sister, Florida Catholic

One of the few cherished letters from Maura that James kept during her time at Maryknoll. Next to the letter are Maura’s rosary beads that were found with her body in El Salvador.

The legacy of Sister Maura Clarke may lead to sainthood

West Palm Beach  |  It’s been 39 years since Sister Maura Clarke of the Maryknoll religious order was murdered in El Salvador. 

Her relatives remember Maura with a clarity that has not diminished with the passing of time. James Clarke, a first cousin of Maura, recalls her bright smile, infectious laugh, and love for dancing. “Maura was deeply sincere in her Catholic faith and a genuine soul,” said James. “She was always different in a special way—well, not really different but just her own special spirit.” 

James, who resides in West Palm Beach with his son John Clarke, the assistant superintendent of schools of the Diocese of Palm Beach, lived with his cousin Maura and her family when he came to the United States from Ireland. “We grew up like siblings, Maura and I,” recalled James. “Our rooms were right next to each other in my aunt and uncle’s house. I thought of her as more of a little sister.” 

James and John recounted Maura’s life vividly. The uniqueness in Maura led her to unexpected places where she felt comfortably at home. At 19 years of age, she entered the Maryknoll religious order in New York and first became an advocate of Catholic education at an elementary school in the Bronx. Maura felt a particular connection to the disadvantaged youth in inner city schools because of her own experience as the daughter of hard-working Irish immigrants.

Maura’s parents instilled in her a passion for activism and a championing of the oppressed, values that called her to serve in the political turmoil of Nicaragua for 17 years. There, she established schools for the local children, worked to provide food and clean water, and taught the values of Catholicism in the nearby villages. 

Upon returning from Nicaragua in 1976, Maura spent a four-year sabbatical in New York with her family. This is when John grew close to Maura. “I really got to know Maura from when I was roughly 10 to 14 years old. She stressed to me the importance of an education—a Catholic education—and how it is the cornerstone to building a society that will stand the test of time.” 

Maura’s intentions were to return to Nicaragua at the end of her sabbatical, but volunteered instead to take the place of another Maryknoll nun who died in a flooding accident in El Salvador. This last-minute change of plans brought Maura onto the scene of El Salvador’s geopolitical crisis and to her tragic fate on December 2, 1980. She, along with Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan were brutally raped, murdered, and mutilated by Salvadoran military soldiers. The churchwomen had just returned from a missionary meeting in Nicaragua and were on the road home from the airport. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave some days later. 

The recent canonization of Saint Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador and a friend of Maura, who was assassinated a few short months before Maura and the churchwomen, has brought into question the beatification of the four American women. 

Maura’s nephew, Peter Keogh, is taking the lead on setting into motion his aunt’s candidacy for sainthood. James and John are learning about the process from Peter as it unfolds. “Right now, my family is focusing on raising awareness of Maura’s story,” John said. “Eileen Markey’s recent book (A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura), and various articles in The New York Post have acted as the catalyst for her canonization. We hope that as more people learn about her as someone who has lived an exemplary life and died for the faith, the more opportunity there is for people to pray to our martyred Maura and the other three churchwomen.”

As per Maryknoll tradition, Maura is buried where she conducted her ministry, in El Salvador. John hopes to one day make the trip to visit her grave. Maura’s legacy did not die with her, however. John reveals that she played a huge role in his desire to become a teacher and educator of the Catholic faith, and that his attorney brother Michael has come across many who have gone into law inspired by Maura’s dedication to the poor and oppressed. James reflected that in times of personal tragedy he has prayed to Maura for support and guidance. “Most importantly,” James said, smiling as he thought of his cousin, “Maura taught us to laugh when things get difficult.”