtesy of the Keogh family. 

This article appears in the fall 2019 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.