A Catholic Commitment to the Poor: the Legacy of the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador

How Saint Joseph’s students, faculty and staff are honoring the Jesuit legacy in El Salvador and supporting the ongoing fight for justice.

Katie Smith ’15


On November 16, 1989, six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by government soldiers at their home in San Salvador, El Salvador, during the country’s 12-years-long civil war. In remembrance of their extraordinary commitment to justice, Saint Joseph’s University, which was the only North American delegation that included students, in addition to faculty and staff, to mark the 30th anniversary of the killings, is working to build and sustain reciprocal relationships within Salvadoran communities.

“Imagine this: It is the middle of the night at the Jesuit residence on a university campus. It’s dark outside, and all is quiet. The university is located in the heart of an urban metropolis which, at this hour, is fast asleep. Likewise, the six resident Jesuits are peacefully at rest,” says Bill Rickle, S.J., campus minister for athletics and student life. “It’s a familiar scene. It could be on any Jesuit university campus across the world.”

But as Rickle describes, and history unfortunately records, on the night of November 16, 1989, the scene at the Jesuit residence at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) in El Salvador went from a peaceful dream to a nightmare. That night, Ignacio Martín Baró, S.J., Segundo Montes, S.J., Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., Joaquín López y López, S.J., Amando López, S.J., Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., and Elba and Celina Ramos – six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter – were murdered by the U.S.-trained soldiers of the Salvadoran army. The deaths were a brutal chapter in an unimaginably violent civil war.

“When we got word of the shocking news of their murders, I was on campus, teaching in the sociology department at SJU,” says Rickle. “I will never forget that moment.”

We did not go to El Salvador to do service. Instead, we went to learn, to encounter, to witness injustice, and to humble ourselves as guests in communities, homes, and dinner tables not our own.”

Paul Koenig ’22

A Legacy of Service

Saint Joseph’s has a number of programs that bring students, faculty and staff to El Salvador in honor of the Jesuit legacy there and to support the fight for justice. The programs include community service initiatives, study abroad opportunities and immersion programs. What unites them all is a commitment to upholding the legacy of service exemplified by the murdered Jesuits.

From 1979 to 1992, the tiny country of El Salvador was the site of civil conflict between the U.S.-supported Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of leftist groups. The causes of the civil conflict were decades old, but largely stemmed from the enormous prosperity divide in El Salvador, where wealth was concentrated among the top 2% of the population and most Salvadorans lived in poverty.

The Church, including the Jesuits living and serving there at the time, sided with the FMLN and accordingly, adopted a liberation theology, a Christian theology that addresses socioeconomic disparity. It argues that material poverty is always evil; is not a result of laziness, but rather structural injustice; and means an early and unjust death for those living in it.

“Christians believe that the cross and Jesus’ crucifixion signify our liberation from sin and death,” says Tinamarie Stolz, campus minister at SJU. “Liberation theology asks: How do we liberate the poor from oppressive systems?”

The Fight for Justice

The price for aligning the Church with the poor meant death for many religious men and women. In addition to the eight martyrs at the UCA, in 1977, Rutilio Grande, S.J., was murdered along with two parishioners in Aguilares, El Salvador. Grande was a close friend of then-Archbishop – now Saint – Óscar Romero, and his death pushed the Archbishop to change his attitude toward the conservative government. Saint Romero was murdered on March 24, 1980, while saying Mass. That same year, four U.S. churchwomen, Ita Ford, M.M., Sr. Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U., Maura Clarke, M.M., and lay missionary Jean Donovan, were raped and murdered in retaliation for their work with the poor in El Salvador.

In 1989, the Jesuit community at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) had advocated for negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN to end the war, and the massacre attracted international attention and pressure for a cease-fire.

“Before his death, Fr. Ellacuría observed, ‘In a world where injustice reigns, a university that fights for justice must necessarily be persecuted,’” quotes Rickle. “He experienced the fullness of that persecution with his own martyrdom and of his companions in mission.”

“At the UCA, I learned there was a motto during the war,” says Paul Koenig ’22, a political science major. “‘Be a patriot; kill a priest.’”

“No One Won the War”

On the edge of San Salvador’s Parque Cuscatalán, sunlight reflects through the tree branches and onto the bright gold lettering of the country’s Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad, the Monument to Memory and Truth. Over 250 feet of black granite bears the names of around 30,000 lives lost during the civil war, far less than the official number.

Because of the kinds of violence enacted during the war, including “disappearing” and murdered civilians, recruiting child soldiers, and high-profile assassinations, it is impossible to nail down the number of people killed. The United Nations’ Truth Commission estimates that about 75,000 people, including many religious men and women, were murdered in the 12-years-long civil war that forever changed the country’s history and daily life. The UN investigation found that the majority of the war’s victims were civilians, unarmed men, women and children, and that the Salvadoran government was responsible for 85% of the human rights abuses that took place.

“The Salvadoran government bombed villages full of civilians because they were marginalized and vulnerable and associated with FMLN guerillas,” says Richard N. Gioioso, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science and director of Saint Joseph’s Latin American and Latinx studies program. “The approach in the civil war was to pull opposition out at its roots, and any seed that remains must be exterminated.” The extreme poverty and wealth disparity that led to the Salvadoran Civil War in the first place still persists today.

“Maybe the violence has ceased, but no one won the war. The effects are still there,” says Stolz, who returned from her second trip to El Salvador with the SJU Winter Immersion Program (WIP) in January. “My host mom from the trip, Estela, struggles to access water. Her community experiences real, material poverty – that’s still there. And the Jesuits continue to fight for justice in her community. The war didn’t really end.”

“In the current situation of our country, democracy carries a hidden dagger that’s called authoritarianism, disguising itself in populist discourse that seems like a distraction, to trick us about the possible changes in our country,” says José Nicolás “Nico” Ramírez Raymundo, a mechanical engineering student at the UCA who met with Saint Joseph’s groups who traveled to El Salvador in 2019 and 2020. “It’s impossible to solve the violence of our country with more violence; you can’t say that you defend the lives of Salvadorans when you simply change the ways to kill them; you can’t seek justice when it’s missing from the decisions you’re making.”

Transforming the Social Reality

In June 1982, Ellacuría received an honorary degree from Santa Clara University and delivered the Commencement address. His speech outlined the directives for every Catholic, Jesuit university.

"There are two aspects to every university. The first and most evident is that it deals with culture, with knowledge, the use of the intellect. The second, and not so evident, is that it must be concerned with the social reality – precisely because a university is inescapably a social force: It must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives,” he said. “But how does it do that? How does a university transform the social reality of which it is so much a part?"

“The martyrs ask us to make choices about how to spend our lives,” says Beth Ford McNamee ’99, ’00 (M.S.), assistant director of Campus Ministry. “For me, the martyrs challenge me in my own choices, in how I serve students, and how I walk with students and our community partners in Philadelphia and Camden. I ask myself: how can Saint Joseph’s be an authentic partner with those most on the margins in the fight against injustice and dehumanization?”

The Saint Joseph’s Delegation

Last year, a delegation of St. Joe’s community members traveled to the UCA for the 30th anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs’ assassination. The delegation met with and learned from students at the UCA, including Ramírez Raymundo, as well as honored the martyrs’ legacy in the very place they lived.

“The martyrs gave their lives for the Gospel. They preached the Gospel message in both word and action knowing that their lives could be in danger. They were the voice of the voiceless,” says Peter Clark, S.J., Ph.D. ’75, professor of medical ethics and director of the Institute of Clinical Bioethics, who was a part of the delegation along with Rickle. “We all must follow their example. We, as Jesuits, are called to replace them and continue the work they were doing.”

“My family was involved with both sides of the war, and though I’ve visited before, I felt a responsibility to learn even more context of how everything happened and how it’s shaped the country,” says Odir Duenas ’20, a chemical biology major whose parents immigrated to Los Angeles from El Salvador. “I also saw this as an opportunity to exchange my knowledge of El Salvador with my classmates and my knowledge of the United States with UCA students.”

The trip also served as a chance for Duenas and Michael Fontana ’20, both fellows in the Institute of Clinical Bioethics (ICB), to share their knowledge with the Salvadoran community. El Salvador is one of the most water-deficient countries in Latin America, and finding clean water is difficult. Duenas and Fontana, along with Clark, hosted a workshop on their slow-sand water filter, teaching Salvadorans the design and how it can provide them with drinkable water.

The resulting partnership between the UCA and ICB has yielded two additional success stories, including the Frames to Go Program in Arcatao, El Salvador, which has designed an eye care program, collected 4,000 prescription eyeglasses and already distributed 300 pairs. The project has been endorsed by the Bishop of Chalatenango.

Campus Ministry’s WIP takes a different approach to its programming, which focuses on “a revolution of the heart,” says Stolz. The program draws on the University’s budding partnership with Christians for Peace in El Salvador, a nonprofit organization that strives to build bridges of solidarity between Salvadorans living in poverty and visiting groups from the U.S. WIP participants stay with a host family to learn about their lives and the reality facing rural, impoverished Salvadorans today.

“We did not go to El Salvador to do service,” says Koenig, who traveled to El Salvador with WIP in 2019 as a participant and again as the trip’s student leader in 2020. “Instead, we went to learn, to encounter, to witness injustice, and to humble ourselves as guests in communities, homes, and dinner tables not our own. Through this opportunity for humility and discomfort, I was able to see El Salvador, its history, and people with new and unadulterated eyes. I received and learned so much more from the people of Carasque than I’m sure I offered.”

Koenig, who aspires to attend law school and work in government, hoped to return to El Salvador with a research cluster from Saint Joseph’s in the summer of 2020. He is working with a female entrepreneur and head of household to help get her business off the ground.

“A week seems like a short amount of time to build a strong relationship, but the students from Saint Joseph’s had something important and special, the best way to break down the barriers of language and the difference of culture,” says Ramírez Raymundo, who met with the delegation. “They had the will, the desire to get out of their comfort zones and came ready to learn and experience the reality of others.”

In addition to other University-led delegations and study abroad opportunities, Saint Joseph’s annually sends representatives to the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington, D.C., and to the annual protest and vigil at the School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in Fort Benning, Georgia, where the soldiers who carried out the 1989 assassination were trained.

“There’s no better way to start a career at a Jesuit university than by standing in the rose garden of the martyrs’ home,” says Stolz. “That’s where we stand and what shapes a Jesuit education. It’s a very high standard to match ourselves against, and that’s a good thing.”

This call to act remains for all Catholics, but especially on a Jesuit campus. Experiences like Saint Joseph’s programming in El Salvador, which focus on reciprocal partnerships and personal transformation, try to answer that call.

As Ellacuría concluded to Santa Clara University in 1982, “How do you help us? ... Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do?”

Katie Smith ’15 is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia




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