A Discussion of Eileen Markey’s Book, A Radical Faith

In a lecture sponsored by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and the Latin American/North American Church Concerns Project, Eileen Markey discussed her new book, A Radical Faith. The book explores the life and death of Sr. Maura Clarke, a Catholic nun who was assassinated in El Salvador in December 1980.

Maura Clarke was raised in an Irish Catholic family in New York City, with her parish in Rockaway being a central part of family life. She was 14 years old in 1945 when World War II ended, and eventually decided to join the Maryknoll Sisters, the first missionary order of women to be founded in America. In 1959, Sr. Maura was assigned to a mission in Nicaragua, where she served by ministering to the city of Siuna. She returned to the United States in the late 1970’s on a “return mission,” where she talked about her experiences in Nicaragua at parishes along the East Coast. However, she was assigned back to Central America a short time later, arriving in El Salvador in 1980. The country was in a state of political upheaval, and only 10 months had passed since the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. During her time of service, Sr. Maura chose to stay despite the danger. She and three other women, two of them fellow religious sisters, were kidnapped and murdered in December of 1980.

Eileen Markey’s A Radical Faith focuses on not only the death of Sr. Maura, but her life as well. In researching this book, Markey stated: “I … organized my thinking around three questions: How did a nice girl like her get to a place like this? When did she go from being a good sister to a bad nun? How did the nuns go from the Bells of St. Mary’s to dead man walking?” Understanding the evolution of Sr. Maura’s attitude towards her service and ministry to the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador was central to the framework of Markey’s book and her lecture.

Siuna, the boomtown in Nicaragua where Sr. Maura first began to serve, was the place where, according to Markey, Sr. Maura’s attitude towards the role of the Church began to evolve. She began to experience a transition from seeing herself as ministering to people’s souls to seeing herself as ministering to their social and economic situations. Sr. Maura believed that when the fathers of families “were digging gold and their children were starving,” the solution was not for them to attend church more often. She was one of the earliest examples of lived liberation theology, identifying with the elements of the Church which began to believe that, “the Catholic Church ought not only to be concerned with the souls of the faithful, but also crucially to engage ordinary Catholics, lay people, not just nuns and priests, in the important work of building the people of God, a world of justice and fairness … to bring specifically Catholic answers to social problems.”

Throughout the world at this time, “priests, nuns, and lay workers taught the radical notion that God did not ordain the tremendous suffering of poor people. This was revolutionary.” This was the result of the developing liberation theology: that the Church should actively strive to work against social and political power structures to free people from oppression. Markey argued that it was through her ministry and service that Sr. Maura moved from an “inherently imperialistic” position of believing that the people of Central America needed to be taught to be better Catholics to a position of listening to the people and striving to improve their socioeconomic situations.

The ministry of the sisters became one of gathering people together to read the Bible and to discuss how the Biblical stories connected to their personal lives. Siuna was a boomtown, meaning people had not lived in there their entire lives and did not have deep community roots. Therefore, building relationships became central to the sisters’ mission. They did not seek to be figures of authority so much as facilitators who entered people’s homes, talked with them, and met them within the struggles of their personal lives.

By the time of her assassination in El Salvador, Sr. Maura was fully living the ideas of service and ministering that she had begun to develop in Nicaragua. In El Salvador at this time, the Church was “the object of governmental wrath,” where to be a Christian meant to being “subversive.” This position hearkened back to her upbringing as an Irish Catholic, where the underlying motivation of her Irish Catholicism was having a Catholic identity as an opposition to the state. Eventually, Sr. Maura and the others she worked with were actively helping the guerilla fighters and others being targeted by the Salvadoran government. She had moved “out of institutions into ever more authentic encounter” with the people, striving for social, political and economic equity for the people she served. In the end, despite the danger, she chose to remain in El Salvador and ultimately lost her life.
Therese Benz is a sophomore studying Pre-Health and English. She and her roommate both live in McGlinn Hall. Her roommate is a sweatpants enthusiast and also wrote for the Rover this issue. There’s a fun fact about Therese in her roommate’s byline: can you find it? If you can’t find it, contact Therese at tbenz@nd.edu.