CSJP Present & Past in El Salvador

One thing I've noticed about storytelling - there's an added element when the story is told in its original context and place. For example, I'd always heard stories from my father about growing up on the family farm in Iowa, but it wasn't until I myself stood on that ground that the full impact of the stories started to sink in. I think that's why it was so moving for me to be in El Salvador with two of our Sisters who have ministered there and one who is preparing to begin her ministry there soon. I am truly in awe at the courage, ministry and faithful presence of our Sisters in El Salvador over the past 20 years.

In 1984 the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace turned 100 years old. As the Sisters gathered in England to celebrate our charism of peace through justice, they were aware of armed conflict and oppression taking place in Central America & Northern Ireland. Guided by their prayer & reflection, the Sisters resolved as one of their 1984 Chapter Acts to work for peace in these two troubled areas of the globe.

Later that year, two of our Sisters (Andrea who is now my provincial and Margaret Jane who was on the trip with me) answered a want ad in the paper for Jesuit Refugee Services in El Salvador. In early 1985 and with only a minimal grasp of Spanish, "Hermana Andrea" and "Hermana Margarita" moved to El Salvador where they accompanied the people of the Calle Real refugee camp located outside of San Salvador. The camp is long gone, but we were able to visit the retreat house (pictured to the left) in a poor section of San Salvador where they sometimes stayed. That in itself was a moving experience, as just six years before they arrived at the retreat house Fr. Octavio Ortiz and four young men attending a youth retreat had been killed in that same house by government troops who claimed it was a guerrilla training camp.

During my recent trip to El Salvador, our little group spent most of our time at the Centro Arte para la Paz in Suchitoto, about an hour north of San Salvador. The Center was founded by a Sister of Charity named Peggy O'Neill who is a long time friend of our Sisters and has been a faithful presence to the people of El Salvador herself for over 20 years! Many of the people who lived in the Calle Real refugee camp now live in repopulated villages outside of Suchitoto. Almost every day, I was honored to witness the reunion of "Hermana Margarita" and some of the people she journeyed with during the war. There were warm embraces and long conversations as they caught up on their respective news (the picture to the right commemorates one of those little reunions!). People remember the hermanas. There is even a young woman in one of the villages named "Andrea Margarita" after our two Sisters!

Sister Eleanor now runs our health mission to the people of El Salvador which she founded in 2001. She had previously ministered in El Salvador during the war. From 1988 to 1993 she worked with Jesuit Refugee Services to coordinate health care in the capital for people from the repopulation villages. Eleanor was our host and guide (along with Sister Peggy in Suchitoto) for our amazing eight days in El Salvador.

What struck me most I think was the impact our Sisters had on the people, and the people on our Sisters. As we traveled the countryside in our little bus, bits and pieces of stories would come out so naturally and humbly. For example at one point we went past the police station in Suchitoto and Eleanor casually said she'd once been detained there for 6 hours!

Our Sisters were detained multiple times during the war. Their crime? Accompanying and assisting the poor. I wish I'd had a tape recorder to document their stories which were filled with such humor and humanity in the face of such danger! Their stories were also serious and sobering. It's a miracle that nothing serious happened to any of them. They took great risks in their commitment to accompanying the Salvadoran people.

Others of our Sisters (another Margaret, Grace and there may be others I'm not aware of) have also ministered in El Salvador over the years. Thanks to my friend Sister Susan (each of us jokingly calls ourself "the other Susan"), our presence and ministry in El Salvador will continue. She's planning to take over running our health mission in a year or so and went on this trip as another opportunity to learn the ropes.

Our Constitutions say:

We value the ministry of presence
as an important dimension
of the gospel of peace.

My trip to El Salvador certainly gave me a new understanding and appreciation for that simple truth!


Anonymous said...

Thanks a whole lots, Susan.
I loved it. I have known about Eleanor's and Susan's adventures in San Salvador but you really put images and color and description to the work.
Blessings of Peace and love as you continue your CSJP journey.
Lindy, csjp-a

Mark Mossa, SJ said...

"We value the ministry of presence
as an important dimension
of the gospel of peace."

How beautiful, and true!

Thanks for sharing!

Lisa said...

I already sense that this pilgrimage has left you forever changed...

What a grace!

Charlotte Davenport, csjp said...

I finally got caught up on reading of your time in El Salvador. You have brought new meaning to many of the stories I heard in my early years. Thank you for going and sharing with us.