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Clarke could ‘really connect with people’

Sr. Maura Clarke MM “offers a model of a person who was willing to learn uncomfortable and inconvenient truths,” according to her biographer. MARYKNOLL MISSION ARCHIVES

By Peter McDermott

The horrific Dec. 2, 1980, murders of Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan, at the hands of the United States-trained El Salvadoran military, shocked the world. All four women were from the U.S. and the atrocity raised serious questions at home about the morality of Washington’s involvement in Central America.

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More than 30 years later, New York journalist Eileen Markey undertook to write a biography of Clarke, the oldest and perhaps best-known of those martyred on that December day. “A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura” was published in 2016 to critical acclaim. Actor Martin Sheen called it “a “beautifully told narrative,” adding that it was an “important story that has been forgotten for too long.” Best-selling author the Rev. James Martin S.J. said Markey’s book was a “riveting portrait of a hidden saint. A stunning story that should be known by all who love the Gospel. And all who love humanity.”

The Echo spoke with Markey not long after publication and caught up with her again recently to ask some more questions about the book and about the woman who was born to Irish immigrant parents on Jan. 13, 1931, and who died 40 years ago today.

Eileen Markey wrote her biography of Clarke because she felt many people regarded the story of the missionaries in Central America as inspiring "but we have the slimmest understanding of what they were doing."[PHOTO BY ADI TALWAR]

As we mark the 40th anniversary of Sr. Maura Clarke’s death, which of her personal qualities come readily to mind?

I think a great deal about her attentiveness, her ability to focus on the people in front of her, to really be present to the people she was with. I think she'd find this era when we're so often gazing distractedly into a cell phone and ignoring the people around us completely bonkers. She treated whoever she was with as though they were the most important person in the world, that's what every single person I interviewed told me. That attentiveness wasn't incidental. The fact that she took people seriously, actually listened and valued them, meant that she learned more than most of us do. Understanding the lives of the people she was with really rearranged what she understood about how the world works. Because she payed attention, she could see things from the perspective of people who were getting the short end of the stick.

As this anniversary has come around I've been thinking about what her relevance is in 2020. Many people in the U.S. have belatedly woken up to realizing that injustices in this country — racial, economic injustices — aren't incidental; they are baked into the core. Like the fact that black and latino people have gotten and died from Covid at far higher rates and that while lines are getting longer and longer at food pantries during the pandemic, a handful of billionaires vastly expanded their wealth. This isn't a quirk.

I think Maura offers a model of a person who was willing to learn uncomfortable and inconvenient truths and then align herself with the people who were working to overturn those injustices. It required bravery because it meant she had to accept that a lot that she'd been taught growing up was incorrect. But she had this habit of really connecting with people, so she could learn and she could move forward. The relationships allowed her to foster hope.

What drew you to her story in the first place?

I started working on this book in 2011. I was incredibly angry about the child sex abuse coverups and the impunity and clubby high-hattedness of the bishops and cardinals. It just made the whole thing seem crooked. But I wasn't able to walk away from my faith. I'd grown up learning about the case of the nuns in El Salvador and Archbishop, now Saint, Romero. I knew that that part was true: the sacrifice for others and the desire to build the world Christ talks about in the Gospels. Maura's sister Julia Keogh wanted a book written about her sister. Her daughter, Maura's niece Deirdre, was sending out inquiries trying to interest someone in taking on the project. A friend of mine forwarded the request to me, knowing I had the investigative and research skills as a reporter and that I'd written a fair amount about Catholicism. I remember reading that forwarded email and thinking, "Oh, wow. Yes. I should dig into this. So many people find the story of the nuns in El Salvador inspiring but we have the slimmest understanding of what they were doing." I thought the story would benefit from a reporter's treatment. I was freelancing at the time working sometimes for WNYC, sometimes for the Wall Street Journal, writing pieces now and then for the Village Voice, but I wanted something more substantial that I could really go deep with, as opposed to one off stories. I was interested not so much in the killing itself but in the social and political context that brought this nice girl from Rockaway to a grave at the edge of the Cold War. What shaped this life? How are the political and the religious entwined? What are the implications of belief?

Tell us something about the range of the reactions to your book. Anything surprising about them? Do you feel you’ve helped people know something about Central America in particular or is there a resistance to anything difficult from the past?

I don't find that people resist it because of the past. I think maybe it's long enough ago that people can think about it now. They end up saying they had a really blinkered understanding of the Cold War and what was happening in El Salvador and Nicaragua, that this is eye opening. People have really loved the book. I think Maura is such a lovely person, a relatable, normal person just struggling to figure out herself and her place in the world that people like spending 300 pages with her. She's not swashbuckling, she's this self-effacing, kind of insecure woman but she ends up doing really brave things, both physically brave and morally brave: hiding people the government wants to kill, transporting medicine in a war zone, comforting people in the midst of horror, following her conscience even when it is completely terrifying to do so.

You get to know her and see her grow into herself. So, I think people really care about her by the time her life reaches its end and are left well shaken. Some people pick up the book because they have some familiarity with the politics or because they remember hearing a little bit about this case in school or on the news years ago. The full story is so much more compelling, so much more transformative than the cliff notes version. But yeah, it might rearrange how you think about a few things. I hope it does. I also think so many people are about where I was when I began working on the book: spitting mad at all the misery the institutional church has caused and yet moved by the central message of the faith: "love another as I have loved you" and curious about someone who actually took the religion seriously – and was willing to face the real-world implications.

Maura's Irish roots play a very important part in her life, in her orientation to tyranny and oppression, in her ability to see common cause with Nicaraguans and Salvadorans facing injustice. When internment is happening in Northern Ireland, Maura is writing to her cousins there saying this is a lot like how things are heating up in Nicaragua. Her Irish roots and her specific family history shaped how she thought about commitment: that belief compels action.

These four decades on, what are your thoughts on the central ideas of those who explicitly linked their faith with the struggle for social justice?

I don't know how you can read the book (not mine, I mean the Bible) and come away with any other analysis. It is a completely radical document. What drove Maura and many others of her generation is that they took the stories of Christianity seriously and they had real relationships with the people they served, actual friendships. They read the Bible and tried to apply it to their lives, asking themselves: who would I be in this story, what does this having enough food to feed everyone mean? You read that story with a room full of barefoot farm laborers who have been hungry their entire lives even though the landowner is making a tidy sum in the export market and you are going to either have to lie to yourself or think differently. She was honest.

In the U.S. religion has been largely captured as a domain of the right and a lot of liberal people have ceded it to the right. That serves the powers that be quite nicely, but it makes so little sense. And it is not consistent with the rest of the world, particularly Latin America where religion is not this realm of private morality and approbation but instead a collective experience of trying to build a better reality. Even in the U.S., every justice movement here is religiously rooted. We don't talk about it that way, because it makes people squeamish but abolition, labor rights, civil rights, anti-war, prison reform, economic justice, there are religious people through and through these efforts. The thing Maura learned was that faith wasn't [only] about what happened inside the church building. It was about what you did with that in the street.