Document Sample
THE SISTERS Powered By Docstoc

             ―Religious women today have been moving out more and more, reaching the most

             abandoned places, places where others cannot or will not go. They have also drawn

             close to the poor, in genuineness and truth, the poor of the slums, the poor of working

             class neighborhoods, and especially the poor campesinos. Consecration to God today

             means service and dedication to the poor.‖

                                                                                       Jon Sobrino1

      In December 1986, Sr. Pat Farrell and Sr. Kay Koppes, Franciscan sisters from Iowa, arrived in El

Salvador to begin to work with the church. They had come to Central America earlier with several other

women religious from the United States, investigating possibilities for pastoral work in Guatemala and El

Salvador. After a period of discernment, they decided that they wished to work in the archdiocese of San

Salvador. The superior of their religious congregation had sent a letter introducing them to Archbishop

Arturo Rivera y Damas, but for some reason it never reached him. The sisters’ efforts to reach the

archdiocesan chancery by telephone were also in vain. The chancery had been abandoned after the

October 1986 earthquake, but the phone had not been shut off. Though the phone rang, their calls could

not be answered.

      Kay and Pat stopped first in Guatemala, originally hoping to reach El Salvador on December 2, the

anniversary of the killing of the four North American women missionaries in 1980. After a few delays

they arrived in El Salvador a day late, on December 3, the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, the patron of

Mother Xavier Termehr, the founder of their order, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family.

      After about three months, they were able to get an appointment to see Archbishop Rivera y Damas.

At that time the archbishop was under immense pressure from the government which did not look kindly

    Sobrino, 1988:154-5
on the presence of foreign religious workers. The sisters had prepared a two page, singled-spaced, typed

explanation of their reasons for working in El Salvador.

    The archbishop was at first not very enthusiastic about their proposal. At this time a good number of

internationals were coming to El Salvador to help the church but were sometimes involved with groups

that covertly supported one of the guerrilla factions.

    In the midst of the interview the archbishop asked the sisters about the founding charism of their


    Their congregation, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family, was founded in Herford, Germany,

in 1864 about the time of the Franco-Prussian War. At that time Sister Xavier Termehr, a member of an

order of French and German nuns, was working in Germany. When the motherhouse decided to recall all

the nuns to France, Sister Xavier could not see the reasonableness of this request in the face of the need

she was encountering in her work with war orphans. So she stayed and proceeded to found an order of

sisters who worked with these children and cared for the wounded on the battlefield. After the war, the

sisters were awarded the Iron Cross for their care for the victims of the fighting. Several years later,

however, when Bismarck initiated the Kulturkampf, the sisters were forced to leave Germany, together

with many other religious orders. The sisters arrived in the US in 1875 and eventually settled in Iowa.

    Archbishop Rivera y Damas was moved by this account of the origin of their community, founded in

the midst of war. He asked the date of their founding and noted that their work preceded the founding of

the International Red Cross. Sensing that the sisters were following the original charism of their order, he

gladly received them and welcomed their work in the archdiocese. ―You belong here,‖ he told them and

he continued to support them till his death in 1995.

    So, with his permission the sisters began their work in El Salvador.

    Kay is a nurse practitioner. Pat was trained in music but had served for seven years as a missionary in

Chile, working in the northern city of Arica and later in the capital, Santiago. In Santiago she was

involved with several human rights groups, including the Sebastián Aceveda Anti-Torture Movement and
the nonviolent organization, Servicio Paz y Justicia. She also worked for a time with the director of the

Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT).

    For about five months, while Kay went to study Spanish in Guatemala, Pat worked in the parish of

Santa Lucía in Ilopango where Fr. Fabián Amaya was pastor. The parish was called La Refineria – the

Refinery – since many religious who came to work in El Salvador without connection to a local

congregation went there while the pastor observed how they would work. During this time, Pat slept on a

bed in the sacristy and worked with a resettlement of refugees from Chalatenango who were living in the

parish. Every night she would eat with a different family so that no family would be burdened.

    When Kay returned from Guatemala, Pat and Kay went to work in Calle Real, an archdiocesan camp

for the internally displaced. Here they met people who had fled from the war in the countryside, including

some they would later work with in Suchitoto. Sister Peggy O’Neill, a Sister of Charity from New Jersey,

who was teaching theology at Iona College, joined them and spent most of her time driving the displaced

to medical and other appointments outside the camp. Peggy had met Pat in Chile while doing some

research there and she had been part of the group of religious women who had spent time in Central

America in 1986 discerning where they might serve. Sister Carol Besch, another Dubuque Franciscan,

also joined them.

    They were only present at Calle Real for a few months. While there, they took time to discern where

they would ask to work. The sisters finally decided that their first choice for ministry was in the

repopulated community of Copapayo. In October 1987, Pat had accompanied the first repatriation of

Salvadoran refugees from Mesa Grande, Honduras, and got to know the people who had settled in

Copapayo, a community near Suchitoto.

    Other pastoral workers advised them not to ask the archbishop for permission to work in a particular

community, especially one which might be tied to one faction of supporters of the FMLN. The archbishop

preferred that priests and women religious work on a parish level, so as to avoid being pulled in – and

possibly manipulated – by one or another faction of the FMLN. Many other missionaries were certain that

the sisters’ request to go to Suchitoto, especially to assist the repopulation of Copapayo, would be denied.
Many of the families in Copapayo had relatives who were fighting with the FMLN, mostly in the FPL and

RN factions. The repopulation had been largely supported by civilian organizations sympathetic to the

FPL. Furthermore, Copapayo was a very conflictive area and the army did not want the presence of

foreigners in these places.

    Finally, the four sisters approached the archbishop listing the three places where they would be

willing to work – Suchitoto, Nombre de Jesús in Chalatenango, and Cuscatancingo in the San Salvador


    During their interview, Archbishop Rivera asked them how they had determined their choices. After

they told him the process, he immediately agreed that they should go to Suchitoto. ―How could I deny

you after such a careful and prayerful discernment?‖ He would later send other religious considering

working in El Salvador to talk with them about their discernment process.

    So in January 1988 the archbishop assigned Sisters Pat, Kay, Carol, and Peggy to Suchitoto. Carol

decided to go to Guatemala for several months to study more Spanish before joining the others. After

many delays wrought by the government and the army, the other three finally made it to Suchitoto in

March. Their first night there, they received a call that Sister Peggy’s father had died in New Jersey.

Peggy left for the funeral and Kay and Pat decided it might be best if they waited to settle in until Peggy

returned. They returned to San Salvador.

    About four weeks later all four sisters returned to Suchitoto to begin their ministry in earnest. The

first night they were welcomed by an attack on Suchitoto by the FMLN, with fighting in their street. They

huddled in an interior room of the house. About a week later there was another attack. By this time they

were inured to the excitement and the people had them that bullets don’t penetrate the adobe walls of their

house. So their only precaution was to stay away from doors and windows.

    Peggy spent the entire first year in Suchitoto. In later years, until 1997, she spent half a year in

Suchitoto and half a year in the United States. For several years she continued teaching theology at Iona

College. She later taught in a theology program for lay leaders in Florida.
    At this time the pastor of Suchitoto was Fr. Armando Recinos who had stayed in Suchitoto during the

war. The sisters met regularly with him and worked in conjunction with him, although their pastoral

model was very different.

    They had arrived shortly before Holy Week. To get to know the rural communities, they spent the

first few days of Holy Week in the rural communities of El Barillo and Copapayo. They returned to the

city to take part in the religious processions and ceremonies at the end of the week, because they thought

it important that they be seen at all these events. This proved to be quite taxing; not only is Holy Week the

hottest time of the year, in Suchitoto the many processions and ceremonies are quite long.

    When the sisters arrived in early 1988, they were six rural communities, two of them government-

sponsored projects (Aguacayo and Ichanquezo), two communities of people who had returned after being

forced out of the area which were sympathetic to the FMLN (El Barillo and Copapayo), and Montepeque

and Estanzuelas.

    The people in Copapayo and El Barillo were delighted to see the sisters and wanted them to stay in

their communities. But the reception in Suchitoto was much cooler.

    Before going they had talked with Father Octavio Cruz who was from Suchitoto. They also sought

out the Dominican sisters who had run a school in Suchitoto. The sisters told them of a man who had been

their janitor. When Pat and Kay arrived they sought him out and found him working at the local school

just down the street from their house. They met him at the fence and told him who they were. In fear, he

immediately turned around and nearly ran away from them — so strong was the fear.

    In order to get to know the extent of their ministry in the town, the sisters started to take a census,

visiting people in their homes. But this proved to be too controversial and was soon abandoned.

    Their reception in some other places was better. A woman from Ichanquezo remembers their arrival.

She was at the reten at Las Guaras when the sisters came in a pick up and were stopped. Carmen had no

idea who they were and thought they were like all the other foreigners who came into the region for

projects in the morning and then left before nightfall. She had no idea, she later said, that they would

come into such close contact with the people. Soon after this, an agricultural extension agent from
Suchitoto came to Ichanquezo and told the people that some nuns had come, to bring not material aid but

spiritual aid. Carmen and the others were expecting nuns in habits. What a surprise to see these sisters

from the United States, in street clothes, who had come to live and share with them - and, as Carmen said,

to teach them to share.

    These early months were far from easy. The city and the countryside were in a war zone. Cannons in

a nearby park propelled bombs over their house toward the strongholds of the FMLN in the folds of the

Guazapa volcano southwest of town. Walking in the countryside was perilous - since at any time a

firefight might break out and they would have to join the people fleeing to places of safety away from the

gunfire and bombardments. For safety and for other reasons, all the sisters worked together and only went

out to the communities in pairs.

    Life in town was not easy. Electricity and water were often cut off - sometimes due to guerrilla

sabotage of the power lines, sometimes due to a farmer diverting a water line for his cattle.

    The sisters’ main work was assisting the repopulated rural communities. They accompanied the poor

and assisted the communities with aid projects sponsored by the archdiocese. They trained health

promoters and worked with agricultural loan programs. They also worked to call the people to grow in


    Their early efforts at pastoral work encountered obstacles.

    Soon after they arrived, the sisters went to Estanzuelas, a town just a few kilometers south of

Suchitoto, where a number of people had settled. They went to try to get the people involved in pastoral

work and to tell them about the aid programs the archdiocese offered to people returning to the

countryside. They brought a bible for the community and pictures of stories from the bible for the

children to color. A great crowd came out, but while the sisters were there soldiers searched and

ransacked three houses just behind where the sisters were speaking. The intimidation worked. The next

time the sisters came, no one joined them. The people had also burned the bible and the catechetical

materials the sisters had left.

    But there were small successes.
    All of them were doing some work with the catechists. During the first year they went with nine

catechists to four weekend workshops in Cojutepeque, sleeping on the floor with them. Feliz from

Ichanquezo, still involved in pastoral work, was one of those involved.

    The sisters also started to hold pastoral training sessions and weekend pastoral workshops. But the

ongoing conflict got in the way. Often only two-thirds of those expected would show up. The others

couldn’t get through due to the fighting.

    After a while, the sisters divided up the work. Carol worked primarily with the catechists; Peggy took

on agriculture; Kay, a nurse, worked in medicine, training midwives and health promoters.

    Pat, trained in music, considered working with a choir, but she knew that Don Alejandro Cotto had

his own choir. When she found out that it only sang for the annual July 16 celebration of the city of

Suchitoto, she began to form a choir. Her work with people in the choir lasted many years and has

produced much fruit.

    The sisters also wanted to work with youth in town. But this soon proved nearly impossible, since

two members of the armed forces attended the first youth group meeting to hear what these ―subversive‖

sisters were saying. Yet some of the youth joined the choir.

    The sisters provided some financial assistance to some groups in town. One popular effort was a loan

program for women in the town, especially those who worked in the market.


    What the sisters did can be looked at, in one sense, as simply doing the traditional works of mercy. 2

Yet in El Salvador in the 1980s the works of mercy gave the people courage and threatened the

government and the army.

  Cf. Matthew 25: 31-46. The traditional corporal works of mercy are: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirst,
sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, and burying the dead. The spiritual works of mercy
are: admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowing, bear wrongs patiently,
forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead.
    As a part of their pastoral work in the countryside the sisters visited Montepeque, a canton south of

Suchitoto, not too far from San José Guayabal. A number of these people had lived near Suchitoto in the

early 1980s but had left because of the war and had only recently returned to live in Montepeque. When

the sisters came, many of the people were so afraid they wouldn’t even open the doors. Yet Lucía

Olmeida de Vásquez welcomed them. Lucía had fled from her home in Chaparral near Suchitoto and had

lived in the San Salvador metropolitan area, but later returned to Montepeque. ―They came and took away

our fear,‖ Lucía once told me.

    The sisters’ work was, at first and throughout, a ministry of accompaniment. For soon after their

arrival, the people began to ask their help, especially in the face of the intense repression the people were


    Arbitrary arrests and disappearances were common in El Salvador throughout the 1980s. Death

squads and the army would pick up people who were considered subversive — sometimes merely

because of where they lived. Those who were arrested often faced torture which was regularly used by

government forces.3

    The people came and asked them to accompany them to the military barracks in town to seek relatives

or friends who had been picked up by the military or who had been disappeared. The sisters would also

accompany them to Tutela Legal, the Legal Aid office of the archdiocese, to denounce captures and


    The sisters’ presence reassured them, but the people’s fear was so intense that when they went to a

military base they wouldn’t leave the sisters’ presence.

    These acts of accompaniment were very significant. Their presence provided hope for the imprisoned

and their families and was a sign of the presence of the Church in the communities.

    Soon before Pat left El Salvador in June 1996, she visited El Barillo. There Valentín, a community

leader, spoke of the many ways she and the other sisters had aided them. Once when he was captured,

 Cf. Americas Watch, El Salvador’s Decade of Terror: Human Rights since the Assassination of Archbishop
tortured, and held for about seventeen days by the military, the sisters assisted the people who went

around seeking him, as the army moved him from one place to another. At one point, one of his captors

told Valentin, ―You’re lucky, cabrón [bastard], that there are people seeking you.‖

    Another time, late one afternoon, Valentín and several others arrived in Suchitoto on their way back

to El Barillo from the capital. When the army met them, they asked first to see the local priest, Fr.

Recinos, and asked him to let them stay in the convento. When he said no, they asked to be taken to the

sisters. They soldiers agreed, but Valentín and the others insisted that Fr. Recinos accompany them to the

sisters’ house. The sisters took them in and gave them a floor to sleep on that night. Many other times

they took in people and let them sleep in their front room, especially when people were in town at

nightfall and had no way to return safely to their rural communities.

    As Valentin recalled these events he noted that the situation the people faced in those days was

extremely difficult. There was this immense comandancia, the headquarters, of the military in Suchitoto,

a real threat to the people. But, better than that, there was the sisters’ house, the comandancia de

Jesucristo, Jesus Christ’s command post!

    From this ―command post‖ the sisters reached out to the communities in many ways.

    The communities of El Barillo and Copapayo had arrived in the zone with lots of fanfare. Though

they received much international assistance they still needed food, agricultural and construction supplies,

and medicine to survive and to develop. Other communities that entered later came with even greater

needs since many of them did not have the international support that came to some communities that were

closely tied to the FPL.4

    The religious communities of El Salvador through the ecumenical group Diakonía provided

assistance of many kinds to the rural communities. Communities received basic food stuffs for about a

year after returning to the countryside. Construction materials for basic huts came from a number of

  The SHARE Foundation has provided significant support to many communities throughout El Salvador, including
Copapayo and El Barillo. But the foundation has tended to assist communities and projects that had ties to the FPL.
COCODA was later formed and has assisted RN-related communities and projects but has had access to much less
sources. The sisters helped coordinate efforts between the communities and the archdiocesan Social


    Many communities needed basic technical support.           Some technical assistance came from the

archdiocesan Social Secretariat. But Peggy contracted a local agronomist to help the communities with

agricultural products and she helped administer agricultural loans from the archdiocese.

    There were also groups with little experience in organization. One effort of the sisters was to assist in

the formation of a fishermen’s cooperative. Peggy and Pat worked for several years helping the fishermen

at San Juan, a village by the lake below Suchitoto. They eventually formed an agro-fishery coop of 100

members. However, due to a number of reasons, including the over-fishing of the lake, the cooperative

ceased to function in the late 1990s.

Education was sadly lacking in the area. Because of the war many children and adults had not been able

to get much education beyond the first or second grade.

    There was an elementary school in Suchitoto. But in the rural communities there were only

rudimentary efforts at education. Some people in the communities had served as teachers in the early

1980s under the direction of the FMLN. Others had obtained basic teaching skills in refugee camps in

Honduras or in displaced persons’ camps in El Salvador. But the government did not provide teachers in

the rural areas and the school buildings were in ruins.

    The archdiocese had several programs to assist in the training of popular teachers and also worked

with several international organizations to provide funding for schools. There were also some efforts to

rebuild the physical infrastructure. In September 1991 the community of La Mora dedicated a school

which had been built with the assistance of the archdiocese and the government of Sweden. Carol was

responsible for coordinating much of this work.

    Carol also worked with the training of catechists. She would provide workshops for the people in

their communities and bring materials. By the early 1990s there were scores of catechists and the more

experienced catechists would help train the new catechists.

    Health work was an important dimension of the sisters’ ministry.
    Soon after arriving, Kay began to attend to the health needs of the people, especially in the rural

communities. The archdiocese had a very developed health program, CAPS, which provided training of

health promoters and provided medicine and supplies to many communities. Kay helped coordinate health

efforts with the archdiocese.

    She trained health promoters and midwives for the rural communities, coordinating training sessions

in town in the convento as well as in rural areas. The training of these health workers, mostly women,

played an important role in trying to address the serious health problems of the communities and helped

to develop people who had some basic skills not only in health but also in leadership.

    Bringing medical supplies into the Suchitoto area proved a daunting task. The army was afraid that

the medicine was going to help the guerrillas. Of course, some did end up helping them, but that was not

the primary purpose. Furthermore, the right of medicine for all people is guaranteed by international


    The sisters were stopped at the military check point at Las Guaras and the parish pick up was

searched thoroughly. Only once were they able to pass by without a thorough search.

    Various subterfuges were used to bring in medicine. Infants in arms might have medicines hidden in

their blankets. Kay also obtained medicines from at least one pharmacist in town.

    But the war also brought the sisters into direct contact with death. During the war it was dangerous

for people to bury guerrillas who had been killed in combat. So at times it fell to the sisters and the parish

priest to recognize corpses, bury the dead or inform family members of a death.

    Sister Carol recalls traveling in 1991 to the dedication of the school in La Mora and finding a body of

a woman guerilla on the road.

    The same year shortly before the end of the war two young guerrillas were killed during the last

FMLN attack on the town of Suchitoto. That morning the sisters were visiting El Sitio with a visiting

member of their congregation. When they heard the attack they returned to Suchitoto as soon as they

could. Kay went throughout the town and found that there were only two people wounded by stray

bullets. About four that afternoon a farmer from town came to the sisters’ house and told them that his son
had found two dead guerrillas in his cornfield near the entrance of town. From his description of the dead,

Nancy thought one of the dead was a young man she knew, Moises, the fifteen year old son of a family in

La Mora. She decided to go with the farmer to the judge since before burial a judge had to examine the

corpses if the death was unexpected or questionable. The judge refused to go claiming it was a guerrilla

trap; he would go out the next morning. Nancy asked the farmer if he thought it was a trap. No, he said,

the FMLN is gone. So he and Nancy went out to check the bodies. When they arrived at the spot, one

body was gone but the remaining corpse was that of Moises from La Mora. Since they could not bury the

body they left it there. Yet, before leaving, in a moving gesture, the farmer made a cross of straw and

placed it on the boy’s chest. The next day Nancy went to La Mora and told Moises’ mother of his death.

Moises’ father was out seeking his body, which they did not at that time find.

    In this case and in many others ways the sisters provided comfort the families of the departed.

    As is readily apparent, the sisters’ ministry was not easy and was in fact very dangerous. When they

walked out to the countryside they experienced the military checkpoints, witnessed the military’s

aggressive tactics — bombings, military incursions, and attacks from helicopters. When a fire fight

started or bombs began to drop they would join the people seeking a place of safety.

    At times they found themselves in the midst of a battle.

    One Lent Carol was doing missions in the area of La Mora and Los Almendros. One day, while

walking toward Los Almendros she observed some gunfire and surmised there might be a battle between

the FMLN further up the Guazapa volcano and government troops closer to the towns. All of a sudden, a

large group of soldiers came running toward her. She did not know what to do, but continued walking. As

she walked along a military commander stopped her and asked what she was doing there. She explained

her role in the parish and then walked on. Soon after this some men from La Mora came and took her to a

watermelon patch where they were loading the harvest on a truck. They hid her there until it was safe for

her to leave. Someone had overheard the army commander on his walkie talkie inquiring what to do with

the gringa nun he ran into. The people feared that he would return to capture her and take her away to the

    As can be surmised from what has already been recounted, the sisters’ presence was not looked upon

kindly by the government forces in the area. The sisters were often accused of being subversives,

communists, guerrillas.

    But the sisters’ work was not allied to any group. Though they worked with the rural communities

and knew many guerrillas and guerrilla sympathizers, their work transcended ideological boundaries. But

the army felt threatened by them and would have liked to see them gone.

    There were many restrictions placed on their work by the military. There was even one attempt to

expel them from Suchitoto. One night in January 1989, when only Carol and Kay were at home, a soldier

from the base arrived with an order for them to leave town. After making several calls, the archbishop

intervened. A soldier arrived later and asked them to return the order to leave. When the sisters later

inquired about the reason for the order, military personnel intimated that it was at the instigation of

Alejandro Cotto.

    The army considered them their enemies and would have preferred them to leave the area. But in the

midst of this, they were strongly supported by Archbishop Rivera y Damas.

    The story is told that a priest who was talking with the Archbishop Rivera about possibly working in

Suchitoto expressed his concern that the sisters were guerrillas. The archbishop stood up and pounded his

fist on the desk: ―They are not guerrillas.‖

    The sisters were very clearly carrying out Archbishop Rivera’s vision of work with the poor, the

marginalized, the victims of war. The archbishop believed the church should avoid identification with any

faction. Parish-based work with the displaced and the repopulations was therefore critical. There was a

great wisdom to this, though many questioned the archbishop’s commitment to the poor. But in his way,

Rivera way trying to help the people and to avoid the in-fighting among the five FMLN factions or lessen

its impact on the lives of the people. This was extremely important in the Suchitoto municipality where

four of the five factions were represented.

    Despite this, the rumors flew about the ―communist’ nuns and the ―communist‖ priest, Fr. Alberto

Menjívar, who had arrived in the parish in December 1988 to replace Fr. Recinos. Some said the sisters
had come to train the guerrillas and to teach the people how to use rifles. As one woman told me, when

Kay would meet with women in the streets of Suchitoto to talk about loan programs, the army suspected

that she was trying to get the women to support the guerrillas. At least one article appeared in El Diario

de Hoy critical of the work of the church in Suchitoto. This article – and the earlier attempt to throw the

sisters out of Suchitoto – probably owe something to Alejandro Cotto who wrote for El Diario de Hoy.

    This was a truly dangerous ministry. Others had been killed by the military for less.


    The sisters’ work continued to grow and the people trusted them more and more. Pastoral work,

agricultural support, and projects for health promoters and midwives brought more people in contact with

the sisters — and brought more life to the communities.

    At the same time new communities came to establish resettlements in the countryside. When the first

four sisters had arrived in 1988 there were only six rural communities in the parish. By the time Sister

Nancy Meyerhofer arrived in 1990, there were 26.


    The development of the local church demanded the training of catechists in the local communities, a

task that Sister Carol undertook with great skill and sensitivity to the needs of the people.

    Carol helped catechists develop a basic understanding of their faith and she trained them in ways to

use a popular, participative methodology in their teaching.

    These efforts faced many obstacles. Some of the catechists were very young and some could barely

read. They were all very poor and had to bring their own meals to the training sessions. In the countryside

they would meet wherever they could, in people’s houses, in the ruins of the church, under trees, in

communal buildings, often fashioned from buildings devastated by the war.
    Carol held regular training sessions, sometimes in Suchitoto, sometimes in the communities where

she would bring together people from that particular geographical area of the parish. Some catechists

were also sent to music workshops offered by Equipo Maiz.5

    There was a major effort to get the parents involved. The catechists in each community were

responsible for leading a monthly meeting of the parents of the children, which included materials for the

catechetical formation of the parents. These were not merely meetings to hear about what their children

were doing; they were attempts to get the parents to understand their faith more fully.

     Carol also gave experienced catechists major roles in the training programs. For example, in 1992,

experienced catechists accompanied and trained new catechists during the months when Carol was out of

the country on vacation in the US.

    The materials used were very basic, often with a strong connection to the experience of the people,

inspired by the liberating style of theology espoused by the Latin American bishops at Medellín and

Puebla. The Archdiocesan Pastoral Office and Equipo Maiz produced these materials in the popular

education style, which use cartoon images and very simple language. Tapes were also used. The baptism

preparation program used a series of tapes available from Equipo Maiz that stressed the importance of

community and the justice dimensions of faith.

    The material offered a vision of a faith that does justice. Some was quite radical emphasizing the

connection of faith and social change.


    Many years during Lent the sisters would develop materials to be used in each community. They

would also visit communities and lead missions in various communities during Lent. The sisters would

  Equipo Maiz is an organization formed in the early 1980s which has promoted popular education and provided
training and materials that use the methodology of liberating education promoted by Brazilian Paolo Freire. For
many years they also provided materials for religious education from the perspective of liberation theology and ran
workshops in education, in music, and in women’s issues. In recent years they have produced a wide range of
documentary materials on El Salvador.
come for three or four days and assist the pastoral workers in each community with nightly meetings as

well as pastoral visits to people in their homes during the day.

    During Lent they also provided materials for the Stations of the Cross. The Stations of the Cross are a

Catholic devotion commemorating in fourteen stations, or stops, the journey of Jesus from his

condemnation by Pilate to his burial. In El Salvador many communities gather on Friday afternoons

during Lent to pray the stations. Crosses are set up outside people’s homes and the community goes from

one station to another and offers prayers; a meditation is often read.

    In 1992, the sisters distributed booklets of the Stations of the Cross developed by Equipo Maiz for use

in the communities. The text of the stations had a very strong message of liberation for the poor and was

especially sensitive to the concerns of women. Note, for example, this meditation on the tenth station,

Jesus is stripped of his garments:

            Jesus was born a poor man in a manger and dies a poor man on the cross. He never had

        anything and the little he had they took away from him. They left him naked.

            So today they also take the rights of the poor away from them. They leave them with nothing

        and take away even the little they have. The ambition of the few causes the misery of many


            Jesus teaches us to share and not to take away from others what they have.

    The meditation on the sixth station, Veronica wipes the face of Jesus, reads:

            Men like Peter and the rest, who think themselves courageous, abandon Jesus.

            This woman did not abandon him; she was there even though she was the only one to clean

        his face, full of blood and sweat.

            Today there are also women who face the most difficult task and carry them out in the home

        and in the wider community.

    In providing the people with this type of material the sisters and Father Alberto encouraged the

people to live their faith in a way that critically responded to the injustice and oppression they were


    As noted above, early efforts at youth work were not very successful. But soon after Sister Nancy

Meyerhofer arrived in August 1990, youth work took on a new life under her direction.

    Nancy is another Franciscan sister from Iowa. She had worked twice before with Pat Farrell, first in

San Antonio, Texas, and then in Arica, Chile. Before she came to Suchitoto, Nancy had worked for ten

years in Chile, seven of them with Pat Farrell in Arica. Her expertise in youth work proved an important

compliment to the other sisters’ ministries.

    The other sisters introduced to Nancy the communities. Her first trip to the countryside was

memorable. Kay and she walked out in the midst of intense fighting. Undeterred, she soon began working

to form youth groups in the city and the countryside. Because of her work, she began to go out to the

countryside alone.

    For Nancy, development of youth as local leaders is central to an effective youth ministry. She began

her work with a group of young people mostly from town which formed the group, Cristos Jovenes -

Young Christs. She provided major formation and leadership development for this group of talented

young people. This group became a major force in the development of youth ministry on the parish.

    After her first year there were about seven youth groups in the parish, including Cristos Jovenes But

early on she held missions for the youth in Caulote and Suchitoto from which two youth groups in the city

and one in Caulote emerged. A group in the rural community of San Rafael was soon formed. After a

Pascua Juvenil, a special Holy Week activity for youth, groups had been started in Haciendita I and La


    One of Nancy’s goals was to break down fears and divisions between the youth in the city and the

countryside. To do this she would often bring youth from town with her when she went out to the rural

communities. Overnight training sessions (capacitaciones) in Suchitoto brought together youth from all

parts of the parish.
    Nancy saw the need for group monitors in each community and for developing leadership among the

youth. But young people, not adults, had to be the leader of youth group.

    These young leaders did not confine their role to maintaining their groups. They reached out to other

young people. When Nancy left El Salvador for a month’s vacation in fall 1993, she returned to find that

members of Cristos Jovenes had helped form two new groups in Suchitoto. Many of the members of

Cristos Jovenes have helped in the formation of other youth groups, both in town and in the countryside.

    At the height of her youth work there were 30 groups and 55 leaders in the parish. After the war

ended, with more things for youth to do, fewer were involved in church youth groups. But even in 1994

there was a youth encounter for the youth in the department of Cuscatlán. Over 300 young people came

from the parish of Suchitoto. As late as May 1997 there were still 35 leaders.

    Nancy’s formation work has paid off. Cristos Jovenes has been the source of many leaders in the

church and the community. Some have gone on to study at the university, aided by scholarships Nancy

obtained from groups in the US. In 2002 the youth work in El Barillo was being sustained by Nico who

was a member of the youth group that began there early in the 1990s.


    The role of women is a major problem in El Salvador, especially in a culture suffused with machismo.

A major and very successful effort of Pat and Peggy has been assisting in the formation of a women’s

movement in Suchitoto.

    Their work began during the war with simple sex education. They had found that some women were

only vaguely aware of the connection between intercourse and pregnancy. To address this lack of basic

knowledge they arranged for some gender and sexuality workshops for women which were facilitated by

Equipo Maiz.

    Yet as the work progressed resistance arose among the men. In a clear case of projection some men

complained that if women knew their menstrual cycles and the times when they could become pregnant

the women would be able to have affairs and not get pregnant!
    The sisters also provided opportunities for women to meet together and to pray using rituals full of

symbols that reflected women’s experiences.

    In 1992 Sisters Pat and Peggy were very intimately involved in efforts to bring together the various

women’s group in the area. Several FMLN groups were forming their own women’s groups and getting

money for parallel projects. Pat’s hope was that in this one area, at least, people from the different left

groups could cooperate. And so it happened. In due time, the women formed the Concertación de las

Mujeres de Suchitoto, the Suchitoto Women’s project.

    One of the first and lasting projects of the Concertación was domestic violence. A Committee for the

Defense of Women was started to provide counseling and legal help for abused women. In 1992 it was

still responding to the continuing cases of domestic abuse. There were also some women’s committees in

communities which work on domestic violence.

    The Concertación initiated a literacy program for women. At first they used material developed in

Nicaragua using Paolo Freire’s method of literacy training. The generative words used were very

intimately connected with the reality women experience in a macho society. The materials proved much

too provocative and some men began to forbid women to go to the classes. Other materials were

substituted and the literacy program continued for about eight years until the funding sources dried up.

    A third goal of the Concertación was to try to change one of the sexist provisions of the 1992 Peace

Accords. As part of the accords, ex-combatants were offered land or educational scholarships. Yet ex-

combatant women who were married or living with male ex-combatants were not offered land. The

women were indignant. But nothing came of their protests.

    In 2001 the Concertación de las Mujeres de Suchitoto with their new coordinator, Sonia Clavel,

obtained legal status, persona jurídica, with the Suchitoto City Hall.

    After the war, the Archdiocese also had a program for the development of women, including the

formation of promoters of women in communities. The sisters were somewhat in involved in these

       Thus Pat and Peggy were major forces for the empowerment of women in Suchitoto and in the


       Pat’s musical ability has played an important role in the Salvadoran women’s movement. For the

second anniversary celebration of the return to El Barillo, Pat wrote the words and music for a song to

celebrate the role of women in the repopulated communities. A few years later some women who worked

in the archdiocesan social secretariat on women’s issues asked Pat if she knew of anything which could

be used in the work. She found the scrap of paper on which she had written the song and tried to

remember the melody. She recorded it and sent it to the archdiocesan office. Later a group, Teosinte,

recorded it and it became the anthem of the Salvadoran women’s movement

       The song begin reads, in part:

           Salvadoran woman, worker and campesina,

           I sing to your hands, so tender and strong,

           your hands which know so much -

           how to make tortillas and how to caress,

           your hands which work for a new society.7


       In these and in many other ways, the sisters themselves were responsible for much of the training and

development of the people. But they also took advantage of programs offered throughout El Salvador and

connected people in Suchitoto with these other opportunities. Such programs played an essential part in

the formation and advancement of the people and the communities of Suchitoto.

       The Archdiocese had several programs with emphasis on training people. CAPS from the archdiocese

helped in the formation of health promoters. Professionals from the Archdiocesan Social Secretariat

assisted communities in all sorts of ways. Nancy often took young people to the events for youth

    For more information, confer Best & Hussey: 96-119.
    The full text of the song in Spanish and English is found in an appendix.
organized by the Archdiocesan Youth Ministry office. She also worked with the office and with others

involved in youth work in the deanery of the department of Cuscatlán.

    The archdiocese and other groups also provided much popular education material.

    Equipo Maiz, a Salvadoran organization promoting popular education, has played an important role in

the education and empowerment of the poor in El Salvador. For many years they provided written

materials for use by catechists and others involved in popular education projects. These included music

resources and games for meetings. The sisters used many of these materials in this work.

    Equipo Maiz workshops provided opportunities for people to learn not just about specific topics but

also about how to educate people using popular methodology patterned after the work of Paolo Freire.

    Early on, Carol took some catechists to Equipo Maiz music workshops. Nancy, when she came, took

youth to their annual programs on Romero. She also took a small group from the youth choir to an annual

music workshop which Equipo Maiz offered. When they returned they would teach the choir what they

had learned.

    The presence of people from the parish at these programs helped give them the knowledge and the

confidence needed.


    The sisters’ presence not only encouraged the people but also at times acted as a deterrent to the

efforts of government forces to harass and harm the people.

    One time when Pat Farrell was visiting El Barillo, the army had come and was preparing to take a

number of men away. The women and children immediately surrounded the men. Pat marveled at the

resistance of the women, probably planned. But her presence probably added to the consternation of the

troops who might fire on defenseless women and children, as they had in the past. But a U.S. nun was

there, too, to observe and tell.

    Pat tells a slightly different story about another time she was in El Barillo. She and Carol Besch had

gone to El Barillo to do a session on base communities. Carol was still in the process of getting her
immigration papers. This was also the time when the sister had to report to the army each time they went

out to visit the communities.

    The commander didn’t want to let the sisters go, claiming that there was military activity in the area.

The sisters argued that they had to go — the people had already killed chickens for a meal. The

commander relented but insisted that they return to Suchitoto that evening.

    As they approached El Barillo, they met Valentin, a member of the directiva, who was leaving the

community. He told them that the military was roaming throughout the community.

    The sisters proceeded and held the meeting, which was well attended. But as the soldiers stood at the

edge of the meeting, the people were becoming less participative and more and more anxious. The sisters

decided to take a break, during which they decided to suspend the meeting.

    Meanwhile, other soldiers had been scouring the community, looking for one man, who had managed

to evade them.

    At this point the people asked the sisters to stay, since they were afraid of what might happen with the

soldiers present in the community. The sisters decided that Carol should return to Suchitoto and report to

the base that Pat couldn’t return — she was sick. Carol left on a tractor, driven by the man sought by the

army, and made it safely back to town.

    Later that evening Pat went to sleep in a mud-walled hut by the side of the road that goes through the

community. In the middle of the night, a battle broke out nearby and she could hear shots on the other

side of the road. Finally, she decided to move – thin mud walls don’t stop bullets. She got out and stooped

behind a low wall, where she found other members of the community. Finally, the whole group managed

to move behind a higher wall, where others were already huddling.

    All of a sudden a group of soldiers appeared — members of the PRAL, a special forces battalion —

their faces full of hate. Slowly the soldiers brought more and more people to a clearing where the soldiers

began to interrogate the people.

    For Pat, it had all the makings of a potential massacre — the people all assembled in one place,

soldiers from the special forces just out of a battle, full of hate and fear.
    The soldiers proceeded to take out a list and began to read the names, calling those named to come

forward. No one came forward. So the army ordered all to show their cedulas, their identity cards. As the

soldiers began to pull people out and put them in a separate group, Pat walked over to that group and

stood with them.

    At one point Pat had to go to the bathroom and slipped into an outhouse just behind the group. While

she was inside, the troops begin to beat some of the people. But when she appeared they stopped, as if

they’d been ordered not to harm civilians in the presence of foreigners.

    Finally, the soldiers left. And the people went on with life as if nothing had happened.

    What had happened? The army had set up camp the night before just across from the community,

trying to use the community as a shield against the FMLN. They had also mined the area. But the FMLN

forces got through the minefield, attacked the army troops, and killed about nineteen soldiers. One

guerrilla had been wounded and the army thought he was being hidden within the community. He had

been wounded in the community near a house, but someone threw a hammock out to the FMLN who

carried him away as they retreated. The army had searched all the houses for him, but to no avail.

    Such dramatic events were not the only way the sisters’ presence helped the people. The day Pat

related this story in January 1995, she casually mentioned that on that very day she saw a man on the

street talking with a friend; on seeing Pat, he remarked, ―She saved my life.‖

    He had been captured by the army and taken to their barracks in Cojutepeque. The interrogations,

accompanied by torture, were almost too much for him. He was at the point of attempting an escape — an

almost certain death! But Pat had arrived at the base, asking for him. Her mere visit had given him

enough hope that he decided not to attempt a suicidal attempt to escape.

    The mere power of their presence, accompanying the people, was a central aspect of their mission, a

type of evangelization which was really good news to the poor.

    One time during the war the community of Copapayo had been experiencing a continuing presence of

a large number of government troops. The people were so fearful that they asked the sisters to come out.

Pat and another sister came. But somehow, Canal 12, one of the national television stations heard of the
troops and sent four or five reporters and cameramen out. They couldn’t get through the roadblock on the

main road from San Martín to Suchitoto, but went round it on back roads through Istagua, Guayabal, and

Montepeque. When they finally got to Copapayo they started filming. But as night fell, they asked where

the sisters were staying so they could sleep near them. They all slept together on the floor in a champita, a

small hut. Even the journalists were afraid and they recognized the moral force of the sisters’ presence.

    At times the sisters intervened directly to prevent captures of civilians by the Salvadoran military.

Peggy tells of the time she stepped between soldiers and a man they were planning to arrest at one of the

retenes, a roadblock the army maintained on the road between San Martin and Suchitoto. Peggy is a tall

big woman. The small soldiers probably did not know what to do with this light-haired, Irish American

nun and let the man go. However, soon after the confrontation, the commander of the local barracks

called in the nuns and Father Alberto, the pastor. The commander spoke to Alberto about chains of

command in the military. ―I know,‖ he added, ―that there are chains of command in the church.‖ The

priest should keep ―his‖ nuns under control. When Peggy told this story, she could hardly control her

laughter — to think that Alberto could control these sisters!


    Coming to an undeveloped country from North America brings both advantages and drawbacks.

Some come with the idea that since they have so much knowledge and education they can help those poor

people with programs for their advancement. Such cultural imperialism was seen in the Spanish

Conquest, in the arrival of the British in Central America in the 1800s, and in the US development

policies in the 1960s.

    But what many US religious, especially women, brought to countries like El Salvador has been a

model of democratic participation, sustained by an ethic of solidarity and mutuality.

    This model of democratic participation had its roots in the opening up of the Catholic Church by the

Second Vatican Council and by some aspects of the renewal of religious life in the church, especially

efforts to recover the founding charism of different orders and congregations.
    The model of democratic participation was also inspired by these women’s experience in their

religious communities and in the changes that feminism brought to the church in the US, especially

among women religious.

    But the model also was inspired by the experience of Latin American base communities and by

liberation theology, not as an academic discipline but as a reflection on the lived experience of the poor in

Latin America and elsewhere.

    This new way of being a missionary happened in part because in the early 1960s the church in the US

had responded to the call of the pope to send priests and religious to work in Latin America. Many

returned to the US to bring the harsh reality of life to the attention of people in the US. But some returned

to Latin America with a deepened understanding of a theology and a pastoral practice that starts from the

experience of the poor.

    The ―option for the poor‖ became a hermeneutical principle for many of these new missionaries.

Their pastoral practice started with an understanding that the poor are to play a part as the subjects of


    These sisters came to Suchitoto with experiences of pastoral practice and theology based in Latin

American and feminist liberation theology.8

    But the sisters also came with some very specific skills, including nursing, organization, group

facilitation, music, religious education and youth work. By using their skills and applying them to the

situation, by empowering the people to become leaders, the sisters recovered some of the values of

pastoral practice which Chencho Alas had used in the early 1970s and brought new values, especially

regarding the role of women in the world and the church.

    As they worked more independently in the late 1990s, their skills in the area of mental health have

been especially important in an environment wrought with trauma.

 For a good description of pastoral methodology from a liberation perspective, see Clodovis Boff’s Como trabajar
con el pueblo. (1986)

       The sisters’ ministry, at base, was a ministry of accompaniment.

       In his fourth pastoral letter, ―The Church’s Mission and the National Crisis,‖ Archbishop Oscar

Romero had articulated a ministry of accompaniment. For him that meant the personal evangelization of

the individuals or groups of Christians, who have made the concrete political option that, they believe in

good conscience, represents the historical commitment of their faith.‖9 This emphasis on presence to

political organizations

       Accompaniment later came to be understood in a broader sense as the presence of pastoral workers

among the poor, being with them, witnessing their struggles, assisting them when asked and needed. At

times it was thought of as a presence among the poor that might provide some protection since those who

accompanied often came from a privileged position. But at this best, accompaniment is a ministry of

being there, of sharing in the lives and struggles of the people, not directing them but being with them and

assisting as co-workers.

       The sisters truly accompanied the people.

       As Sister Pat Farrell has written:

                We slept in their homes, we ate at their tables, played with their children. We mourned and

           cried with them, especially over news of loved ones killed with the military. We celebrated with

           them, sometimes with formal liturgies, sometimes with rituals of our own making. Often we

           danced with them, in the dust, or in the rain and mud, at times until dawn. We accompanied them

           to offices of human rights groups to denounce the atrocities going on around us. We prayed with

           them and tried together to make sense of the horrors we were experiencing. We also helped them

           to manage the international solidarity aid channeled through the archdiocese in the form of food,

           medicine, provisional housing material, low interest loans for seed and fertilizer, etc. We all did

    in Voice of the Voiceless: 154.
           pastoral work, surfacing and preparing the new leaders brave enough to assume responsibility

           after former catechists and delegates of the word had been murdered.10

       The significance of the sisters’ work thus cannot be measured merely in terms of the leaders they

trained, the programs they supported, the lives they saved. It is best seen as a way that their presence

made God’s presence more real for the people.

       Sister Peggy O’Neill uses the term walking as a way to understand the ministry of accompanying.

                When I think of my many years here in Suchitoto, El Salvador, I literally and figuratively

           think of ―walking.‖ We do a lot of walking. Over the years, especially during the war, there were

           no vehicles traveling over the roads in our zone. The roads were in terrible disrepair and some

           areas were still mined. There were no buses, or trucks, or means of transportation except between

           Suchitoto and San Salvador. So walking was and still is a way of life here. And in fact, the style

           of pastoral work we tried to implement was that of walking with the people, accompanying them,

           at their pace, and in the direction they wanted to go, placing leadership in their hands. Walking

           with these people for hours at a time sharing silence, stories, laughter, worries, fears, and dreams

           made the Holy Thursday celebration of the washing of feet so much more poignant because these

           people frequently walk barefoot.11

       Because of this close connection with the people’s daily lives, the sisters were a source of hope for

the people; as Lucía said, ―they came and took away our fear.‖

       They provided pastoral presence in the communities and were a sign of the presence of the church in

the midst of war and suffering.

       When people heard that the sisters were living and working in Suchitoto, they often said. ―All of us, if

we had any means, would have gotten out of here. Why would any one one’s own free will enter the

zone?‖ Soldiers at checkpoints were quite surprised when saw in their documents that the sisters were

living in Suchitoto. Others came into Suchitoto to provide assistance but went back to the relative safety

     Bordes: 68
and comfort of San Salvador in the evening. This presence was significant for the people. ―That we were

there was a comfort for them,‖ said Carol.

    Accompaniment also meant that while the sisters walked with the people they too were learning.

    This mutuality can be seen in a story that Sister Carol Besch recalled. Even as the sisters calmed

people’s fears by their presence, the reverse also happened.

    Carol remembers the time when Jesús from El Barillo came to ask her to accompany him to the base

in town. He had come directly to the house, since a man had been taken from the bus at a reten. He

wanted the military to admit that they had him. She was alone in the house and had never done this alone.

But praying and praying she went. Yet she thought, ―When I am so afraid, what about this man?‖

    Carol asked him if he was afraid. He said that he had been a political prisoner and at one time death

would have been his greatest friend. But, he said, ―I decided that before change comes about, more will

have to give their lives.‖

    ―I felt a change in myself,‖ Carol said. ―Not having suffered myself, I could sense the courage that the

people had and got courage from them.‖

    Because of this, there is still a deep and tender love of the sisters among the people. And the sisters

themselves have been moved by the people. As Sister Nancy once remarked, ―To be appreciated by the

poor is the greatest accolade.‖