Dorothy Kazel

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Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U.
File:Dorothy Kazel.jpg
Born Dorthea Lu Kazel
(1939-06-30)June 30, 1939
Cleveland, Ohio
Died December 2, 1980(1980-12-02) (aged 41)
El Salvador
Cause of death Murder
Nationality American
Other names Sister Laurentine, Madre Dorthea
Occupation Ursuline Religious Sister and missionary
Known for Catholic martyr of El Salvador
Parent(s) Joseph and Malvina Kazel

Sister Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. (June 30, 1939 – December 2, 1980), was an American Ursuline Religious Sister and missionary to El Salvador. On December 2, 1980, she and fellow missionaries, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and laywoman Jean Donovan were beaten, raped, and murdered by members of the military of El Salvador.

Life and work

Kazel was born Dorthea Lu Kazel to Lithuanian American parents, Joseph and Malvina Kazel, in Cleveland, Ohio. When she joined the Ursulines, a Roman Catholic religious institute in 1960, she took the name Sister Laurentine, in honor of an Ursuline nun martyred during the French Revolution.

As the Catholic Church modernized during the 1960s, she became known as Sister Dorothy. In the Central American community where she died, she was known as Madre Dorthea (Dorothy).[1]

Kazel completed her bachelor's degree and novitiate between 1960 and 1965. Beginning in 1965, she taught for seven years in Cleveland, and did missionary work among the Papago Tribe of Arizona.[1]

After finishing a master's degree in counseling in 1974, Kazel decided to partake in the challenge of joining the Diocese of Cleveland's mission team working in El Salvador.[1] Once there, Kazel worked in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in La Libertad, training catechists, carrying out sacramental preparation programs, and overseeing the distribution of Catholic Relief Services aid and food supplies. She was also engaged in working with refugees from the Salvadoran Civil War, obtaining food, shelter, and medical supplies, and transporting the sick and injured to medical facilities.


On the afternoon of December 2, 1980, Kazel and Jean Donovan, a layperson who worked with her in La Libertad, picked up two Maryknoll missionary sisters, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, from the airport after the pair arrived from attending a Maryknoll conference in Managua, Nicaragua. They were under surveillance by a National Guardsman of El Salvador at the time, who phoned his commander for orders.

Acting on orders from their commander, five National Guard members changed into plainclothes and continued to stake out the airport. Donovan and Kazel returned to pick up another pair of Maryknoll sisters, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, who were returning from the same conference, on a flight not due until 7:00 pm.[2]

The five members of the National Guard, out of uniform, stopped the vehicle they were driving after they left the airport in San Salvador. Kazel and the three other women were taken to a relatively isolated spot where they were beaten, raped and murdered by the soldiers.[2]

Peasants living nearby had seen the women's white van drive to an isolated spot at about 10 p.m. on December 2 and then heard machine gun fire followed by single shots, three hours after the flight was due. They saw five men flee the scene in the white van, with the lights on and the radio blaring. The van would be found later that night on fire at the side of the airport road. Later, their bodies were found knifed in a ditch. [2]

Early the next morning, December 3, they found the bodies of the four women and were told by local authorities—a judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders—to bury them in a common grave in a nearby field. The peasants did so, but informed their parish priest, Fr. Paul Schindler, and the news reached the local Catholic bishop and the United States Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White.[2]

Their shallow grave was exhumed the next day, December 4, in front of 15 reporters, Sisters Alexander and Dorsey and several missioners, and Ambassador White. Donovan's body was the first exhumed; then Kazel's; then Clarke's; and last, that of Ita Ford. On December 5, a Mass of the Resurrection was said by Bishop Rivera y Damas; and on December 6, the bodies of Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel were flown out for burial. Donovan's body was returned to her parents in Sarasota, Florida, while Kazel's was taken back to her hometown of Cleveland, where she was buried in All Souls Cemetery in Chardon, Ohio. The bodies of the Maryknoll sisters, Clarke and Ford, were buried in Chalatenango, El Salvador,[2] in keeping with Maryknoll practice.

At that point, a series of investigations began. The earliest investigations were condemned as whitewash attempts by the later ones, and in time, a truth commission was appointed by the United Nations to investigate who gave the orders, who knew about it, and who covered it up. Several low-level guardsman were convicted, and two generals were sued by the women's families in the U.S. federal courts for their command responsibility for the incident.

Subsequent history

In 1984, four national guardsmen -- Daniel Canales Ramirez, Carlos Joaquin Contreras Palacios, Francisco Orlando Contreras Recinos and Jose Roberto Moreno Canjura -- were convicted of murdering of Kazel and the other three Maryknoll churchwomen and were sentenced to 30 years in prison.[3] Their superior, sub-sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman, was also convicted for the murders as well.[3]

According to the Maryknoll Sisters:

“The [1993] U.N.-sponsored [1] Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded that the abductions were planned in advance and the men responsible had carried out the murders on orders from above. It further stated that the head of the National Guard and two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed the facts to harm the judicial process. The murder of the women, along with attempts by the Salvadoran military and some American officials to cover it up, generated a grass-roots opposition in the U.S., as well as ignited intense debate over the Administration’s policy in El Salvador. In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in Salvadoran history that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behavior. Two of the men remain in prison and have petitioned the Salvadoran government for pardons.” [2].

The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become Salvadoran Minister of Defense in the government of José Napoleón Duarte.[4] In 1998, the four assassins confessed to abducting, raping and murdering the four churchwomen and claimed that they did so because Aleman had informed them that they had to act on orders from high-level military officers.[3] Some were then released from prison after detailing how Vides and his cousin Col. Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar, the local military commander in Zacatecoluca, had planned and orchestrated the executions of the churchwomen.[5] A 16-year legal battle to deport Vides Casanova soon commenced.[6]

After their emigration to the U.S. state of Florida, Vides Casanova and his fellow general, José Guillermo García, were sued by the families of the four women in federal civil court. The case is styled Ford v. Garcia. The defense won the case. On 24 February 2012, however, a Federal immigration judge cleared the way for the deportation of Vides Casanova after the General was held liable for various war crimes which occurred under his command.[7]On March 11, 2015, the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed General Vides Casanova's appeal.[8][9] Vides Casanova was then deported back to El Salvador on April 8, 2015.[6]


Although Jean Donovan is the main subject of the 1982 documentary Roses in December the film also includes footage regarding Archbishop Romero and Sister Dorothy Kazel.[10] This documentary won the Interfilm Award at the 1982 International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg.

Pamela Bellwood played Kazel in the 1983 television movie Choices of the Heart, which was criticized for lacking clarity about the political context of the women's killings.[11] The movie won the 1984 Humanitas Prize in the 90-minute category. Melissa Gilbert, Helen Hunt, Martin Sheen, and Mike Farrell co-starred.


Several books have been written about the four women who were martyred that day, and Kazel is mentioned in all of them. However, one specifically about Kazel was authored by Sister Cynthia Glavac: In the Fullness of Life: A Biography of Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. (1996, Dimension Books).


  • There is a section of the Ursuline High School, Wimbledon in England campus named after Dorothy; it is widely known within the school as the DK block. That particular block is used for business studies and is fairly new, only built a few years ago. It contains many computers and new technology, and acts as the finance office of the school.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Sister Dorothy Kazel, Martyred in El Salvador by Sr. Kathleen Cooney (1999), website maintained by Kazel's motherhouse, accessed online December 8, 2006
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Judith Noone, The Same Fate as the Poor, Orbis Books (1995) pp. 1-2. Text not available online. (ISBN 1570750319)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Larry Rother (April 3, 1998). "4 Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of Military". New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved June 23, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Biography InterReligious Task Force of Cleveland; accessed October 7, 2005.
  5. Larry Rother (April 3, 1998). "4 Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of Military". New York Times. p. 2. Retrieved June 23, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Preston, Julia (April 8, 2015). "U.S. Deports Salvadoran General Accused in '80s Killings". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Preston, Julia (February 23, 2012). "Salvadoran May Be Deported From U.S. for '80 Murders of Americans". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Board of Immigration Appeals. "Matter of Carlos Eugenio VIDES CASANOVA, Respondent" (PDF). Executive Office for Immigration Review. Retrieved 11 March 2015. External link in |website= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Preston, Julia (March 12, 2015). "General in El Salvador Killings in '80s Can Be Deported, Court Rules". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Roses in December" details at American Friends Service Committee lending library; accessed online December 9, 2006.
  11. "Choices of the Heart" detailed review dated 2005; accessed online December 10, 2006.

Further reading

  • “Hearts on Fire: The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters”, Penny Lernoux, et al., Orbis Books, 1995.
  • “Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan”, Ana Carrigan, Ballantine Books, 1986.
  • “Witness of Hope: The Persecution of Christians in Latin America,” Martin Lange and Reinhold Iblacker, Orbis Books, 1981.
  • "Who Was Dorothy Kazel?" from the diocese of Cleveland [3]

External links