Commemorating The Life of Sister Maura Clarke

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Thirty-five years ago, on December 2, 1980, a Rockaway lantern of selfless love, Maryknoll Sister Mary Elizabeth Clarke (affectionately called Maura by her family), was abducted, raped and executed, along with three other American churchwomen, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, a lay missionary and Ita Ford, by members of the National Guard of El Salvador.

It was the Cold War era in which El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Central America in general were on the frontlines of American foreign policy. Then President Ronald Reagan was rigorously fighting to prevent left-wing guerrilla leaders in the region from coming to power. However, Clarke and her fellow missionaries were war casualties whose selfless work with the poor, ultimately led to their horrific assassination, and opened the American public’s eyes to the U.S. government's support and training of Central American repressive regimes.

Some longtime Rockaway residents may remember Sister Maura Clarke’s family of Belle Harbor. According to the recently published book, “A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura,” by Eileen Markey, Mary McCloskey, Clarke’s mom, originally from County Antrim, Ireland, studied nursing in Dublin. Her dad, John, was born in Sligo. He had been involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and then the IRA. In 1922, when Irishmen were fighting each other in Dublin, John brought a wounded comrade to a convalescent home. Mary was the nurse who admitted them. That was the day she met John. They married in New York in 1930, where they had three children, Maura, Buddy and Judy. In 1934, the Clarkes moved to Rockaway, known then as “The Irish Riviera.” Maura attended St. Camillus, St. Frances de Sales (SFDS) and Stella Maris High School. Though she initially intended to become a teacher, she joined the Maryknoll Sisters in 1950, and made her first vows in 1953. Initially, as she stated in a letter on January 25, 1950, she had been attracted to Maryknoll by a deep desire “to become closer to God and to serve Him.”

And serve she did as a nun initially amongst immigrant communities in the Bronx before she dedicated her life to missionary work in Central America. According to Monsignor Martin Geraghty, who served as pastor of St. Francis de Sales for 18 years, now pastor emeritus of St. Robert Bellarmine parish in Bayside, Queens, Sister Clarke was the epitome of the Maryknoll faith. Geraghty said, “To this day, these sisters and priests continually dedicate their lives to helping the poor. As specifically stated in the book about Sister Clarke, the Maryknoll Sisters were concerned about the armed governments in Central America during the very turbulent late 1970s and early 1980s, and tragically lost their lives as missionaries just humbly working to help the oppressed. The power of their witness is in how they were able to identify with the poor who were suffering under the vicious dictatorship of these regimes.”

Msgr. Geraghty continued, “During this holiday season, though we are blessed to live in the U.S., with people lining up at the stores to grab the discounts, there are constant reminders of people around the world and the country, who are going without, due to hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters. However, the holiday season is a time when people do try to be generous with their giving. Along with getting the pair of shoes that they like, there are folks who still make the effort to donate to those in need. It’s a balance we should all mindfully make to help others, while enjoying the festivities of the season. We should think of the holidays not just as a receiving time, but as a giving time.”

Geraghty said he remembers Clarke’s family during his tenure serving at SFDS. “I knew Maura’s father. Mr. Clarke attended church in the late 1980s when he was still alive.” Though Maura’s body was buried in El Salvador, in keeping with the Maryknoll tradition that you are buried where you served, in the early 1980s, the Clarke family held a special mass for Maura commemorating her life at SFDS, which the family’s home parish.

Sister Clarke’s memory has been immortalized in the Rockaways at the now closed, Stella Maris High School, which housed the Maura Clarke Junior High School. Also today, the SFDS Catholic Academy has an honor society named after her, the Sister Maura Clarke National Junior Honor Society, whose mission (according to their website) is “to create enthusiasm for scholarship, stimulate a desire to render service, promote leadership, develop character, and to encourage good citizenship amongst students.” In Brooklyn, there is the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center, a social/educational institution for immigrant women.

According to Geraghty, another Maryknoll missionary’s life, Francis Xavier Ford who lost his life after cruelly beaten, tortured and killed as a missionary in China from 1919 to 1949, will be commemorated this weekend. Geraghty said, “Sister Clarke would have known about Bishop Ford, not knowing that years later, she would also become a martyr, brutally killed for serving the poor, but leaving a legacy that many today would not just admire, but try to emulate.”

(Eileen Markey author of  A RADICAL FAITH THE ASSASSINATION OF SISTER MAURA, will be at St. Francis de Sales Parish on Wednesday, December 6th at 7:00 p.m. in the church. There will be a chance to purchase a book and have it signed by the author.)

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