A Radical Faith

The Assassination of Sister Maura


By Eileen Markey

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On a hot and dusty December day in 1980, the bodies of four American women-three of them Catholic nuns-were pulled from a hastily dug grave in a field outside San Salvador. They had been murdered two nights before by the US-trained El Salvadoran military. News of the killing shocked the American public and set off a decade of debate over Cold War policy in Latin America. The women themselves became symbols and martyrs, shorn of context and background.

In A Radical Faith, journalist Eileen Markey breathes life back into one of these women, Sister Maura Clarke. Who was this woman in the dirt? What led her to this vicious death so far from home? Maura was raised in a tight-knit Irish immigrant community in Queens, New York, during World War II. She became a missionary as a means to a life outside her small, orderly world and by the 1970s was organizing and marching for liberation alongside the poor of Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Maura’s story offers a window into the evolution of postwar Catholicism: from an inward-looking, protective institution in the 1950s to a community of people grappling with what it meant to live with purpose in a shockingly violent world. At its heart, A Radical Faith is an intimate portrait of one woman’s spiritual and political transformation and her courageous devotion to justice.



Between City and Sea

The bells at St. Francis de Sales Catholic church tolled in the evening of August 15, 1945, in Belle Harbor, Queens, on the edge of New York City. Their commanding clang reached the beach and the crashing Atlantic Ocean a few blocks away and sounded along Harbor Boulevard and into the tidy yards and through the screen doors of the brick houses planted on what a generation before had been sand dunes of the narrow Rockaway peninsula. The bells were ringing not for the daily Mass or for the duty of evening Angelus at six p.m. as husbands and fathers streamed out of the Long Island Railroad station at Beach 116th Street. They were ringing in celebration. War was over.1

The streets filled with noise as neighbors banged pots and pans together, cheered and honked their car horns. A few miles away amid crowds jammed into Times Square, a sailor and nurse gave that iconic kiss. But here in the Irish Catholic working-class Rockaways, people streamed into church. The pastor, Monsignor J. Jerome Reddy, knew his parishioners well from his strolls along the Rockaway boardwalk and beach. He had led Catholic Charities in the diocese of Brooklyn for thirty years, overseeing its network of orphanages, soup kitchens, and old-age homes, and introduced a labor rights study group into the parish. He was the man parishioners called when they needed a lawyer, help with the rent, or wanted to quit drinking. On that warm August evening, he offered a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament service, a group prayer in which the Eucharist—the wafer that Catholics believe is the body of Christ—is venerated. It is a grand and stylized ritual that celebrates a very earth-bound belief: God dwells in the midst of the people.2

The congregation of deliverymen and grocery clerks and mechanics, mothers and children sunburned and with sandy feet just off the beach, immigrants and first-generation Americans recited the prayers they knew from their weekly observance of this ritual, one of dozens of prayers that united them with Catholics the world over. Surely many of them wondered when the 450 men and women of the parish who had served in the war would return from the South Pacific or bases in Europe. Others mourned the twelve men who had been killed on faraway battlefields. Under stained-glass images of sixteenth-century English martyr Saint Thomas More and mystic St. Terisa of Avila, in the cool, dark church they knelt as Monsignor Reddy burned incense, its sticky, sweet smoke surrounding the tabernacle where the Eucharist is stored. He placed the silver dollar–size wafer in a monstrance, an elaborate silver and crystal case, and carried it to the marble altar. The people sang the Latin hymn “O Salutaris Hostia”: “Oh saving victim opening wide the gate of heaven to man below. . . .” The priest knelt and the worshippers prayed in silence, concentrating on the Eucharist in front of them, a reminder of God’s personal presence in the world, in the neighborhood, on the block.3

Monsignor Reddy lifted the monstrance and made the sign of the cross, blessing the people in the pews. An altar boy rang a small bell three times and the pastor placed the monstrance back on the altar. He then knelt and began the Divine Praises, the congregation repeating his every line in one voice.

       Blessed be God.

       Blessed be his Holy Name.

       Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.

With great ceremony, he carried the monstrance across the sanctuary and placed the wafer back in the tabernacle.

Then they all sang “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

This was the world where Maura Clarke was raised, a world swept by the wild Atlantic Ocean and ordered by a staunch and confident Catholic church. Here on a spit of land in the sea, on the ragged edge of New York City, the children of Irish immigrants were becoming Americans. The patriotism and the Catholicism were assertive, unapologetic, and intermixed.4

For the small number of year-round residents when Maura was growing up, Rockaway Park felt more like a village than a neighborhood of New York City. A narrow stretch of earth dangling off the landmass of Long Island, separated from the mainland by the wide Jamaica Bay and pointing back toward lower Manhattan, the Rockaways had been home to just a tiny year-round settlement since the early nineteenth century.5

Even as the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn—crowded with tenements and teeming with street vendors, crisscrossed by trolley cars and awash in noise—came to define the American urban experience, the Rockaway peninsula remained barely inhabited. A bridge didn’t unite the western end of the Rockaways to Brooklyn until 1937. The subway didn’t arrive until 1956. Even then midtown Manhattan was an hour by train and a world away.6

Growing up in the Rockaways carried with it a certain expansive sense of freedom. The neighborhoods were empty in winter and felt like a place apart, an outpost where Maura and her siblings could bike and roller skate in the street with little fear of cars or wander on the windy beach, experiencing the air and sea in a way most New York children do but once or twice a year. Just sixty thousand people lived on the 11-mile peninsula year-round and when Maura was growing up, residents in the individual neighborhoods of Rockaway Park, Rockaway Beach, and Belle Harbor left their doors unlocked and parents knew their neighbors well enough to correct their children. Shops offered credit and made deliveries. When Maura ran down Beach 116th Street to buy the late edition of the Journal American for her father or when she and classmate Patricia Thorp stopped into Rogoff’s Fountain Shop for milk shakes, the proprietors knew her name. Maura’s brother, Buddy, and his friends dug a network of tunnels in the sandy ground beneath empty summer bungalows and played for hours in grassy open lots.7

But summers were a different story. Each June the peninsula was transformed from an outpost to the center of the party. Some boy would jump in the ocean in April or May and then it would begin. Summer visitors poured in from the rest of New York City from June to September, filling the narrow peninsula with music and crowds and stories loquaciously told. In 1947, when Maura was sixteen, the summer population of the Rockaways was 225,000, more than five times that in winter. These summer people were subway workers and firefighters, cooks and cleaning ladies in grand Fifth Avenue homes, plumbers, sanitation department men, and elevator operators as well as nurses, teachers, bank clerks, and shop owners: Irish immigrants and their children. Entire families from the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens relocated for the summer, squeezing into accommodations with shared bathrooms and outdoor showers. Restaurants that were shuttered in winter flung open their doors and Irish bands made up of fiddler, accordionist, and crooner took up residence in such places as Curley’s, Hugh McNulty’s, and Allen’s Dancehall. The Rockaways, sometimes called the Irish Riviera, were a place the rest of Irish New York came to stroll on the boardwalk, drink at the bars of Irishtown, gawk at the amusements of Rockaway Playland, and pile into bursting guest houses and bungalows. On weekends, traffic on Cross Bay Boulevard from Howard Beach was backed up for miles. The Long Island Railroad disgorged bathing-suited day-trippers carrying their dinner in metal pots.8

The summer people and the year-rounders represented the tail end of a giant wave of Irish immigration that began with the Irish potato famine in 1845. It would taper off by the Great Depression, having utterly transformed New York City and the country, established norms of urban experience, and all but created and then dominated the American Catholic Church.9

Maura was shaped by this world as much as by her parents and their histories. Born Mary Elizabeth Clarke, she was the eldest child of John and Mary Clarke, Irish Catholic immigrants who built a life in New York City.

Mary Clarke née McCloskey was the oldest of eight children of Catholic dairy farmers Lizzie and Charles McCloskey. As a child she was sent to live with her grandmother and uncles, an arrangement that instilled a certain steady confidence in her. She was doted on. But, growing up in Antrim, a county of Ireland where the British had relocated and awarded land to Scottish Protestants three centuries earlier, so as to shift the political and ethnic balance of the island, Mary knew the discrimination of being a minority in one’s own country. Catholics in County Antrim learned to choose their words carefully. A person never knew who to trust and a loose detail could scuttle a job or bring the neighbors’ ire. When family members wanted to buy land, they might send a friend or relative from somewhere else to the land auction. The price would jump if a Catholic were known to be trying to buy it. Discretion became a habit. If you were in Ballymena, the nearest market town to her parent’s farm, and someone asked where you were from, you named the Protestant town nearest to where you lived. No need to invite trouble by revealing you were Catholic by naming your own village. Mary developed the habit of keeping her thoughts to herself. Doing so didn’t change what she thought, but it meant she learned from her elders not to broadcast her ideas.10

On the hilltop at Armoy, about an hour away where Mary was raised by her grandparents, the vistas were expansive, soft green hills rolling into fields of flax and wheat. The sky was wide and close, mist turned the hills to impressionistic smudges, and the dark soil was fragrant. There was room for beauty. An oblique Irish sun found its way into the whitewashed stucco cottage, its central room catching the morning light. Her grandmother found money to buy little Mary colored pencils and paints. Once when Mary and other farm children resumed school after a long absence for the harvest, a teacher derided them as winter birds—students that come only for a season. But Mary’s grandmother kept her in school beyond the age many children quit to work on the farms. Beloved and at ease at the grandparents’ house, Mary was shy at her own parents’ home, unsure why she didn’t live there. It was common for parents to send one or more children to their grandparents or other relatives, to lessen the burden on a mother with a string of young children and a family with little money. Mary had been sent to her grandmother’s when her mother was busy with a baby. When her parents came to retrieve her some years later, Mary ran up the round hills and hid behind a tree until she could no longer hear them calling for her. As an adult, though, Mary forged a close relationship with her younger siblings and their families, exchanging weekly letters and visiting Ireland nearly every summer as she grew older. Perhaps because she missed her mother, she was especially close to her own children, cheering them on, holding them close, and praising them.11

Mary McCloskey had a remarkably unconventional young adulthood for a Catholic farm girl in 1910s Ireland: When World War I created a shortage of male laborers, she went to Scotland to work as a gardener on an estate. Ever after, she planted seeds in egg cartons and coaxed beauty out of windowsills and backyards wherever she lived. Returning from Scotland, she enrolled in art school in Belfast, then went to Dublin to study nursing, the tuition paid by one of the uncles who helped raise her. She didn’t marry until 1930, when she was thirty-five. She didn’t look for validation or approval from other people, cultivating instead her own confidence and an ability to manage difficulty without making a dramatic display of it. She was the only one in her family to immigrate to America and built reliable and abiding friendships in her new country. In the face of discrimination and social exclusion she, like many Catholics in Antrim and nearby counties, cultivated a sense of personal pride that defied and resisted the stereotypes about rough and ignorant Irish. Mary presented herself carefully, always with a touch of glamour in an impeccably tailored dress and stylishly arranged hair, and carried herself gracefully, almost regally.12

Ireland had been an English colony for eight hundred years, a testing ground for British ideas of empire-building, a site of proxy wars between European powers, and a source of land and raw materials for its master. An English and later an Anglo Irish aristocracy established feudal manor houses throughout the country, confiscating land and then charging rent to the people who had been living on it. In the mid-1600s, after the English Civil War and the Reformation, Oliver Cromwell imposed a regime of cultural annihilation on the native Irish. The people were forbidden to speak their native Irish language. Dancing was outlawed. Priests were imprisoned for celebrating the Catholic Mass. The Penal Code, a network of Jim Crow–like rules circumscribing every aspect of life for Catholics, became the law of the land. The codes were lifted over the ages, but they were remembered; Cromwell’s name became a curse. In the region that would eventually become Northern Ireland, Catholics were an occupied people, barred from many professions, denied admission to certain schools, their rights severely limited until the late twentieth century. Mary McCloskey’s experience of discrimination shaped her attitudes in her new country. She didn’t truck with racism: she knew what it was like to be the despised. A quarter century after she left Ireland, the family took a road trip to Canada and were driving through upstate New York late at night, in need of a motel. A sign emerged on the road: THE CROMWELL INN. Mary wouldn’t consider stopping.13

Maura’s father, John Clarke, was born in Dromard, County Sligo, the tenth of twelve children in a family that had seen its fortunes ebb over the course of a few generations. His father and grandfather were schoolmasters and the family lived in a house beside the school, at the crossroads of their village. Cousins worked farms throughout the neighborhood, one field running into another dotted with sheep and fragrant with turf fires, a Clarke or a Kearns in every direction. The family ran a simple shop out the back door of the house, selling staples brought in from Sligotown, the county seat. The Clarke house was always full, the broad-shouldered, garrulous Clarke men and neighbors stopping in for gossip, a hand of cards, and impromptu music. But drink ran through the savings and despite being a bright pupil, John had to leave school at eighth grade. He worked the family’s farm, a short walk away where a series of low stone houses rambled across the green fields. In 1914, when he was eighteen, he sailed to America to join his sister Julia Kate who had come to New York years earlier and married a wealthy Irish American hotel owner. John worked in his brother-in-law’s hotel in Manhattan and lived in a tenement filled with Irish on the East Side of Manhattan. New York was not the placid countryside of Sligo where half of the neighbors were other Clarkes. Coming back to East Seventy-fourth Street one day shortly after arriving in New York, he could not remember which of the buildings he lived in. They all looked the same. After leaving the hotel job, he worked as a clerk in a grocery store and on the Third Avenue El, one of the elevated train lines that was carving up the farmland of the Bronx and making it city. There were tens of thousands of Irish immigrants in New York City in the 1910s, most of whom had arrived as single, unattached adults.14

John’s brothers, still at home in County Sligo, were active in the fomenting rebellion against the British. The house at the crossroads beside the schoolhouse where John’s father and grandfather taught became a place of meetings and whispers, planning sessions, arguments and plots. Fellow revolutionaries, men and women who’d plowed fields together all their lives, walked across the dark nights to meet at the Clarke home. John’s brother Michael was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an oath-bound secret society pledged to achieving independence for Ireland. Merging with other armed groups, it later became the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Michael, called Mick, was a local commander, organizing hijackings, kidnappings, and attacks on British bases. Mick and his men evaded patrols by the Black and Tans—dreaded British counterinsurgency regiments that operated on terror, burning farmhouses of suspected guerrilla members and sympathizers. They barreled through narrow hedge-framed dirt lanes and pounded on the doors of simple cottages with bayonetted guns slung across their shoulders. Their attacks on and assassinations of civilians drew the condemnation of a significant portion of the British populace, who rightly feared their brutal tactics were driving previously ambivalent Irish into the arms of the rebels.15

The Irish Republican Brotherhood operated on both sides of the Atlantic and called for recruits among the Irish immigrants in the United States. John Clarke, likely at the urging of his older brothers, took up the call. He traveled to Boston to take the secret oath, pledging:

In the presence of God, I, John Clarke, do solemnly swear that I will do my utmost to establish the independence of Ireland, and that I will bear true allegiance to the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Government of the Irish Republic and implicitly obey the constitution of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and all my superior officers and that I will preserve inviolable the secrets of the organization.

In 1921, after seven years in New York, John joined a remarkable operation—the return of hundreds of Irish immigrants and their children back across the sea to fight for their homeland’s liberation. When the war began, it had seemed impossible. The British were a powerful empire bestriding the world, but in Ireland the Republican guerrillas were fighting on their own turf. John knew that if a man pressed himself to the damp brick under the Cloona road where Lacey’s stream ran through the back field, he could avoid detection. He knew his uncle Paul Clarke, a cattle trader with a big, two-story house in Lismacbryan that faced toward the fog-shrouded Benbulben Mountain, would open a back door and let him hide on the second floor. There were cousins and second cousins at every corner. John was involved in the takeover of a British barracks and was imprisoned more than once.16

But, by 1922, the glory of the revolution was a heartbreak. A compromise treaty was signed with the British to grant incremental independence to two thirds of the country and leave the six northern counties in British hands. Former brothers at arms squared off as the Irish Army and antitreaty militias battled each other in a sad and bitter Irish Civil War. John Clarke fought with the antitreaty forces, engaging in ambushes, lying in the same ditches he’d fetched footballs from as a child and had lain in wait in during the past year, but this time he was ambushing fellow Irishmen.17

In the midst of street fighting in Dublin, John Clarke brought a wounded comrade to the door of a private convalescence home. Mary McCloskey opened the door and allowed them in. John came every day to visit the wounded soldier and fell in love with the nurse. Years later, whenever she was annoyed with her husband, she would tease him, “I never should have let you in. I never should have saved your life.” After the war ended, John returned to New York, heartbroken that the liberation he’d fought for was incomplete, disgusted with the political deal-making and compromises that ushered in the modern Ireland and wondering whether the sacrifice and violence had been worth it. He reestablished a life in New York and Mary followed him in 1929.18

They married in 1930 and moved to the Bronx, part of a migration of tens of thousands of working-and middle-class New Yorkers following the newly planted subway lines up the Grand Concourse, a broad boulevard modeled on Paris’s Champs-Élysées. The Depression had hit and work was scarce, so the Clarkes shared an apartment with another couple and their son. Soon, the apartment became even more crowded: Maura was born at Fordham Hospital in the dead of the winter of 1931: January 13. She was christened Mary Elizabeth at Christ the King Church on the Grand Concourse, but at home she was always called Maura. The baby had deep-set, soft brown eyes and an alert, expressive face. Mary brought her to a photography studio and paid extra postage to send the stiff photo frame home with her next letter; her mother and grandmother would know this New York baby.19

Life in the crowded apartment was close. When company was in the house, John pulled out his accordion and stoked up a party. He charmed friends; he was the kind of man the Irish said had the gift of the gab. But John Clarke also had a streak of melancholy, a tendency to see the glass half empty and to succumb to dark moods. When he was low, he’d stretch on the couch and his mood could suck the air out of a room. When he drank, he was sometimes gone for days, sleeping in the apartment of an old friend, showing up eventually at home, sick and contrite. He might be sober for months or even years, and then find another excuse. He ran through jobs and frequently Mary’s paycheck was the only source of income. After the birth of their second child, James, two years after Maura, the family moved to Rockaway. Mary had worked at a hospital there when she first arrived in New York and the wide, wild sea felt closer to home—more like the open fields of Antrim and Sligo—than the cramped streets of the Bronx. Two-year-old Maura couldn’t say the word brother, calling James “Buddy” instead. The nickname stayed with him for the rest of his life. In 1935, another daughter was born, Julia, five years younger than Maura. The family called her Judy.

In Ireland, John had walked along the ridge in Dromard, the hulking giant of Benbulben Mountain rising beyond the sweep of green, a stretch of the cold Atlantic just visible at its base. In Rockaway he strolled the wooden boardwalk beside the same ocean, his little daughter on his shoulders. Maura learned the alphabet before she started kindergarten, eagerly identifying the letters her father pointed out on signs along the boardwalk.20

The Irish Rockaways were served by two Catholic parishes: St. Camillus in blue-collar Rockaway Park and St. Francis de Sales in the more middle-class Belle Harbor, each a nexus of communal life. On summer Sundays St. Camillus, a small wooden church on Beach 100th Street, was as tightly packed as the bars were the nights before. The revelers of Saturday night filled the pews and spilled out the doors and onto the sidewalks. In 1930, St. Camillus built an auditorium that sat 1,200, to accommodate the summer faithful.21

The Catholic Church in New York was growing, building new schools and new parishes every year, expanding hospitals, and seeding an army of nuns. The thirty years beginning in 1920 that Archbishop Thomas Molloy led the diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, saw the creation of eighty-eight new parishes and one hundred new schools, a new teacher training school, and a seminary. There were now so many priests that Brooklyn clergy were sent to staff parishes overseas and in the sparsely Catholic southern United States. By 1953, 1,180 parish priests in the diocese of Brooklyn were serving 1.4 million Catholics. The nuns were welcoming young women into their convents in even larger numbers. When Maura was born, there were 135,000 nuns in three hundred American orders. By the time she was twenty, that number had swelled to 150,000. Entering the convent was so common in certain heavily Catholic neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that department stores carried the distinctive dark dresses of postulants, or first-year recruits, and girls would go to Finnegan’s or Doherty’s to buy the garb of the Josephites, Dominicans, Maryknoll Sisters, or Sisters of Charity before they presented themselves at the convent. Three of Maura’s close high school friends became nuns.22

During Maura’s childhood, 75 percent of the people in the parish boundaries were Catholic and the goings-on at the parish dominated life. It’s a measure of the role the church played in people’s lives that fifty and sixty years later, Catholic New Yorkers—long having moved up and out to the suburbs—define the city’s geography by parish. People didn’t live in Bedford Park or University Heights. They lived in St. Philip Neri or St. Nicholas of Tolentine. “What parish?” became the new version of the Irish immigrants’ question “What county?” Far from a place reserved for Sunday mornings, the parish was a locus of daily life, a center of social as well as spiritual activity.23

Maura’s house was frequently filled with visitors, John trying to re-create his home in Sligo by welcoming old comrades and holding forth. In the summer her mother took in the children of friends from the Bronx, insisting it was no trouble to have a few extra youngsters about, that it would be fun for them to be on the beach. Mary kept an open door. She didn’t rush about making everything perfect for guests, but when she came home from her job as a head nurse at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, she was armed with funny stories and ready to relax. She’d walk to the beach, carrying mugs, a jar of milk, and a teapot wrapped in a towel, to warm up the children. They’d have been waiting for her to get off a day shift at the hospital; permitted to play on the sands, they couldn’t go in the water until she came and so they strained to see her tall, straight figure walking hurriedly across the empty lots of late spring.24

Mary Clarke made going the extra mile in generosity look like the most obvious thing in the world. She had a patient once, dying of cancer, who loved Irish ballads. So, Mary called her nephew James, the son of one of John’s brothers who was then living with the family from time to time, and told him to sing “Galway Bay” to the dying man.25

Maura inherited the same instinct, but not always her mother’s good sense. During World War II, soldiers from nearby Fort Tilden were stationed on the beach, camping in tents, alert for German U-boats. Maura and a friend, then twelve or thirteen years old, once brought cookies over and stayed to talk for a little while with the young men. The girls felt sorry for them, far from their homes and alone on the beach. But in the strictly regulated mores of Catholic


  • "In death, Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke became known as a symbol of the brutality of El Salvador's pitiless conflict in the 1980s. In this rare and beautiful book, Eileen Markey brings Maura to life. From her childhood in a tightly knit Irish Catholic neighborhood to her departure for Nicaragua in 1959 and subsequent murder in El Salvador, Maura's life became interwoven with the tumultuous history of Cold War Central America. Drawing on personal correspondence and extensive interviews, Markey skillfully evokes the transformation of the Catholic Church during those turbulent decades, crafting a searing testament to the meaning of faith amidst the hard choices imposed by desperate circumstances."—Cynthia Arnson, Director, Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  • "A Radical Faith brings excitement, tension, and compassion to an overlooked story...Rich details and solid storytelling convey one nun's story of her dedication to God and her fellow humans."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "I've always believed that responsibility, honesty, and faith are the three pillars of a strong character. Sister Maura Clarke, who recognized the humanity in everyone she met-from schoolchildren in the Bronx to farmers in Nicaragua-lived a life that served as a testament to that strength. Eileen Markey's beautifully told narrative reminds us of Maura's courage in the face of brutal dictators and shocking suffering. It's an important story that has been forgotten for too long, and Markey's book returns Maura to her deserved place in history."—Martin Sheen

On Sale
Nov 8, 2016
Page Count
336 pages
Bold Type Books

Eileen Markey

About the Author

Eileen Markey is an assistant professor of journalism at Lehman College of the City University of New York and a veteran NYC policy reporter who learned the power of facts and the joy of digging for them from Village Voice muckraker Wayne Barrett. She has written for, among others, The Daily BeastThe New RepublicThe New York TimesCity LimitsThe Daily NewsNew York Magazine, WNYC New York Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal and The Village Voice. She’s lectured widely on the role of religion in radical social movements. Markey is increasingly interested in archives and the role of public memory in shaping allegiances.

Learn more about this author