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A Quarter Century Later, UCA Jesuit Murders Still Resonate

11/12/14
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Campus Minister Donald MacMillan, SJ, surveyed white crosses in the Quad prior to Monday’s prayer service for the six Jesuits and two women killed at the University of Central America 25 years ago. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Rosanne Pellegrini | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 13, 2014

The title “One Night in November” is a compelling one for a Boston College exhibit commemorating the 25th anniversary of the murders at the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador. And with good reason, according to Campus Minister Donald MacMillan, SJ, the exhibit curator.

 “This event touches the hearts and souls of the Jesuit Community and its colleagues at Boston College,” said Fr. MacMillan of the murders of six Jesuits and two women – the Jesuits’ housekeeper and her daughter -– that took place on Nov. 16, 1989. “These were our brothers and educational partners who were in solidarity with their colleagues at the UCA, raising their voices for human rights and justice,”

At that time, he says, El Salvador was mired in a civil war in which more than 70,000 people – most of them civilians – were slain by the Salvadoran government’s armed forces and paramilitary death squads.  

The 25th anniversary of the UCA murders also will be marked on Nov. 19 with an appearance by poet and activist Carolyn Forché. “A Poet’s Journey from El Salvador to 2014: Witness in the Light of Conscience,” which is free and open to the public and presented by the Center for Human Rights and International Justice, will be held at 7 p.m. in in the Heights Room of Corcoran Commons.

Forché, who is Lannan Professor of Poetry, Professor of English and director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University, has witnessed, reflected on, and memorialized in her poetry some of the most devastating events of 20th century history. She is working on In Another Country, In Another Time, a memoir of her years in El Salvador just before the country became fully engulfed in its long civil war.  

The event is co-sponsored by BC’s Jesuit Institute, English Department, Latin American Studies program and the Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights.

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“The Jesuits were living the gospel and imitating Christ, who did the same for his people and instructed them to pass it on to succeeding generations,” said Fr. MacMillan. “We espouse the religious history not only of the United States but of our neighbors throughout Central America.”  

The exhibit, on display through Jan. 7 in the main lobby of O’Neill Library, was co-curated by Michael Burke ’18, who was hired by Burns Library Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard to work with her on its preparation over the summer in her conservation lab. O’Neill Library Conservation and Preservation Specialist Francis Bates also worked on the display.

“One Night in November” comprises numerous books – including those featuring biographies of the Jesuit martyrs – several photographs, relevant Heights articles and other related materials, along with background information on the slayings.  

“This exhibit is a small token of reverence for these martyrs, meant to spark an interest in the hearts and minds of students, as well as faculty, administration and staff, to search for ways to establish peace, equality and unconditional love with our neighbors on the same continent,” said Fr. MacMillan.

He hopes the exhibition challenges viewers to ask “Why did these Jesuits and others like them say what they said and live the way they lived? How do their deaths influence, and have an impact on us, in this country?

“I hope viewers will read up on the causes of that civil war and understand that the call of the gospel left these Jesuits no other choice but to be voices for the voiceless. It cost them their lives, but the call to justice has been raised and is still being voiced today.”

In addition, Fr. MacMillan said, “I hope we all become or remain aware that the struggle continues – not only in El Salvador but in every land. Seeking peace and having faith that does justice honors these martyrs.”

The University community’s reaction to the UCA massacre was one of solidarity with the Jesuits and the poor of El Salvador, notes the exhibition statement, and has remained so. In the wake of the slayings, then-University President (now University Chancellor) J. Donald Monan, SJ, worked to marshal the Jesuits’ response to the murders, and urged Congress to pressure the Salvadoran government to bring the killers to justice.

The exhibition statement quotes Fr. Monan: “I return to the full set of events that took place [in November 1989] very, very often. It sounded an alarm to me as an educator, as a university person, as a Jesuit and as a human being. What happened was so atrocious and such a public attack on all of these things, we wanted to do something.”

A Boston College High School graduate, Burke was familiar with the martyrs of El Salvador but said “the most powerful things I learned were about Boston College’s amazing response. I was in awe of, and inspired by, the way [the community] fought for justice in such an impactful way.”

He feels grateful for the experience of collaborating on an exhibit “that commemorates not only the lives of those who were martyred, but gives recognition to the people at BC who were profoundly important in working for justice – a living tradition in the Jesuit community and our own student community.  

 “I want people to reflect on the way the martyrs fought for justice and effected change – in the same way the BC community has – and continue to create a better world by following that example.”

An annual display of white crosses with the names of the UCA martyrs has been placed on the Quad, as a reminder of the example they set and the justice the world still works to achieve.