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Murdered Cleveland Nun's Legacy Continues, 4 Decades After Her Death

Forty years after the murder of Sister Dorothy Kazel and three other missionary women in El Salvador, members of the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland continue work to preserve their legacies.

Local Catholic institutions are planning virtual events for Wednesday to honor the anniversary of their deaths.

Kazel was abducted by five members of the Salvadoran National Guard after a trip to the airport on Dec. 2, 1980, along with her fellow missionary Jean Donovan and Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford. The women were raped and later murdered by the guardsmen.

Sister Cynthia Glavac worked with Kazel prior to her missionary work and is now the Director of the Archives for the Ursuline Sisters.

“She always did some fun activities with those of us who lived there,” Glavac said. “I remember going canoeing with her. She loved doing fun, different things.”

Glavac wrote a biography of Kazel as her dissertation, and after additional research, published it. She also edited a collection of essays about Kazel and the other women who were killed.

“She was only 41 when she died and she had so many different life experiences and also had such an energetic attitude toward life,” Glavac said. “She just lived every moment as fully as she could.”

Kazel began her work in El Salvador in 1974 as part of the Cleveland Latin American Mission Team. While she was there, the country endured a civil war and a coup bringing instability and violence to the areas in which Kazel worked.

But throughout it all Kazel continued to help those in need, Glavac said. Kazel and Donovan transported refugees and supplies to centers around El Salvador, Glavac said.

“Today, we need to be reminded of that positive attitude she always had,” Glavac said. “Her hope in the midst of chaos and despair and also her undying love for and acceptance of all of God’s people.”

Several events are planned to honor Kazel, including a virtual prayer service Tuesday evening. Beaumont School, where Kazel served as a guidance counselor prior to her missionary work, will hold a commemorative virtual Mass beginning 9:40 a.m. Wednesday. The Ursuline Sisters and Maryknoll Sisters have planned webinars for Wednesday evening.

Beaumont also has worked to preserve her memory, performing a play written about her, Glavac said, and hosing different events throughout the year.

“There is just such an outpouring of interest today and I think their example is so needed because of what they stood for, the peace and justice, working with the poor," Glavac said.

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A shrine in El Salvador dedicated to Sister Dorothy Kazel and the other women killed there on Dec. 2, 1980. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

The work Kazel began in El Salvador is still going on, said Sister Sheila Tobbe who lived with Kazel prior to her departure for Central America to teach agricultural skills, reading and writing. Tobbe went on a mission to El Salvador after Kazel’s death and continues to work with the missionary sites there.

“The churches in El Salvador remember that these are people that gave their lives for the sake of making the kind of social change which still hasn’t happened in the country,” Tobbe said.

Local churches continue to honor Kazel and her fellow missionaries with their own celebrations, Tobbe said, and a chapel was built near where they were killed.

“Every year, we would do a big anniversary celebration in the country,” Tobbe said. “The religious sisters in the country very much memorialized the four women. The legacy went on in El Salvador until today.”

Kazel’s legacy lives on in Cleveland as well, Tobbe said, though many of the Ursuline Sisters who knew and worked alongside her have passed away.

“We refer to her all the time and talk about her all the time, the heritage of what it means for us as a congregation to have a woman that was called to martyrdom,” Tobbe said. “And yet, we all knew her. She was one of the gang, she was one with all of us in terms of hopes and expectations, dreams and visions, and struggles.”

Students and friends continue to honor Kazel on the anniversary of her death, Tobbe said. A few women immigrated to Cleveland from El Salvador while Kazel was working in El Slavador, Tobbe said, and they show up when they can.

The anniversary is gaining additional traction through its shift to virtual events, she said. This year, the anniversary will be honored internationally, through both in-person and virtual events, including liturgies and Masses in El Salvador, Rome and London.

“The message has gone out, in a certain sense, farther this year because of the nature of how we’re doing things virtually,” Tobbe said. “At the same time, we do miss the face-to-face gathering of the people that remembered her well.”

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