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Anniversary Marks Tragic Loss of Sister Ita Ford ‘61

  • Sister Ita Ford ’61
(New York, NY) - On December 4, 1980,The New York Times carried a worrisome headline. Four American women had gone missing in El Salvador: Maryknoll Missionary Sisters Ita Ford ’61 and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, a lay volunteer working with the sisters. The next day, the paper announced all four women’s bodies had been found. They had been shot at close range and buried in a shallow grave in a field about ten miles from where they were last seen. 

Sr. Ita inherited idealism and the passion for mission work from her family. Her relatives Patrick Ford, who founded the Irish World, a periodical for his fellow émigrés, and Austin Ford, who owned and edited the New York Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register, both involved themselves in the Irish struggle against Great Britain. Austin’s son, Francis Xavier, was a Maryknoll Missionary to China from 1918 until his death at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party in 1952. 

Born in 1940, Sr. Ita expressed interest in joining Maryknoll when she was fifteen, and entered the community upon graduating from Marymount Manhattan College in 1961. Her first mission was in Bolivia in 1972, but she was reassigned to Chile in 1973. Shortly after her arrival, Chilean President Salvador Allende died in a coup organized by his own military and aided by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Both groups suspected that Allende’s left-wing politics would arouse the public against the status quo and would push Chile closer to the Soviet Union in the Cold War. 

Sr. Ita’s brother, Bill, and mother, Mildred, joined with others in efforts to bring the murderers to justice. Mildred brought Sr. Colette Mahoney, RSHM and Marymount Manhattan into the collaboration. Sr. Colette reached out to Congressman William Green, who represented MMC’s district, and Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro ’56. In 1984, the Salvadoran government convicted four members of the country’s National Guard of the crimes. Those men later revealed the murders had actually been officially ordered executions. The officers who issued the orders had retired to Florida in 1989, putting them under U.S. jurisdiction. Two events changed the case in 1992. First, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it, the reason for the oppressive anti-communist government disappeared, bringing the violence in El Salvador to an end. That same year, Congress passed the Torture Victims Protective Act, which allowed U.S. citizens who had suffered at the hands of other governments to bring their cases to U.S. court. The case of Sr. Ita, et al. v. Garcia (one of the military officials) went to a Florida court in 1999. In 2000, the jury exonerated the officers on the grounds that they could not have been expected to control their subordinates’ every action. While that decision withstood appeal, a 2002 jury found in favor of three Salvadoran refugees who charged the same officers had also ordered them to be kidnapped and tortured. 

Twenty-nine years ago, MMC held a memorial Mass for Sr. Ita in The Theresa Lang Theatre on December 17. Father John Corcoran, M.M., the rector of Maryknoll Seminary, came to the College for the occasion. Sr. Colette, who was serving as president of the College, praised Sr. Ita as one who had “sealed the commitment of life with death.” As an MMC English major, Sr. Ita wrote for Corviae, the student newspaper, and edited Avelan, the yearbook, and Professor Joseph P. Clancy of the English department read a poem he had composed for the occasion, describing how “Casually listening to the late-night newscast” he heard a name he hadn’t thought about in years and realized the connection between the student he knew and the martyr Sr. Ita had become. In 1981, Sr. Ita’s classmates honored her with the plaque that still hangs in the Thomas J. Shanahan Library. Sr. Ita was also the recipient of the Raymunde McKay Award at the 2006 class reunion. 

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the deaths of these four women. The Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center is commissioning a new play to commemorate the anniversary. Two previous plays, “Missionaries” and “Ten Years of Hope,” were written by Elizabeth Swados in their honor. To learn more, visit www.mauraclarke-itafordcenter.org

Marymount Manhattan College is an urban, independent, liberal arts college. The mission of the College is to educate a socially and economically diverse student body by fostering intellectual achievement and personal growth and by providing opportunities for career development.