I sat in a comfortable armchair, my closed notebook across my knees, fingering my pencil restlessly. Maddie was pouring juice and slicing freshly baked pumpkin bread. “I’ll be right with you,” she called, arranging the slices on a paper plate. She finished her preparations and served the refreshments with great effort, then seated herself across from me and pushed her walker to one side. “Hi, I’m Maddie.” I opened my notebook.
This was Maryknoll Sister Madeline Dorsey, aged ninety-five. Although her hastily brushed back white hair and slightly bent frame betrayed her age, her blue eyes, framed by round glasses, sparkled with youth she’d never lost. We sat in a Latin American-themed sitting room in the Maryknoll Sisters residence in Ossining, New York. I introduced myself and explained that I was researching the Salvadoran Civil War and wanted a first-hand account.
First, Maddie told me how she became a nun and how she came to work in El Salvador. Maddie entered the Catholic Maryknoll Sisters order in 1936. Since her sophomore year of high school, she had been convinced her future lay in the mission field. Influenced by two nuns who taught at her Catholic elementary school, and by the Mexican Revolution, which targeted the Catholic Church, Maddie prayed for guidance and leading in considering a religious vocation. After graduating from high school, Maddie took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, formally entering the order. She was eighteen years old.
One year later, Maddie was enrolled at the Catholic University in Washington, DC, in a five-year nursing program. “When I took my vows I gave up pursuing a nursing career,” she remembered, “but the world needs nurses, and my supervisor suggested I take this training.” After receiving her degree, Maddie was sent to Panama to teach public health and to set up a clinic and a school of nursing.
Maddie was ready to live and die in Panama. After three months, however, she traveled to Riberalta to open a hospital in the Bolivian jungle and was later assigned to a hospital in Sri Lanka. Knowing that her order would place her wherever the need was greatest, she became adept at training local assistants in basic nursing skills: “You have to leave the people prepared. You won’t be there forever.”
In 1965, Maddie marched at Selma, accompanying African-American doctors she was working with at a hospital in Kansas.
Then in 1976 Maddie received an invitation to do missionary work in El Salvador. She was soon serving 8,000 residents of a poor and remote area of Santa Ana. It was here that she met Archbishop Oscar Romero. “I loved him. He was approachable, simple, and saintly. Yet he was also practical, thoughtful, and perceptive. He was outreaching and could easily relate to people. Most important, he told the truth from the pulpit. All he said was the truth.”
During this time, the Salvadoran government had launched an undeclared war on its own people, who sought social and agrarian reform. In just two years, hundreds of protestors were killed in peaceful demonstrations. Others just disappeared. This brutal repression was aimed at silencing the people’s cries for peace and justice. “The Salvadoran death squad would come at night and drag the men and boys out, kill them, and leave their mutilated bodies on the road.” The suffering was unlike anything the seasoned nun had experienced before.
1980 was a year Maddie will never forget. “The events of that year will always be painful, yet beautiful,” she remembered. Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated on March 24th. “The shock was beyond description, not only in El Salvador, but worldwide. Archbishop Romero had repeatedly denounced violence. Now the voice of the poor was silenced.” But the violence was soon to impact Maddie even more personally.
“Now I will share our death, entombment, and resurrection story. It is the only way I can think of those days,” Maddie said. Two fellow Maryknoll missionaries, Ita Ford and Maura Clark, had recently been sent to work in El Salvador. Before they had hardly begun their mission, they were murdered by the Salvadoran National Guard along with Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel.
On December 2, 1980, Maura and Ita were returning from a meeting in Managua and were met at the San Salvador airport by Dorothy and Jean. As they left the airport, the National Guardsman on duty watched the women leave, and placed a phone call to his commander. Five of his men were then ordered to change into civilian clothes for an “unspecified mission.”
Maddie recalled “the long search, the anxiety, the prayers, and the phone calls” that followed the nuns’ disappearance. The search continued until noon on December 4, when a campesino confided to his pastor that he had been ordered to bury “four unidentified white women” in his corn field. Maddie paused, and I put down my pencil.
Then came the painful extraction of the four—piled one on top of the other. Jean was first, her lovely face destroyed. Dorothy had a tranquil look. Maura’s face was serene, but seemed to utter a silent cry, and last, little Ita. I went forward to wipe the dirt from her cheek and to place her arm at her side. We sisters fell to our knees in reverence. It was a resurrection moment. Yes, their dead and abused bodies were there, but I knew their souls were with their loving Savior.
I wiped tears from my eyes. Maddie was far away, reliving the tragedy. “It was like the Holy Week. Good Friday was the day they were killed. Holy Saturday they were buried in the corn field, and then Easter Sunday and the resurrection moment when I knew they were with God.”
Today Maddie is no longer able to serve abroad in places of conflict and poverty, but she prays for those carrying on the missionary work she dedicated her life to. “We have so much to pray about,” she concluded. We sat in silence as I replayed our conversation. She’d taken vows at my age, sacrificing her ambitions to follow God’s will; she had been faithful in spite of hardship and tragedy. I felt I was sitting in the presence of a true disciple. The peace she radiated was enough to prove this.