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A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura

A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura

by Eileen Markey

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On a hot and dusty December day in 1980, the bodies of four American women-three of them Catholic nuns-were pulled from a hastily dug grave in a field outside San Salvador. They had been murdered two nights before by the US-trained El Salvadoran military. News of the killing shocked the American public and set off a decade of debate over Cold War policy in Latin


On a hot and dusty December day in 1980, the bodies of four American women-three of them Catholic nuns-were pulled from a hastily dug grave in a field outside San Salvador. They had been murdered two nights before by the US-trained El Salvadoran military. News of the killing shocked the American public and set off a decade of debate over Cold War policy in Latin America. The women themselves became symbols and martyrs, shorn of context and background.

In A Radical Faith, journalist Eileen Markey breathes life back into one of these women, Sister Maura Clarke. Who was this woman in the dirt? What led her to this vicious death so far from home? Maura was raised in a tight-knit Irish immigrant community in Queens, New York, during World War II. She became a missionary as a means to a life outside her small, orderly world and by the 1970s was organizing and marching for liberation alongside the poor of Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Maura's story offers a window into the evolution of postwar Catholicism: from an inward-looking, protective institution in the 1950s to a community of people grappling with what it meant to live with purpose in a shockingly violent world. At its heart, A Radical Faith is an intimate portrait of one woman's spiritual and political transformation and her courageous devotion to justice.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Ariel Dorfman
Eileen Markey's A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura is not an investigation into the killing itself, like Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder, a masterly book that delved into the web of intrigue and deception surrounding the 1998 homicide of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala. But what Markey accomplishes is something equally valuable: to painstakingly map out the path that brought one of the nuns, Maura Clarke, nearly 50 years old, almost inevitably to that ditch in a foreign land…A Radical Faith has resurrected her so that Sister Maura can…continue her mission in search of justice. There is no better time to listen to this brave, compassionate woman, a committed role model for all those who, secular or religious, want to be "truly free."
Publishers Weekly
In this irresistible biography, investigative journalist Markey pays homage to Maryknoll sister Maura Clarke, a missionary who became a household name in the United States when she and three fellow church workers—Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, and Ita Ford—were murdered by El Salvadoran security forces on December 2, 1980 (four of the over 7,500 casualties of that country’s brutal 12-year civil war). Through interviews, Clarke’s extensive personal correspondence, government and Maryknoll records, and contemporary news coverage of the murders, Markey reconstructs the personal and geopolitical contexts of Sister Maura’s work among the poor and disenfranchised in the United States, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Born in 1931, Sister Maura grew up in an era of Catholic nationalism and anti-communism. She joined the Maryknoll order (in part because she yearned for adventure) after completing high school, experienced the upheaval of Vatican II, and was profoundly influenced by the liberation theology and grassroots practice of her fellow missionaries in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Her death made headlines, but Sister Maura’s life story shows how political engagement informed by faith does not always map neatly onto national and international agendas. At times, Markey’s driving question—“How did this woman get here?”—seems to remove Sister Maura from the long history of social justice activism within the Christian tradition. Yet overall, the work is a moving portrait of one woman’s determination to do what she could to heal a broken world. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
“In death, Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke became known as a symbol of the brutality of El Salvador's pitiless conflict in the 1980s. In this rare and beautiful book, Eileen Markey brings Maura to life. From her childhood in a tightly knit Irish Catholic neighborhood to her departure for Nicaragua in 1959 and subsequent murder in El Salvador, Maura's life became interwoven with the tumultuous history of Cold War Central America. Drawing on personal correspondence and extensive interviews, Markey skillfully evokes the transformation of the Catholic Church during those turbulent decades, crafting a searing testament to the meaning of faith amidst the hard choices imposed by desperate circumstances.”
—Cynthia Arnson, Director, Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

A Radical Faith brings excitement, tension, and compassion to an overlooked story…Rich details and solid storytelling convey one nun's story of her dedication to God and her fellow humans."
—Kirkus Reviews

"I've always believed that responsibility, honesty, and faith are the three pillars of a strong character. Sister Maura Clarke, who recognized the humanity in everyone she met—from schoolchildren in the Bronx to farmers in Nicaragua—lived a life that served as a testament to that strength. Eileen Markey's beautifully told narrative reminds us of Maura's courage in the face of brutal dictators and shocking suffering. It's an important story that has been forgotten for too long, and Markey's book returns Maura to her deserved place in history.”
—Martin Sheen

“A beautifully rendered account of a true radical hero. Markey's important book is a loving testament to their life and work.”
—Greg Grandin, author of The Empire of Necessity

“A vivid (if maddening) reminder of how the United States sold its moral credibility.”
—Charles P. Pierce, Esquire

“Who was this woman in the dirt? In life, she was selfless. In death, she is boundless. Eileen Markey's patient, compassionate biography places Sister Maura Clarke in the firmament of Latin American icons.”
—Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst, and author of Latino USA

"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."
—James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage

“A spiritual and political thriller that is meanwhile a tender chronicle of one woman's journey into history. This extraordinary book is a must-read for aspiring saints and rebels of all persuasions.”
—Nathan Schneider, author of God in Proof and Thank You, Anarchy

“The epic story of an ordinary woman swept into the maelstrom of Central American terror.”
—June Carolyn Erlick, author of Disappeared: A Journalist Silenced

"I am grateful for Eileen Markey's beautiful and moving biography of Maura Clarke, the Maryknoll nun from Queens murdered by the Salvadoran army for embracing the full meaning of God's love for the poor. The book shows how radical it was for Maura to live the implications of her faith as a missionary in humble Nicaraguan and Salvadoran communities. The story of her life, and of her murder together with fellow missionaries Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan, sheds light on the true nature of the Central American conflicts of the 1970s and 80s."
—Héctor Lindo-Fuentes, Professor of History, Fordham University

Library Journal
Investigative journalist Markey's debut biography documents the work and martyrdom of Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke (1931–80) and the impact of her death. The daughter of Irish immigrants, Sister Maura was raised in an era in which "the patriotism and the Catholicism were assertive…and intermixed." Her family's historical involvement in the Irish Catholic/Protestant battles fostered her devotion to fighting oppression through the Catholic Maryknoll missionary organization. Although also posted domestically, she is best known for her international work in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In both countries, the military dictators felt Catholics were "subversive…because they side with the poor." Ultimately, this viewpoint led to the El Salvadoran state-sponsored murder of Sister Maura and three nuns in 1980. Partial justice for the families took 35 years. Markey "seeks to put [Maura] back in context…to make her whole again." She achieves this through church records and the nun's extensive personal correspondence, which document her complete devotion to missionary service. In addition to complementing Penny Lernoux's Hearts on Fire, this fills a biographical vacuum. Although it may find limited secular readership, Sister Maura's story is powerful yet ultimately devastating. VERDICT An absorbing, if specific, account of tragedy at the intersection between faith and politics.—Jessica Bushore, Xenia, OH
Kirkus Reviews
The biography of a Catholic nun who was murdered while trying to help those in need.Raised in an Irish Catholic family in Queens, New York, Maura Clarke’s decision to join the Maryknoll sisters and dedicate her life to working as a missionary for God came as no real surprise to her family and friends. “What drove Maura toward the convent was not a desire for safety or rigidity,” writes investigative journalist Markey, “but a sense of purpose, a desire to do practical good in the world and to lead a life that was big, significant, meaningful.” In 1959, Clarke accepted her first posting in Siuna, Nicaragua, where the locals were fighting against abject poverty under the Somoza regime. After several years there, Clarke had a short stint back in the United States before being reassigned to El Salvador, another country whose residents were battling for freedom under a strict government. The author ably blends the personal story of Clarke’s life and dedication to her belief in God and her work with the changes in procedures that have taken place in the Catholic Church in the past 60 years as well as the political, cultural, and societal upheavals that Clarke experienced in the foreign countries to which she was assigned. The combination of elements brings excitement, tension, and compassion to an overlooked story that illuminates the courage and dedication of the sisters toward their fellow humans while highlighting the cruelty and senseless violence that have plagued Latin America for decades. For anyone interested in learning more about the multiple civil wars in Central America and the roles the American government and these Catholic sisters have had in encouraging change, this book is a great choice. Rich details and solid storytelling convey one nun’s story of her dedication to God and her fellow humans.

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Meet the Author

Eileen Markey is an investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Wall Street Journal, National Catholic Reporter, America, Commonweal, and Killing the Buddha. She has worked as a producer for WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show and is a contributing editor for Housing and Homelessness at City Limits. Markey is a graduate of Fordham University's urban studies program and Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

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