|Sister Ita Ford, M.M.|
April 23, 1940|
Brooklyn, New York
|Died||December 2, 1980
Cause of death
|murder by military death squad|
|Chalatenango, El Salvador|
|Occupation||Maryknoll Missionary Sister|
|Parent(s)||William P. Ford, Sr., & Mildred Teresa O'Beirne|
|Relatives||William P. Ford, Jr., (brother) & Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, M.M.|
Sister Ita Ford, M.M. (April 23, 1940 – December 2, 1980) was an American Roman Catholic Maryknoll Sister who served as a missionary in Bolivia, Chile and El Salvador. She worked with the poor and war refugees. On December 2, 1980, she was tortured, raped, and murdered, along with fellow missionaries Sister Maura Clarke, M.M., laywoman Jean Donovan, and Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. They were killed in El Salvador by members of a military death squad of the right-wing Salvadoran military-led government.
Life and work
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 23, 1940, Ford was the daughter of William Patrick Ford, an insurance man who took early retirement due to tuberculosis, and Mildred Teresa O'Beirne Ford, a public-school teacher. She had an older brother, Bill (1936–2008), and a younger sister, Irene. The family lived at 1029 57th Street in Brooklyn.
William Patrick Ford was related to Austin B. Ford, whose son, Francis Xavier Ford (1892–1952), was the first seminarian to apply to the newly established Maryknoll Fathers in 1911 and, after being ordained as a missionary in 1917, went to China, where he became a bishop and a martyr. He died in a Communist prison camp there in 1952, when his young "cousin" Ita was twelve.
Though her mother taught in the public school system, Ita Ford was educated in parochial schools, beginning at age five in the Visitation Academy in Bay Ridge, run by the Visitation Sisters, a semi-cloistered order. She attended Fontbonne Hall Academy, a high school operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph, where she worked on the school newspaper. Finally, from 1957 to 1961, she attended Marymount Manhattan College, founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. (Marymount Manhattan split from its mother school, Marymount College, in 1961).
Following in her relative the Bishop's footsteps, Ford had confided in a high school friend at the age of fifteen that she not only wanted to be a nun, she specifically felt called to be a Maryknoll missionary sister. Even before her college graduation in 1966, Ford had a vocational counselor advising her about her fitness for Maryknoll. She entered the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic at the age of twenty-one. Three years later, due to ill health, she had to leave the formation program.
After working seven years as an editor at a publishing company, Ford reapplied and was again accepted by the Maryknoll Sisters in 1971. After serving briefly in Bolivia in 1972, she moved to Chile a short time before the military coup there on September 11, 1973. Ford lived in a poor shantytown with Sister Carla Piette, M.M., in Santiago, where they ministered to the needs of the people, especially those who lived in poverty.
After spending a required "reflection year" in the United States, 1978–1979, before taking permanent religious vows in March 1980, Ford moved with Piette from Chile to El Salvador, arriving the day of Óscar Romero's funeral. In June of that year, they began working with the Emergency Refugee Committee in Chalatenango. In this mission, Ford worked with the poor and war victims, providing food, shelter, transportation and burial.
After the death of Sister Carla in a flash flood on August 23, 1980—a flood which nearly cost Ford her own life, saved only by Piette's help in pushing her from the overwhelmed vehicle—Ford was joined on the mission by Maura Clarke, a Maryknoll sister who was already in El Salvador in contemplation of a mission assignment. Altogether, Piette and Ford had worked together in Chile and El Salvador for seven years, until their deaths barely three months apart on December 2, 1980.
In November 1980, Ford and Clarke attended a regional assembly of Maryknoll Sisters in Nicaragua. At the closing liturgy on December 1, 1980, Ford read a passage from one of Archbishop Óscar Romero's final homilies:
Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive - and to be found dead.
The following day, December 2, 1980, Ford and Clarke boarded a plane to return to El Salvador. They were picked up by missionaries Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline sister and Jean Donovan, a Roman Catholic laywoman. On the afternoon of December 2, 1980, Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, picked up two Maryknoll Missionary Sisters from the airport. They were arriving from Managua, Nicaragua after attendance at a Maryknoll conference. The women were under surveillance by a Salvadoran national guardsman (La Guardia Nacionál) at the time, who phoned his commander for orders.
Acting on orders from their commander, five national guardsmen changed into plain clothes and continued to stake out the airport. Donovan and Kazel returned to pick up a second pair of Maryknoll Sisters: Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, who were returning from the same conference, on a flight not due until 9:11 pm.
The five National Guardsmen, now out of uniform, stopped the women's vehicle after they left the airport in San Salvador. Clarke and the three other women were taken to a relatively isolated spot, where the soldiers beat, raped, and murdered them.
At about 2200, three hours after Donovan and Kazel had picked up Clarke and Ford, local peasants saw the sisters' white van drive to an isolated spot and then heard machine-gun fire followed by single shots. They saw five men flee the scene in the white van, with the lights on and the radio blaring. The van would be found later that night, set afire at the side of the airport road.
Early the next morning (3 December 1980) the bodies of the four women were found by local residents, who were told by local authorities (a judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders) to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field. Four of the local men did so, but informed their parish priest, Fr. Paul Schindler, and the news reached the local Catholic bishop and the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, the same day.
The shallow grave was exhumed the next day (4 December 1980) in front of fifteen reporters, Sisters Alexander and Dorsey, several missioners, and Ambassador White. Jean Donovan's body was the first removed; then Dorothy Kazel's; then Maura Clarke's; and last, Ita Ford. The next day, a Mass of the Resurrection was said by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas; and on Saturday, December 6, the bodies of Donovan and Kazel were flown to the United States for burial. In keeping with the tradition of the Maryknoll Missionaries, the bodies of the Maryknoll Sisters, Clarke and Ford, were buried locally, in Chalatenango, El Salvador.
According to the Maryknoll Sisters:
The U.N.-sponsored report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded that the abductions were planned in advance and the men responsible had carried out the murders on orders from above. It further stated that the head of the National Guard and two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed the facts to harm the judicial process. The murder of the women, along with attempts by the Salvadoran military and some American officials to cover it up, generated a grass-roots opposition in the U.S., as well as ignited intense debate over the Administration’s policy in El Salvador.
In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in Salvadoran history that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behavior. Two of the men remain in prison and have petitioned the Salvadoran government for pardons.
Ita Ford's brother, attorney William P. Ford, spent more than 25 years using the U.S. court system to try to obtain justice for his sister and the other three murdered women. He worked closely with Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) on federal lawsuits to try to bring Salvadoran generals to answer for the murder of the women, and, in other cases, for the torture and murder of members of the Salvadoran poor.
The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become Minister of Defense in the government of José Napoleón Duarte. After their emigration to the American state of Florida, Vides Casanova and his fellow General, José Guillermo Garcia, were the named defendants in a federal civil suit brought by Bill Ford on his sister's behalf. The case is styled Ford v. Garcia. The defense won the case.
- "Here I Am, Lord": The Letters And Writings of Ita Ford by Ita Ford and Jeanne Evans (New York: Orbis Books, 2005) ISBN 1-57075-605-8.
- Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, accessed online December 11, 2006.
- Martyrs of Central America
- Ita Ford Peacemakers biography
- Human Rights First 25th Anniversary: Bios at the Wayback Machine (archived June 29, 2007) biography of William P. Ford, accessed online December 11, 2006.
- Hearts on Fire: The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters, Penny Lernoux, et al., Orbis Books, 1995.
- Ita Ford: Missionary Martyr, Phyllis Zagano, Paulist Press, 1996.
- The Same Fate As the Poor, Judith M. Noone, Orbis Books, 1995.
- Witness of Hope: The Persecution of Christians in Latin America, Martin Lange and Reinhold Iblacker, Orbis Books, 1981.
- "Here I Am Lord":The Letters and Writings of Ita Ford, Jeanne Evans, Orbis Books, 2005.
- Ford v. Garcia Trial Background. Legal history section of PBS website on "Justice and the Generals" presentation in 2002. Accessed October 7, 2005.
- The Maura Clarke – Ita Ford Center of Brooklyn, New York.
- Martyrdom in El Salvador Maryknoll Sisters website. Accessed October 7, 2005.
- Plant a Tree in Ita Ford's Memory Memorial program in El Salvador in honor of the four churchwomen; accessed December 9, 2006.
- Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (1993) accessed online December 9, 2006.