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Queens Chronicle

35th Anniversary Edition: News Makers (1980) Clarke was called ‘angel of the land’

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Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 10:30 am

Sister Maura Clarke, while serving as a missionary in Central America, wrote the following:

“There are so many deaths everywhere that it is incredible. It has become an ordinary daily happening. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I am at peace here.”

Some six weeks later, on Dec. 2, 1980, shortly after civil war broke out in El Salvador, Sister Maura, along with three other churchwomen, was shot to death. The next day, peasants discovered their bodies beside an isolated road.

Sister Maura was born Mary Elizabeth Clarke, the oldest of three children, on Jan. 13, 1931. Her parents had emigrated from Ireland in the late 1920s, settling in Belle Harbour.

Young Mary entered the Roman Catholic novitiate of the Sisters of Maryknoll in 1950.

The novitiate was founded in 1912 and became a Pontifical Institute in 1954, when the group’s name was changed to Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic. Its headquarters are located at the Maryknoll Sisters Center in Ossining, NY.

In 1959, Sister Maura went to Nicaragua to teach. She soon became known as “the angel of the land.”

She later returned to New York to teach. But by 1980, she felt the need to return to Central America. She went to El Salvador to minister to the poor and oppressed, knowing the danger there, and was killed only hours after she arrived in the country. More than 75,000 people were slain in El Salvador’s civil war.

According to reports in the National Catholic Reporter, the four women were beaten, raped and murdered by five members of the National Guard of El Salvador. In keeping with Maryknoll tradition, Sister Maura’s body was buried locally in the country’s Chalatenango region, where she was killed.

News of the missionaries’ deaths led to public outrage back in the United States and debate over policy in Nicaragua, one that would eventually lead to the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan administration.

To honor the late sister, the Maura Clarke Junior High School, a private co-educational institute on the Rockaway Peninsula, was opened as part of Stella Maris High School, becoming the only Catholic junior high school in Queens.

Due to declining enrollment, both the high school and the junior high, like many Catholic schools, were closed several years ago.

But the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center, named for Sister Maura and another Maryknoll nun who died with her, remains open in Brooklyn. It has been offering quality education to adults since 1993.

Immigrant women attend the center to create opportunities for a better life, getting the opportunity to improve their English and advance their overall level of education.

An entry in the Maryknoll Mission archives concludes, “We pray in a spirit of thanksgiving for the Clarke family, who so generously and lovingly shared Maura’s beautiful life with us.”

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