Sister Martha Owen is an Ursuline Sister. She served as mission partner to Sr. Dorothy Kazel in El Salvador from 1976 to 1979. In this interview, Sr. Martha discusses her childhood and her decision to enter the convent as well as her mission work in El Salvador. She worked in several villages including La Union, Zaragoza, and La Libertad. She goes into detail regarding the living conditions of the people of El Salvador as well as the conditions she, and the rest of the mission team had to adapt to. Sr. Martha recounts numerous stories of the people she served and the oppressive conditions of the military junta. Sr. Martha discusses in detail the impact that Archbishop Oscar Romero had in El Salvador and Sr. Dorothy’s decision to stay on, in the wake of his assassination. She also discusses the events leading up to her death, along with the three other women who were raped and murdered on 2 December 1980, and the role that Ambassador Robert White played in making sure Sr. Dorothy, Jean Donovan, Sr. Ita Ford, and Sr. Maura Clarke received the justice they deserved. Sr. Martha also voices her own opinion on the role of religion and faith in the development of Cleveland, Ohio.


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Owen, Martha (interviewee)


Randt, Naomi A. (interviewer)


Protest Voices



Document Type

Oral History


73 minutes


Naomi A. Randt [00:00:02] I am [Naomi A. Randt]. I’m here with Sister Martha Owen the 8th of July 2016 at CSU Rhodes Tower. Could you state your name for the record, please?

Sister Martha Owen [00:00:11] I’m Sister Martha Owen, an Ursuline Sister from Cleveland, Ohio.

Naomi A. Randt [00:00:18] Were you born in Ohio?

Sister Martha Owen [00:00:19] I was actually at St. Luke’s Hospital.

Naomi A. Randt [00:00:27] What was it like growing up in Cleveland for you?

Sister Martha Owen [00:00:29] Well, I was born up in a suburb, Willowick, Ohio, and it was at that time, which was quite a few years ago, it was a pretty rural area. Not country, but pretty rural. And I loved to go take walks in the woods and play with a few neighbors, and we had a good time. And since I was a little bit taller and bigger, I was the king of the hill. You know, that thing? Even could beat up the boys at that time.

Naomi A. Randt [00:00:59] Did you have any siblings?

Sister Martha Owen [00:01:01] Yes, there were five of us in my family. My brother was the youngest, and he came just two years before I entered the convent. But the rest of the girls were with me, and we had fun.

Naomi A. Randt [00:01:17] So you were the oldest there?

Sister Martha Owen [00:01:20] Yes. Mm hm.

Naomi A. Randt [00:01:22] What were your parents like? What did they do?

Sister Martha Owen [00:01:24] My dad was a welder at Lubrizol, and my mom was a housewife, and she was very involved in the kids, more than in the house, probably. [laughs] She loved to just be attentive to kids, and she was that way as a grandma, too.

Naomi A. Randt [00:01:48] What made you decide to enter the convent?

Sister Martha Owen [00:01:52] I probably first got interested in that kind of life when I was in the fifth grade. I transferred from a public school to a Catholic school in Willowick, and I started hearing about, well, I go back to the public school. I had a classmate who came back from Africa, and she was in my class in the public school. And so she talked to us, and because she was on my street, she told me stories, you know, that she couldn’t tell in public, you know, about how they didn’t wear clothes. And back in those days, that was a big deal. And how they would go to the bathroom just in the street and things like that. And then. So it piqued my interest. And then we would look at those national geographic, you know, magazines, and you would see people with tattoos all over their bodies. Little did I know that that would become the custom nowadays [laughs], but it was so strange back in the early forties. And then. So then I transferred to the Catholic school, and they talked about, we used to call them pagan babies, which really wasn’t a very good title, but it was that concept of, there are children out there that needed our help, and so we would have little collections to send to the missionaries that were trying to help those children. And so that was a very motivating dimension for me. And some of the teachers actually knew some of these missionaries in some of the other countries. So I had an early interest from probably 4th, 5th grade on. And by the time I got to high school, that thought of hanging out with probably Maryknoll missions, which were a Catholic mission organization, probably the main one for religious women, caught my attention. And I even tried to get into it, but I had had an infection in my mouth and they wanted more documentation on that. And I thought, oh, no, this is not going anywhere. Gave up on trying to get into the Maryknollers. And at that point I also, one of my friends from high school said to me, why don’t you try the Ursulines? And I thought, no way in heaven would they ever take me. They were an educational institution. I was not the greatest student. But this person persisted. And so I thought, what have I got to lose? Because I thought, well, maybe I’ll give it a shot. So I did. I wrote a letter requesting to be admitted to their novitiate witches, the training to be a nunlet. And I was accepted, much to my surprise. And then from there, you know, I was, how am I going to tell my parents? Because especially my dad was totally opposed to that. And it caused great, great, great consternation in my family to the point where I even tried to join the army. Now talk about how God enters your life. Now, back in those days, the army for women was not what it is today. And I took a bus downtown to a recruiting station. Well, I tried to go to this recruiting station, but there was a big snowstorm and it was God intervening. And God just said, no, the bus cannot get through this storm. And to make a long story short, I never did make it downtown, nor did I join the army. You know, when you’re a senior in high school, you want to get away from your family. I don’t think that happens today as much as it did back in our day. And parents don’t want them to leave today, but back in those days, they couldn’t wait for you to get out of the house. So I still, then I thought, oh, well, I guess I still maybe will pursue this going into the convent idea. And I didn’t tell my family though. And somehow my father found out from another person and oh my gosh, holy hell literally broke out at home. And I actually snuck away the day that was entrance day. And the family did not take me, which was a pretty big custom of the other people. And it took him probably, until I went to El Salvador to realize that it wasn’t the prison he thought I was getting into, that there were opportunities to, you know, like, expand your vision. I had an opportunity to be educated, and I actually totally loved my convent year. So it was one of those awesome, awesome experiences. I loved being educated in the spiritual life, in theology. I knew nothing, and it was just a wonderful experience. And then having that opportunity to go to El Salvador was a blessing.

Naomi A. Randt [00:07:13] And when were you in the convent?

Sister Martha Owen [00:07:15] I entered in 1959, right out of high school. And I went to El Salvador in 1974 with Sister Dorothy Kazel. She was my mission partner.

Naomi A. Randt [00:07:31] Was that your first mission assignment?

Sister Martha Owen [00:07:33] Yes, and only one. We are not. The Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland are not a mission congregation. But the Diocese of Cleveland set up this organization called the Cleveland Latin American Mission Team in response to a request of the Pope back in the late sixties to send more missionaries out across the world. And so Cleveland responded. And just in 2014, the team completed 50 years of service in El Salvador. And there have been over. I think it’s over 75 different people have served. Priests and sisters and lay women have been down there serving. So I had an opportunity to go back just in 2014 for that 50th anniversary, which was a very interesting experience. I’ve been back numerous times, but that was very special. I can tell you stories about that, but I won’t go into it now. So the Diocese has supported that work. And right now, at one point, when they first started, they probably had, I will say, maybe seven or eight priests down there and seven women serving one lay woman, and the rest religious women. And now they have no women. One of our sisters recently came home in 2014, and she was the last woman down there. And I think there’s only two priests left. One has kind of retired down there. He’s been there for many years. And another priest who is presently serving, and I guess he has a few more years that he has. The bishop has given him permission to stay. So Cleveland continues its presence, but right now, we have no more women there. So it’s been a wonderful 50 years, and we’ve gone through many things with that country. As you know, the blood of Cleveland is in their soil.

Naomi A. Randt [00:09:56] Can you tell me a little bit about your time in El Salvador?

Sister Martha Owen [00:09:59] Okay. Dorothy and I went to study Spanish in Costa Rica. We did not have any background in it. And if you know anything about studying a foreign language, no matter how much you work at it, when you get down there into the country, you’re working with mostly farmers, what would be like going to Appalachia here. And the way they speak is even totally different than how educated people would speak. So that even we had to attune our ears to the ways that the ordinary people were speaking. [laughs] And it takes you a while to do that, so that, you know, your first concern is always the language. Then your second concern is always the climate. Because as we experience these hot Cleveland summer days, where the humidity is, you know, 90% and it’s 90 degrees outside, well, it’s pretty much that way in Salvador all the time. And your body learns to adjust to it after a year or so. But it is really a very, very warm country. As we know, it’s a very tropical region. It’s also, geologically, it’s full of volcanoes. And El Salvador itself is one of the most densely populated regions. I can remember on one of our visits, somewhere, our van hit a puddle, turned sideways in between two small, I won’t say a cliff, but that’s basically what it was. So that we were facing. We could not go forward, we could not go backward. Out of nowhere, we are in a field, a farm field, and this little road had been cut through, and we hit this spot. People came from nowhere, literally picked up the van, turned it, literally, and we could continue. I have no clue where the people came from. I think that it is so densely populated that they are under every tree. I remember thinking of that when we would take trips to nearby Guatemala, because you can tell it is not as densely populated as El Salvador. And we served originally in La Unión, which is on the coast, which is twice as hot. And there was no breeze there because we were on the side of the mountain that blocked the ocean breeze. It was awful. They also put our accommodations on the second floor of the church, on a wing on the end of the church that absorbed the heat of the sun all day. And you could literally touch the walls at night and you could feel the warmth radiating from them. It was a very warm experience, to say the least. Then we later moved closer to the capital, to Zaragoza, which was in the department of San Salvador. And that we were up in the hills a little bit more. And so it wasn’t as terrible there, but during the middle of the day, it would get very warm. But at least at night you could sleep a little bit more comfortably. So those are just two experiences. The language and the climate are something you have to adjust to. And then the rainy seasons, you know, they only have the two seasons. The rainy season and the dry season. And I have walked on roads in Salvador in the dry season where the dust was as thick as snow here, like an inch of snow or two inches of snow. There were two inches of dust. And if there was a norte, which would be a north wind, it would blow into your house, and you may as well not clean. There’s no way you could keep it out. First of all, you had all kind of openings for air. You may as well not clean until the winds stopped because it would be dirty the next five seconds. We learned to live in that dust. Now, you might also want to know that in the dust, the animals roamed, I shouldn’t say wildly, but unrestrained. And so you would have all the dried up droppings of the animals also mixed in with the dust that was blowing into your house also. So, I mean, you were in an agricultural society most of the time. We never lived- Well, when we were in La Unión, we were in the heart of a city, but it was a smaller city. And we were at the base of the volcano Conchagua there. But when we moved to Zaragoza and La Libertad, those were much more rural areas, or at least not as citylike, although La Libertad was becoming one. But it was pushed up against a cliff that had the ocean on its other side. I’m concerned someday they’re going to have a big tsunami, and that city will be gone because there is not very much property leading from the ocean to the cliff. And that, I mean, I’m talking not even a mile. So that would be a big disaster just waiting to happen there.

Naomi A. Randt [00:15:40] Could you spell that first city?

Sister Martha Owen [00:15:43] La Unión? Okay. L-A. And then capital U, N-I-O-N. And then La Libertad would be L-A L-I-B-E-R-T-A-D. And then Zaragoza was up in the hills or up the way from La Libertad, where we lived, Z-A-R-A-G-O-Z-A. I think I remember how to spell it. That was a pretty nice place. The church that Father Ken took over there had not been used for a while, and it was filled with bat dung. It was so bad when we first got there. We rented a house that I remember painting it to help clean it up. And the cockroaches. Oh, my gosh. And the ant invasions, of course, those are just things you would experience in the tropics, you know. [laughs] But we had outhouses. Oh, tell you stories about looking into the outhouses with the cockroaches down there. Oh, it was something else. These would be stories that kids would love. But I remember the cockroaches would come up in the outhouses, and if you sat down, you could feel their little antenna, like, right on your bottom there, like, tickling you a little bit. So I know, like, some people used to hover. [laughs] They developed that fine art. Or we used to have some spray there to kind of keep them away as much as possible once in a while. But they were in, the outhouses were infested with them. Well, that’s where they lived, you know, and the ants. Sometimes we would come into our house, which the walls are made of adobe painted over, but adobe. And I would walk into the house and say, what is that huge black mark on the wall? I mean, like, maybe two feet by two feet circular. You get closer, it was an ant migration. And you learn pretty soon, you have to find out where they’re coming from. And then you kill from there first, and then they would be en masse moving somewhere. So you learned how to survive, and pretty soon you adjusted just as the people did, and certain things didn’t matter anymore. So it was an adjustment to a different style of living than we’re accustomed to here in the states.

Naomi A. Randt [00:18:27] What was your initial reaction when you’re down there in those conditions?

Sister Martha Owen [00:18:31] Well, you were always going, oh, my gosh. [laughs] And I think, you know, you began to appreciate more the culture of another people. You began to understand how they had to do things differently than we would do them. And so you came to understand that we don’t always have all the right answers. And that translated also into other areas, like politics and jobs. Oh, that was another thing I should mention, how hard the people worked there because they were so poor, how they scrambled to do anything to make a few pennies here or there. We had cars, obviously, because of the people here in Cleveland provided them for us. And we would be going to the capitol to do something. And we would stop at a red light, and there were a few of them. And the Capitol was pretty developed. We would stop at a red light. People would run up to your car to just wash your window, wipe off the window, and, you know, ask for cinco centavos. That would be- That would be like a penny, but it was just anything for them to make a penny here or there so that they could survive. And we were forever picking up people. We also had some pickup trucks, and they would get in the back. It would save them their bus fare, so that if we were going somewhere, we would- And they would always bang on the roof of the cab so we would know when to stop and let ’em off. We never went anywhere, especially when we had the truck where we didn’t take a lot of people with us. We also used the truck to transport people who were ill, sick, you know, that which was not comfortable at all. You know, they would just be put on the bed of the truck and, you know, people would kind of cradle them and hold them while we would try to get them to the hospitals. Because there were very few health centers in some of the villages we worked in. One story, I could tell this one, you know, certain things stand out in my mind because they scared the heck out of me. But we went to pick up a body up in the cotton, the coffee- They grow coffee up in the mountains above a certain level. And we went up. We had heard that one of our catechists, a catechist is someone who teaches religion. We train him to teach religion. And he died in the field picking coffee. And his body was up there. So we went up. Oh, my gosh. Nobody for sure knew how to get up there. We were driving the ridges of hills, of mountains, no roads. You could look on one side, I’m not lying. If it was as wide as these two tables together in here, which I would guess is not more than 10, 15 feet across. And you could look down one side a huge drop off, on the other side, another drop off. And we had people in the cab of the truck just moving along. And by the time we got to this place, the body had been taken down on a coffee truck. I know, it was so scary. So then we get to the morgue, which is in one of the center of one of the bigger cities. And that was an experience too, to go into that morgue and help to get the body with the family. Because we have the family in the cab of the truck. And in that country, they don’t embalm the bodies because they have to bury them within 24 hours. So it’s just a whole different culture, a whole different way of operating because of the necessities of what’s there. The parish maid had a job of, or they had someone who made wooden caskets, so they would sell them at a decent rate so that they were just wood, wooden boxes. And so we would go pick one of those up and get it in the truck with the body right there, and take them then to their village, which was really far away and up another mountain. And it would take us hours to do these jobs. And you would think, oh, so through our transportation, we could help a lot of people that way. Finding people who had been beaten up or cut up, bloody in the streets, picking them up and taking them to hospitals. And I remember a girl. I found her- This is not with the truck, but I found her in church one day, sitting there waiting to die. This is a high school kid, and she said she had taken some poison and she was committing suicide, basically. So she came to the church to die. I go, no, no, no. You’re not going to die. So I got her into the truck, into, I think we had a Jeep at that point, took her down to, I guess you could call it a hospital in our area. This was in La Unión. So they took her in there and they pumped her stomach. And I could hear her screaming, screaming while I’m in the waiting room. I have no idea who she is or who her family is. All I know is that she was in the church waiting to die. And young kid, beautiful girl. And as I am there listening to this, the screams coming from the place where they’re pumping her stomach. I never had that experience before. There are other people in this waiting room, and they’re going, is that your daughter? Is that your daughter? It was kind of comical inside to think, no, honey, I don’t have any children. I’m a nun, and nuns don’t have children. But I was playing mother to that child at that time, and I often wondered how she was after that and never heard from her again. So you never know. It was just nonstop. Little cases like that where you were constantly trying to serve the people and being available to them. And as I mentioned through our transportation was one of the ways that we did that. And then I think I mentioned to you early something about our catechist program where we trained leaders. That was probably our main work, and that was- Catechists, as I mentioned, were people who would instruct the children, especially in their religious training. And the people themselves were wonderfully faith-filled people. Actually, it was a great admiration for me. Now, they had many customs that didn’t have much theological basis. They were more just cultural customs. And so part of that catechetical training was to have them have some theology behind these customs and then to try to, you know, put a little Scripture into those, some Bible background and to teach them just how to do it. I remember how going to some of these, giving some of these classes where the very first step was to have, for example, if we worked with the women who just worked in the home, making tortillas, going, getting water cleaning, doing what women do, and they never, ever were allowed to do or were experienced in doing anything where they would speak in public. So the very first thing they had to do was to say their name in front of a group of other women. It was an awesome experience to have them do that, just to say their name. And so we would have this week orientation program. And the very first step was they had to stand up. We would demonstrate it and say, my name is. And I’m from this. We call them cantons. They were outlying regions, and then they giggled, they got. They turned around, they covered their faces. It was as if you had a little child for the first time. Now, most of these people had ever gone to school. Many of them could not read. It was such a wonderful experience of empowering people, giving them the power of who they were. That was- I can still see a couple of them, just almost, you could just feel the pride within them welling up. And then by the end of the session, you kept adding new dimensions to what they had to do. And then you would start talking about how we would talk to the children, and this is what you do with the children. And here’s some little booklets. And then, you know, you’d find out who can read and who can’t read. And here you two work together, because you can read and you can’t read. And so now you tell ’em what to say, and you make the children sit quietly. And so you found a way to have them both work together. Or if it was with the men- Oh, my gosh. There were- One of the things that- Let me go back to this idea of working with the men. Most of the religion in the country had been sustained by the women carrying on the old traditions. And the Cleveland team decided that it shouldn’t be just the religion of the women. We should involve the men also. The men should take a more important role. They should become leaders also. And so we had these same type of courses for the men, and they were developed into catechists. And I have seen some of the most beautiful, faith-filled celebrations of the Word. Now, by that, I mean where they would read the Scriptures and explain the Scriptures, like a priest would, or a minister would take the Word of God and tell what, or explain what that Scripture means in their life. And so in words that the people would understand in gentle, beautiful, humble ways. Some of our- In a few of our outposts where the people couldn’t get to Mass very frequently, we would go to them, and we would- They had chapels that they would build. Then, under the direction of these catechists that we trained, and we would come there to Mass. It would take us sometimes an hour just to drive there around the volcano and then climb a little bit more and we would eventually get there. But then they would have these chapels, and in some of those places, we would keep the Eucharist, which for Catholics is the presence of Jesus in the bread. And the catechists every day then would have a little celebration where they would have a communion service. That’s where they would offer the bread to the people who come to these services. They would read the Scriptures for the day, and then they would have a little reflection on those Scriptures. And then they would have a little communion service where they would give those who are in attendance the host. Those were absolutely marvelous. Sometimes they were done better than when the priests did them and touched and by such gentle, loving persons. I just can’t say enough for what happened. Now as time went on and as the war started to break out in the country, those very catechists came under scrutiny and were- Some of them were deemed to be on the anti-government. Even back in those days, communism was a great big, huge threat. That was a type of government that was supposedly trying to take over in El Salvador. And so some of those catechists actually had to go into hiding. I’ll give you an example of how fearful the catechists were. I made a map of - this is in La Unión - a topographic map, actually, and a relief map from topographic materials. And one of the reasons for that was we had something like 30 different cantones or outlying regions, and we didn’t even know where all of our catechists came from. And it was changing, and we would get new people, and we had new people always coming in, and we wanted to have a sense of who was where. And so when we went there, we would know their names, and we could meet with them and talk to them and intelligently say, oh, hi, Juan. How are you? So I went to all these villages, and I would take their pictures, and then I would put their pictures on the map in relation to where they lived or coded in a way that we could know who was where. They came to the priests in our main parish in La Unión and said, could the madre please take down the pictures because it can be used against us. There are spies out there. They were- Actually, at that time, the spies were called orejas, which are ears, people who listen and report. And they could say, come and look in the- They call it the convento. That’s the place where the priests live. And they said, come and look at the wall. You’ll see there’s the map. Here’s where they live. Here’s their picture. So it became, for us, it was something to help us identify them so we could be supportive of them, but it became a danger to them. So we did. We took it down. And that’s just to give you a sense of how nervous the catechists became at what was going on. We even had to stop some of our classes for the catechists. This was probably in the mid or later seventies, like ’76, ’77, just because it became too dangerous to have the men come together in large groups because they were considered to be subversive groups then. And it could end up putting a target on the back of anyone that was in those groups. It was also at that time that the priests had targets put on their back. And we know that the priests started to be killed at that time. Now, to give you a little background, the priests were educated. To have a revolution or a civil war, which is what happened in El Salvador, you need to have a middle class that’s educated. And the priests were part of that educated class, and so were teachers, so were business owners, so were lawyers, so were, I’m trying to think of other people that, like, engineers, okay. And they knew that the structures in El Salvador were subject to a few powerful people that ran that country and had all of the power. They were called the oligarchy. Now, the oligarchy themselves were- There are some stories that they stemmed from the 14 families. And in history, you can go back to that into the thirties, where there were about- There were some Spaniards, or descendants of the early Spaniards and their children, and they eventually they owned most of the land in Salvador, but they didn’t mind sharing it back in the thirties with anybody who wanted to farm it. But as the population began to increase, and as we said, El Salvador was very densely populated. And then these people started being pushed off of this land that was owned, and as cotton became more king, and these folks, the oligarchy, had their own personal armies, their own personal. Eventually death squads. And that’s how they handled things. If you resisted them, you disappeared. And I had never heard that term “the disappeared” before. And it became very popular for us. You just disappeared. And so even it became a noun, the disappeared. And that’s how they ran the country. So you have this middle class that is saying, uh-uh, this is not working very well for us. So they met in secret, obvious, for obvious reasons. And there were priests that were involved in that. And it was to better the country, in my opinion, to make it more democratic, in my opinion, to care for the people that were kind of serfs at the bequest or being used by this oligarchic group. Now, there were more than 14 families by now, but it was still this small group of people that actually ran the country, decided who got elected, who held the power, and everybody who had been there since the twenties, the thirties, they knew who was in charge. And anybody who tried to question that, you know, you were in trouble. So it was only- And then to top that off, you know, there were changes taking place in Nicaragua. There was a communist revolution there because of similar issues going on. And it had been taken over by the Sandinistas, a communist group. And there was great fear that that revolution would spread spill over into El Salvador. And that’s when the United States got involved. And they wanted to make sure, because we were so afraid that any kind of movement toward reform - I’ll use that term, reform, toward making life better for ordinary people - was communist, so fearful of that, that they started pumping money and guns and all those things into that country, and it propped up that, I’m going to say that, evil government of the death squads. And Carter, Jimmy Carter, was president. He had a policy of human rights. And I want you to know that here in the United States, I was in El Salvador while he was president. And when I would come home on vacation, I would think to myself, why did they not like him? Well, because down there he was keeping people from being killed by his policies of human rights. He had people who were going into the jails down there from our State Department and finding out who was being detained. That policy- You didn’t get money if you were not supporting human rights. But we know that in 1980, he, because of the pressures up here in the states, Reagan got elected. And we know that the day he got elected, those 14 families, that oligarchy in Salvador, had poolside parties with the liquor flowing to celebrate that now there would be no restrictions on the human rights that were being looked into, the human rights abuses that had been curtailed because of Jimmy Carter’s policies. And it was right after that - that was in November - it was right after that that our Sisters were killed. And it was as if permission had been given, although not officially, but okay, no more human rights. Go and do what you have to do to get rid of the communists. It was like a nonverbal communication. So anybody who sided with the poor, who did whatever, who helped in any way to educate people for their rights, who taught people to speak in public, to say their names, to help people organize, to help people have a voice, as our catechists did, as our women did. Not that anything we ever did, we took any sides, ever. We had nothing to do with anything political. But we know that because you took the side of the poor, they say that you had the same fate as the poor. And so at this point, I left the country in 1979. Dorothy and I had an option. Our community said to us that one of us had to come home. And so Dorothy and I had to decide who would come home. And it was best that I did it at that time. And she would be coming in the next year as we trained a new person. So. But I kept up a lot of contact with her because, you know, I would find out how things were going in my villages. And so I had a, I have a lot of tape recordings of what was going on. That was the big way we communicated in those days. Phone calls. Now they have cell phones everywhere down there. But in those times, the phone lines didn’t work. And we did ham radios for a while, but mostly tape recordings. And so every night she would sit down and tell me what talk for about 10, 15 minutes on a tape recording. Tell me what happened and tell me about people she would go and rescue where their villages had been ransacked by government troops or tell me about a letter she wrote to Jimmy Carter about why are you allowing guns and heavy duty trucks and things to be sent here to stop communism? You know, because he did that, too. So let me say I forgot where he was going with this, but so I left. She stayed on and in - I’ll go try to do this sequentially here - in March of 1980. Someone I haven’t mentioned, I can’t believe I haven’t done this, is Archbishop Oscar Romero. Now, the whole time Dorothy and I were down there, not the whole time, but probably, I think it was in 1976, he was appointed the Bishop of San Salvador. And let me just tell you his story, because it is inseparable from what happened. Dorothy and I were still in La Unión at that time when he was appointed. And we heard, oh, no, not that man. He’s like the mister conservative. He’s mister, you know, old-fashioned religion. He is the last bishop that this country needs at this stage of its history, when there is so much turmoil because there were so many kidnappings going on, so many preparations for war. Everything was kind of that silent war going on, the internal war going on. And he’s the last person that we need. Well, it wasn’t a month after he was appointed and took office that a friend of his, a Jesuit by the name of Rutilio Grande, was killed, gunned down by these forces of the oligarchy. And it was because Rutilio had been working with catechists, just as I explained to you that we had been doing. And Romero was, I think, for the first time, well, he was always open to, you know, truth, and he began to see that there was evil that was happening out there from the government, and he spoke up to it. And I think he had hope, though, that if he spoke to the evil, they would change. I think he really believed that if the church spoke to it, there would be changes, and there were not. But it started then, a process in him of change, kind of like the butterfly coming out of its cocoon. And so by 1980, he had come to become a spokesperson for the poor. People were coming to him to tell him about people who were disappearing, people who were being killed, people who were trying to speak up for evils, and they were being tortured, and their bodies were being found. By the way, there’s some pictures in there of those kinds of atrocities which probably aren’t good for children to see. But it was awful. You can’t imagine the barbaric, evil things that were being done. I can only think that the people who were doing those evil acts, they were not acts of war. They were acts of demented minds. So whoever was running those operations, they were not soldiers. They were more than that. They were demented people. And they were trying to put fear in ordinary campesino, in ordinary people, by the atrocities, by cutting off heads, by cutting babies out of the wombs of women, by all these evil, evil things that were happening. And that’s when actually the war broke out out into the open. It had been a festering boil, if you will, that finally erupted. And it was in 19, March 24, 1980, that Romero had been speaking out against all of these atrocities. And he was back at a- He was living at a cancer home, and he was in their chapel saying mass, and one lone gunman came along with his rifle and just took aim at him and killed him. And it was by some members of this oligarchy. They had put out a contract on him. It was like their honor to do this. Well, it was as if the spokesperson for the poor had been killed. Now, as you know, I don’t know if you know this, but he has been beatified just this last year, and I have never in my life known a greater man than Oscar Romero. Knowing what he lived through, knowing the fear, the threats to his life. And every single Sunday then. He was just a very gentle man. I had lunch with him. I went to meetings with him. And, I mean, the man was just so humble. But every Sunday he would get up in that pulpit in the cathedral, and his homilies would be broadcast, and he would always develop the Scriptures, and he would talk about what God wanted from us. But then at the end, he would talk about the atrocities that had been made known to him. And he wanted everybody else to know, because you couldn’t believe anything in the government papers. They were total lies and fabrications. Truth was gone except what Archbishop Romero was saying. So that even his- He would give these homilies, and he was broadcast over the radio, to the point where his radio station was bombed about three or four times to put him out of service. And it was at those times when we, everybody in the country felt like we were in a dark twilight zone. We had no idea what the truth was, where, what’s going on. I felt it. I felt it with the people. You know, talk about being one with the people. Oh, my gosh. We all had that same sense of what is true. And I think that’s probably one of the first victims of war. Nobody knows anymore what’s the truth. So, as I said then, he went silent forever. And that voice of the voiceless, that’s when that open boil that had been festering just broke out into open warfare. And there were twelve years of it then, and over 75,000 people were murdered, mostly, mostly by the government forces. And in a small country like El Salvador, 75,000 was huge. I remember going back to visit after the war was over and meeting with people who hid in their homes, men who were so fearful to go out that they would not leave their little huts, their little cottages for years on end. I remember, you know, the toll that that war took on people. It’s still going on. But women were part of the guerrilla force. And one of the catechists told me in a village I went to, he said the women used to come down to the village, or the guerrillas used to come down to the village. And he said the women guerrillas were the worst in terms of how, like, they never had a chance to bathe. They were- He said they were- He used the word indigno, meaning like they had no more dignity left to them. They were dirty, they were smelly. And I think war does that to you. And they were hardened. And I saw that myself. After the war I was down at the port of La Libertad, and we were out there where they bring in the fish. And I remember previous to the war, if I had gone out there and they were bringing in a catch, people would be very friendly. This woman came up with a big fish, and she, like, pushed it in my face. And I could sense in her that disdain that only could come from a guerrilla, a former guerrilla. It was. It was almost like she was trying to frighten me, and it was almost sad. I thought, she has been tainted forever by that experience that she had. And it made me think back to this catechist telling me about how terrible it was for everyone at that time. So, I don’t know. I’ve probably been rambling here, but. So, as I said, Archbishop Romero, I cannot overstate how important he was. And the reason I started talking about him was because when he was killed in March, Dorothy requested additional time to stay in El Salvador. Because with him being killed, the people now had no one of confidence. They had no one that they trusted, but they knew Dorothy, and they knew they could trust her along with the other church members there. And so our Cleveland team decided that they would stay on, and that was a big decision for them. Dorothy wrote me a letter in October. I think it was October of 19- It was October of ’79. And this was actually before Romero was killed. The team had a discussion because things were getting so bad, and they had to discuss as a team if they would stay if the war broke out around them. And they all decided that they couldn’t run out on the people. I mean, they just couldn’t do that. They were their friends. And Dorothy said to me at that time, she said would- She said, we were told we should tell our families. Well, she said, you know, I cannot do that. Would you please explain it for me if that ever happens? And I got the letter and I put it aside in my little treasure chest under my bed, and I thought, I’m never gonna need this, but I put it there. And then about- Well, then Romero was killed in March of ’80, and Dorothy requested permission to stay on. The bishop had been there for- Our bishop from Cleveland - it was actually Cardinal Hickey later on - went down for the funeral of Archbishop Romero. It was Dorothy that helped. I don’t know if you are aware, but during that funeral, bombs went off in the square. It looked like- The square looked- I could compare it to the Cavaliers. A million people in the square, and imagine bombs going off and those people running. Well, that’s what happened. People were trampled and killed, and the Archbishop, who had been up on the coffin, was moved into the cathedral. It was Cardinal Hickey at that time. Sister Dorothy and our team got him into the cathedral. The cathedral had previously been used as- It was occupied by some guerrilla forces or a group that was opposed to the government, and so they had been using the basement as a latrine, so it wasn’t very hospitable down there. And so, Dorothy, I remember telling me these stories about how they had to maneuver the Archbishop Hickey around some of these places to get them out of their. These are stories nobody knows. And eventually, they got out of the cathedral and got Bishop Hickey back to where he was safe again. But it was a very horrendous experience, and there were many bishops there at that funeral because of the stature of Archbishop Romero and what he meant to so many people, church people across the world, and Dorothy and our team were part of that. Okay, so to go- So he was buried, and at that time, then the bishop was there, and he talked to our team, and Dorothy asked at that time if she could stay on. And so when the bishop got back to Cleveland, he talked to our superiors about letting Dorothy stay on. At the same time, she had called our superiors and asked for permission to stay on. So it was totally her will to stay, even though she knew how extremely dangerous it was. Two of our boys who were sacristans had been killed right in front of her house, point blank. They came out after mass. Guy walked up to them, put a bullet in both of their heads, right in front of the house. And a lot of people thought that that was a warning to the Cleveland team, especially to Father Paul, who is down in Salvador right now. He’s one of the fellows there who’s retired. So it was a choice that Dorothy made and our team made to stay there. So that was March, and Dorothy came home in the summer, which was - we usually had a little vacation - so she came home in July, I think June or July, and we had a chance to visit a little bit. She went back, and by December 2, 1980. December 2, 1980, she and a couple of the team members went and celebrated Thanksgiving at Ambassador White’s house. The next morning the ambassador had- They stayed overnight because it was too dangerous to be out. So the next morning- They just knew him casually. I don’t even know how they met him. She never did tell me that, but I think just in passing at some of these different events that they would end up going to. I think Paul used to have mass once in a while at the embassy for the Catholic people up there. I think that’s how it happened. And so they were invited to stay overnight because it was too dangerous to go home. So the ambassador had a meeting, and so they had breakfast with his wife, Marianne, I think, was her name. And so then they left, and they dropped Sister Christine off. She was at a refugee center in the capital helping people who had been displaced. And they went on to the airport to pick up a couple of Maryknoll Sisters. And in the process, now, this was actually later in the evening, in the process- Oh, no, they were supposed to get four sisters. Only two of them got on the plane. So they said to the two sisters, said, the two Maryknoll Sisters, they took them back to the- This is the port of La Libertad. They took them back, and those sisters went on to their places, and they said, we will go get the other two sisters when their flight comes in in the evening, around five something, 5:00 p.m. so, because they’re close, they were only about an hour away from the airport, and so they did. They went back. Well, at that point is when the guards had been told to put on civilian clothes to go and get to stop this van that had picked up the religious women. So it was Sister Dorothy, Jean Donovan, who was from Cleveland, and a lay missionary on our team, and then Ida Ford, who was a Maryknoll missionary, and Maura Clarke. Those were the two coming back from meeting in Nicaragua. And so they started out at the airport after meeting the two Maryknoll Sisters. As they got out of the airport. They were stopped and they were boarded by these men with their machine guns, and their van was commandeered. The van went on to some village, which I can’t remember the name of right now. And then from there, they were driven to an outpost or a mountainous region of San Pedro Nonualco, up a hill. I’ve been there a couple times now. And at that point, it was pretty deserted, a dirt road. And they were taken out of the van, they were raped, and they were executed. I know from the autopsy that Dorothy had two bullets in her. It seems that the first one probably didn’t kill her, so another one was put into her. They were left in the road there, and they took the van, went back down the hill, went out to the littoral, which is the main road, went in the opposite direction, had purchased airplane fuel, doused the van with the fuel, and lit it on fire and to kind of get rid of any evidence. So the next morning, that was on December 2, the next morning, when they did not show up, our team didn’t even notice it at first because they’re often running at different times. And it wasn’t until probably later in the evening that they were starting to ask, has anybody seen Dorothy and Jean? And nobody did. And they thought, well, maybe they took the nuns up to their village and just didn’t get a chance to leave a message. But by the third, well, that would have been like the third in the evening. But it was by the fourth then, that their bodies had been found by a farmer who went and reported it to the village there to kind of a mayor in that area. He went out to identify the bodies. There was no identification on them. The only identifying feature was that they were wearing sandals. Now, most people in the country there wear these, they call them ginos, which we would call them, like, shower slippers here, those rubbery things. And so they knew they- And they- Dorothy had blonde hair, and Jean did, too. So they knew they were foreigners. But since their bodies had been out, like, almost a day, they just dug one hole. Jean’s face had been blown away, so she was not identifiable. So they just simply dug one hole and threw all of their bodies into that one hole. And that is actually how all that happened with the disappeared all the time. If they even buried them sometimes, you know, they just left them in the field for the animals. But. So the mayor had him buried, and we would never have known anything about them except that I think the man that found him went to the priest and said, told this story. The priest called the diocese, the main office, and that’s when the story started passing around. They knew that these were foreigners, foreign-looking women, knew they had the sandals on. And by now, our Cleveland team is looking for them. So actually, the information that these women were buried was already. It went through the United States back to Salvador, and the ambassador got word of it. He was already on the case of it. And so Father Paul got word of it. He got out there right away. He got to the scene, he started digging, which is against the law. He got to the top body, and they said, stop it. Well, at the same time, there were photographers that came along from when they heard the reports, also, because they had been there for another case, another murder that had taken place. There were always murders going on of significant- I think this was another, like, guerrilla group or protesting group who had been killed. And so there were already foreign journalists in the area. So they made their way out there, and then with the ambassador heading out there, the ambassador got there shortly thereafter so you see the bodies being disinterred, and Ambassador White so angry and putting his career on the line, saying, they are not gonna get away with this one, and to his death. I think he gave up his career because they wanted him to certify that there was progress being made in the investigation into the death of the women. And he said, no, I will not do that because there is no progress being made. And he was replaced. So. And he continued to speak out about it in trials later on. He gave his testimony- [shows emotion] I think I have to stop. [recording is paused and resumes] New York Times. I just saw it recently. That’s why it’s coming to mind. And in it, he says, now, I’ve completed my duty as a, well, as a diplomat, or I forget how he says it, but he’s completed his mission. Great man. I think it’s a 2014 New York Times. I might even have it somewhere here. I could get it for you, but it’s really worthwhile. It’s a summary of everything I’m telling you. But to see him, you know, go through this is, to see the New York Times put it together with the footage and everything, and then to have him talking at the end, it kind of. Okay, so let me see. Where else should I? Okay. All right. So I’m finishing with Romero, right? And I think with Romero and White, so. And I think that’s probably all I could say at this point. You might have more questions, probably. [crosstalk] Yeah. Yeah. I tried to. You know, I tried to get some of the concepts in that are still maybe too difficult. I just touched on some of them, but. Yeah. Well, let me look that up, then, because it’s worth it.

Naomi A. Randt [01:09:23] Ultimately, how did you feel about your time in El Salvador?

Sister Martha Owen [01:09:29] I think anybody who is a missionary will tell you that it’s probably one of those life-changing experiences. Probably you can’t replicate it anywhere because of the cultural shift that you go through. You come to love another culture. You come to appreciate the values that are different than yours. You come to look at things through different lens, through different perspectives. You come to see that you don’t have the right answers. You come, as a church person you come to realize that the church is universal. You come to see that there is more out- When we talk about that blue marble, you know, that we are more alike than different. I just heard somebody who was talked about- He was just in one of these terrorist attacks, and he said he was crouched next to a person of a different culture. And he said, I could, we were both scared to death, and I could feel their humanity. And I think that is probably the key, that we are all human, and if we could only realize that. There I go again. Is that enough? [laughs] And this is kind of a religious thing. But, you know, the Diocese of Cleveland started, well, I think it was 1847, if I’m not mistaken. And when you think of the faith development of the people here over the years and their commitment to being Catholic and their sacrifices for the missions over the years, you know, it was their money that really kept it going. And when you think of two Clevelanders giving their lives in a foreign land, I like to think of it as the flowering of the faith of this diocese. And it’s like saying, we have given our best. [shows emotion] We have truly lived our faith here. And I think Bishop Pilla would agree with that, that this diocese, not only are we champions in basketball, we are champions in the faith here, too. We are champions and we have saints from this place. They’re not canonized, but- Or that’s a term that means that they have been, you know, officially called saints. But we have, and it’s not- It’s something that came out of years of love. You know, how in the heck did we have 1.3 million people have a celebration and not have violence in this city? It’s not by chance. It’s because we have good people here, and that didn’t happen by chance, either. There’s got to be a religious dimension to that. It’s got to be people who have been formed for years, not just in, because of the spirituality that has been developed here. We have saints from this city, and Dorothy and Jean are visible signs of that. Enough.

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