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A place of holy ground for Sister Johanna Rickl of Davenport is located in El Salvador, the site of a horrific killing 35 years ago.

On Dec. 2, 1980, four churchwomen were kidnapped, raped and shot to death as part of the 12-year civil war in the Central American country. In addition to those deaths, and earlier that year, Archbishop Oscar Romaro was assassinated while giving mass.

Many, many thousands of Salvadorans died in the long war, with estimates between 45,000 and 75,000 souls lost.

Rickl, president of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, or CHM, Davenport, was on sabbatical in 1980, after having served a number of years in Chiapas, Mexico.

She was still in Mexico in December that year, helping to plan the ordination of a friend when she learned about deaths of Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel of the Ursuline order and Jean Donovan, a lay minister.

The CHM had connections with the Maryknoll order, Rickl said, and the deaths were brought home to her. "It was such a contrast," she explained, between a happy Mexican ordination, and the horror in nearby El Salvador.

In the intervening decades, Rickl has often thought about the event and came to consider the site of the murders as holy ground. The 35th anniversary offered her a chance to travel there in a trip coordinated by SHARE El Salvador.

Rickl found the week-long experience to be meaningful, and her delegation had the power of faith and prayer affirmed through the testimonies of Salvadorans who lived through the war.

One women Rickl met was helped by heroic actions of Clarke and Ford. A 15-year-old teen at the time, the woman was on the government's death list because she was helped by the sisters. Clarke and Ford were able to smuggle her to a safe place.

Rickl said the woman talked about the sisters saving her life, at the risk of their own.

Power of hope

The importance of hope, in keeping alive the desire to survive, and to help others, was demonstrated time and again by the women Rickl met on the trip.

The Davenport resident was also strengthened by the joy she found as the people of El Salvador work to form a more democratic country.

Carrying forward the values of the murdered nuns, the Salvadorans today educate poor people, including young girls, and work on eliminating food insecurity. They have formed community gardens as one way to grow nutritious food for themselves, she said.

The delegation also visited an organization with a 10-year plan to have 100,000 trees planted, to fight erosion in the land.

Seeking justice

There was a press conference for the 35th anniversary, held at the Monument to Truth and Memory, a memorial wall that lists the names of 45,000 Salvadorans who were lost in the long war (the United Nations estimates there were 75,000 killed.)

Rickl listened to several mothers, whose husbands and children had disappeared or were killed. "I admire their tenacity and perseverance," she said.

Basically, the survivors are asking the government to bring the perpetrators of the crimes to justice. "It will be hard to move forward if they don't do this," Rickl said. "What we are talking about are really human rights violations and those responsible not brought to justice."

El Salvador remains a dangerous place, but Rickl embraces the words of a nun she met who works in the country. "She said to me, 'We don't live in a safe world, but we must have life,'" Rickl said.

The nun said she will be giving presentations on her trip to El Salvador, to other nuns in Davenport and in Des Moines. Rickl is also open to speaking to Quad-City organizations.

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