This Bronx-born nun may become a saint

By | January 14, 2019

Shortly before she was brutally murdered by a military death squad in El Salvador, Sister Maura Clarke wrote to her mother in Queens with a simple request.

She needed a pair of shoes.

The Bronx-born Roman Catholic nun had given away her own shoes to a member of her mission in one of the country’s rebel strongholds, where she had helped feed, clothe and educate indigents since her arrival four months earlier in August 1980.

She lived on a $ 100 monthly stipend, in Chalatenango in the country’s northwest, and shared even that with the people she cared for. Her Maryknoll order, based in Ossining, NY, had sent Clarke to the war-torn country at the behest of Oscar Romero, the outspoken archbishop of San Salvador.

But by the time she arrived, Rom­ero was dead, killed by government forces as they battled left-wing insurgents, including members of the clergy.

“She knew Romero, and she answered the call even though El Salvador was really dangerous,” said Peter ­Keogh, Clarke’s nephew.

Though Clarke received death threats, the 49-year-old nun continued to minister to the country’s poor. And like Romero, she supported their revolutionary cause.

Now her family wants the Catholic Church to recognize her ­heroism by canonizing her — the same honor the Vatican in October bestowed on Romero.

“She was such a special person and incredibly worthy of sainthood for so many reasons,” said Keogh, who lives on Long Island.

“We want Maura’s story to live on forever as a saint. This pope is our greatest chance.”

Her former neighbors in the Rockaways agree. William Sweeney, the pastor of St. Francis de Sales church, said that discussions have already taken place.

For years, the long, bureaucratic and costly process of becoming a saint had not seemed worth the trouble. Clarke’s family worried that a succession of conservative popes would never consider a nun who worked with Central American rebels.

Now, after the 2013 installation of Pope Francis, an Argentine Jesuit and first Latin American pontiff — who endured brutal dictatorships in his country in the 1970s — things have changed.

During the Vatican’s recent beati­fication ceremony, Francis donned the blood-stained rope belt that Romero wore when he was shot in the heart as he celebrated mass in a small chapel in El Salvador.

“He left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the gospel — close to the poor and to his people,” Francis said at the ceremony.

Clarke’s family members believe she did the same thing.

“We want Maura’s story to live on forever as a saint,” Keogh said. “This pope is our greatest chance.”

Mary Elizabeth Clarke was born in 1931 — the eldest child of Irish immigrant parents John and Mary Clarke — at Fordham Hospital in The Bronx. Her father, the 10th of 12 children, had immigrated to New York when he was 18 in 1914 to join an older sister living in the city, where her wealthy husband owned a hotel.

Maura Clarke seen in a stained glass window at St. Francis de Sales Church
Maura Clarke (top left) seen in a stained glass window at St. Francis de Sales ChurchJ.C. Rice

But in 1921, John Clarke answered the call of revolution. He was asked to return to his impoverished native country, where his brothers were militants in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a precursor to the Irish Republican Army, which was waging war against Ireland’s British overlords.

While the rebellion did little to improve the lot of poor Irish citizens, John Clarke met his future wife, a nurse who was tending to wounded rebels at a convalescent home in Dublin. The couple moved to New York and married here in 1930.

Maura — as her family called her — grew up in a close-knit household in The Bronx and later in an Irish enclave in Rockaway known as the “Irish Riviera.”

From an early age, the future missionary became radicalized, listening to her father reminisce about his years in the armed struggle in Ireland.

“Maura was raised on stories of Irish revolution, her worldview shaped as much by her parents’ experience of subjugation as by the New Deal and World War II,” writes Eileen Markey in her 2016 book, “A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura.”

After Maura finished high school at Stella Maris Academy, the pretty, independent-minded 19-year-old did what many young women did in Catholic neighborhoods in the late 1940s: she went to a convent.

Maura applied to the Maryknoll Sisters in Westchester, an order that specializes in missionary work overseas.

The Maryknolls were unique and ahead of their time. In addition to teaching Christian doctrine, “the Maryknoll Sisters know how to drive jeeps (and repair them), how to administer ­hypodermics and do major surgery,” according to a 1955 Time magazine cover story.

“I am not sure how I decided but during the past summer my mind gradually became surer that God had given me a vocation,” wrote Maura in the summer of 1950 while she was working as a clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue and preparing to enter the convent, according to Markey’s book.

Four years later, the Maryknoll Sisters sent the novitiate to work in one of the poorest parts of The Bronx.

Maura Clarke in the early 1980s with family in Nicaragua
Maura Clarke in the early 1980s with family in NicaraguaClarke Keogh Family

By 1959 she was ready for a new, overseas assignment: a dirt-poor gold-mining town in the jungles of Nicaragua, where opposition to long-ruling dictator Anastasio Somoza was building.

“Don’t worry, dear hearts, I’ll be careful and stay out of the riots and fights,” she wrote to her worried parents in Queens.

But Sister Maura could not stand on the sidelines.

She knew women in the parish who had been tortured and raped by government soldiers for their participation in the revolution, and helped some of them come forward to lodge complaints against their attackers.

When National Guard soldiers tried to arrest one of her former students — a young man who had joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front — Sister Maura flew into action.

According to Markey, she confronted the soldier, shouting at him to release her former student. The soldier told her to go back to her convent.

“THIS IS MY CONVENT!” she shouted, thrusting her finger ­toward the dusty, dry street. “This is my convent!”

During her 17 years in Nicaragua, where she organized food and health drives and lived through the devastation of the 1972 earthquake in Managua, Sister Maura’s charity turned to activism.

“Our perspective has always been that this is not only Maura’s story. All of those who have gone to El Salvador and were martyred are remembered.”

“She figured out about 1968, when she really started listening to poor people’s own analysis of their lives, that giving away shoes and charity wasn’t going to fix what was wrong with the world,” said Markey, who teaches journalism at Lehman College.

“People needed justice, a reordered society, that’s what people were struggling for.”

Sister Maura had returned to the US on a three-year work assignment when the Sandinistas marched on Managua in July 1979. She watched the victory and the end of the Somoza regime from her parents’ home in Rockaway.

A year later she would be sent back to Central America, this time on a far more dangerous mission. “The situation in El Salvador had exploded,” said Deirdre Keogh-Anderson, Maura’s niece.

“I remember that my grandparents didn’t want her to go, but Maura said that she couldn’t live with herself if she said ‘no.’”

Sister Maura was assigned to Chalatenango, a rural outpost near San Salvador where farmers were involved with unions organizing against the military junta.

Clarke’s letter to her mother asking for shoes mentioned they lived in tiny cubicles in a former seminary. Death was everywhere. People killed by roving military death squads were left to rot on the sides of roads. Some corpses had their hands tied behind their backs or their heads chopped off.

“Maura was horrified to see buzzards feeding on the dead,” writes Markey. “These were ­human beings, families, children, ‘blessed temples of the Lord.’ ”

It wasn’t long before Sister Maura was targeted for death herself.

She had helped the families of wounded combatants and was ­labeled a Communist insurgent by members of the National Guard, who pasted threats on the door of her modest parish.

A United Nations commission reported that the soldiers who were sent to kill Maura Clarke were acting on the orders of the country’s minister of defense.

But she was upbeat in her final letter to her parents.

“We are fine and learning so much from these brave but suffering people,” she wrote. “So many things that happened here remind me of what you went through, Dad, in your years of struggle for the liberation of ­Ireland.

“The human family will always search and yearn for liberation. Only when the Lord brings us home to heaven will we be truly free.”

On the night of Dec. 2, 1980, Sister Maura and three other American churchwomen were ambushed in their van as they made their way from the airport in San Salvador to Chalatenango, a nearly two-hour drive.

A United Nations commission reported two years later that the soldiers who were sent to kill Maura Clarke, her Maryknoll sister Ita Ford, Ursuline nun Dorothy Kazel and Catholic lay missionary Jean Donovan were acting on the orders of the country’s minister of defense.

Three of the women were raped. All were tortured. Their blood-soaked bodies were dumped into a shallow grave. Every anniversary of their murders, the four women are honored in a memorial service at the Maryknoll-Sisters Center.

A plaque commemorating Maura Clarke in St. Francis de Sales Church
A plaque commemorating Maura Clarke in St. Francis de Sales ChurchJ.C. Rice

“Our perspective has always been that this is not only Maura’s story,” said Sister Nonie Gutzler, president of the Maryknoll Sisters. “All of those who have gone to El Salvador and were martyred are remembered.”

For this reason, the order believes that if Sister Maura is under consideration for sainthood, all of the women who died with her should be accorded the same honor. In the Rockaways, there are plaques honoring Sister Maura’s memory as well as a stained-glass window in St. Francis de Sales church, where she and her family once worshiped.

Her tragic story is taught to ­students in the Catholic schools there, one of which awards a yearly academic scholarship in her name.

Four National Guardsmen were convicted of the murders in 1984 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. In 1998, they said from jail that they acted on “orders from above.”

In El Salvador, the civil war that lasted more than a decade ended in a ceasefire in 1992.

The rebels became a political party.

Today, Sunday, on what would have been her 88th birthday, the church will honor Sister Maura with a memorial mass.

“She lived the gospel and gave her life,” said Anne Marie Greene, director of religious education at St. Francis.

If the momentum builds to make Maura a saint, Greene said she would volunteer to do the research — a compendium of ­“heroic virtue” — that the Vatican requires for the application for beatification.

Said Greene: “She’s a saint in this neighborhood, whether she is ­acknowledged by the pope or not.”

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