Delegation trip memorialized human rights efforts

Tom Howarth holds a momento from his memorial trip to El Salvador for the 35th anniversary of the deaths of four murdered churchwomen in 1980. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Having returned from his 21st trip to El Salvador, Front Royal resident Tom Howarth said it’s always a big change of pace to be back home.

For most of the trip, he traveled with the guidance of a delegation from the SHARE Foundation to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the deaths of four churchwomen on Dec. 2. Of the 117 people in the delegation, Howarth estimated that around 100 were nuns or churchwomen and said he met many on the trip that had a connection to the five deceased women – also including Carla Piette, who had died earlier that same year.

On the anniversary, the delegation visited the memorial where Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel were murdered, which Howarth said was named a historical site. Those present told stories of their interactions with the women and the nuns present sang in memory of the deceased.

“The first line was, ‘Women of the church, how great is your legacy,'” he said. “And as a man, you almost wanted to step back and say, ‘I’m observing this, this isn’t really for me, this is for them.'”

“These are women that paid the ultimate price for giving hope to the poor,” he continued.

Howarth said he was asked to give remarks when the delegation visited the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was also killed in 1980. As most of those on the trip hadn’t traveled to the country before, Howarth used the opportunity to urge those present to fall in love with the Salvadoran people.

“Falling in love with them is complicated, because the conditions under which people live will break your heart,” he said. “There’s so much history … from my perspective as a U.S. citizen, it’s a very difficult history to reconcile.”

This became evident when the delegation visited the Monument to Truth and Memory for those lost during the country’s civil war. Howarth said one woman came forward during the press conference there wanting to know where her son was so that she could give him a Christian burial.

“That is the missing piece in El Salvador, that there is all of this pain of loss without any kind of closure to it, without any kind of resolution,” he said. “To some extent, the delegation was there to commit ourselves not to forget that and to continue to press for human rights revelations.”

He said investigations into war crimes have effectively stopped after the current Archbishop closed the human rights office there. El Salvador’s amnesty law passed after the war, but Howarth said that many Salvadorans, like the woman at the conference, are questioning, “is it amnesty or amnesia?”

Now, Howarth said the danger that many in San Salvador live with comes from gangs whose families died or left during the war when they were young. Visiting his sister parish in the La Chacra area of San Salvador, Maria Madre de los Pobres, he experienced that sense of danger firsthand while on his way to visit a close friend who lives near the parish. Having heard the rapid sound of gunfire, he and his companion had to turn back to take safe refuge.

“It sounded like, to me, it was the next block over,” he said. “There were two gangs shooting at each other, that’s what they were doing.”

His companion told him that was an occurrence that could happen anytime. He recalled members of the Maria de los Pobres parish saying they trust in God to keep them safe.

“They did say to me, ‘only God protects us here.’ They said the police don’t come here, because if they come here they’re going to get into a gun battle with the gangs,” he said. “That’s quite a lesson in faith.”

He said he closed out his last night in El Salvador with a cheerful dinner with those parish members.

“It was like this release of tension,” he said. “We were safe here, there was no gang here. We could just have fun.”

Howarth said he would be speaking with a parish in D.C. about sending more delegations to the country in their time of need, despite the conflicts.

“I’m going to tell them two things: ‘I can’t tell you honestly that it’s not dangerous,'” he said. “‘But I am going to tell you that it’s important to go.'”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com