The Murder of the Priests

On November 16, 1989, Salvadoran soldiers murdered six Jesuits and their two co-workers at the University of Central America during that country’s civil war. Dick Howard ’67, then a Jesuit priest, was one of the first on the scene the morning after the shooting. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said in a Genesis IIinterview.21 “I knew all of them…. I went to see the bodies and identified them. Then the provincial asked me to tell the archbishop.” One of the first reporters on scene was Phil Bennett ’77, who, at the time, was the Latin-American correspondent for The Boston Globe. (He is now the managing editor of The Washington Post.) Bennett recalls running into another journalist who had heard “a report that eight people had been killed overnight. I drove up to UCA and walked through the back gate to the Jesuit residence, probably the same gate the killers had come through. There I saw five bodies lying on the lawn by the back of the study center where the rectory was, and I saw the other three bodies inside. After four years of working in war zones, this was the most gruesome scene I had ever witnessed. There was a sense of real desecration.”

Two of the six priests, Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ (rector of the Jesuit community at UCA), and Ignacio Martín-Baró, SJ, were among “the smartest people in the country, and their killers silenced two of the strongest voices in El Salvador,” said Bennett. “These were powerful intellects, and their murder left us all feeling vulnerable.”22

The SI community reacted with shock and sadness to these killings. The Friday after the murder, Fr. Andrew Sotelo, SJ, dedicated the Friday Morning Liturgy at SI to the slain men and women. The next Monday, a busload of SI students and teachers went to San Francisco’s Federal Building to participate in a prayer vigil. At the end of the school year, SI presented the President’s Award to Fr. Jon Sobrino, SJ, a colleague of the slain priests, who was also targeted for assassination. He survived only because he was out of the country that night.

Fr. Sobrino returned to SI on November 30, 1992, to speak to the student body. Fr. Sauer, who had studied philosophy under him in St. Louis in the 1960s, introduced him as the “living embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of the 80,000 El Salvadoran people killed in a decade of civil war, and of a nation’s poor, striving for a just society.” Sobrino’s talk, according to Fr. Prietto, was one of the most powerful statements on justice ever offered at SI.

In 1999, SI students and faculty began taking part in protests first at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and later at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, based in Fort Benning, Georgia, which trained some of the officers responsible for the deaths of the Jesuits and thousands of other innocent people. Each year, the Jesuit Assistancy in the U.S. asks that every Jesuit high school and college send a delegation to participate in the protest, held in November on the anniversary of the martyrdom of the Jesuits. A highlight of this protest is the Ignatian Family Teach-In, which draws a crowd of 2,000 to listen to speakers address human rights concerns. SI, to this day, continues to attend these gatherings to urge Congress to close the school, and, since 2003, the SI student-faculty contingent has met with a dozen SI alumni who attend the event as representatives from their colleges. “Our students see the legacy of Ignatian education here,” said SI religious studies teacher Mary Ahlbach, who helps to organize the SI delegation. “This event tells me that there is reason to hope and that our efforts are worth it.”