Why I wrote Blood Flowers
December 2, 1980: a warm, sunny day in Santiago, and a phone call from the Maryknoll Sisters Center House in New York.
Sister Connie spoke. “Two of our Sisters are missing in El Salvador. One of them is Ita. Also missing are two missionaries from the Cleveland Diocese’s Mission Team. Pray they turn up ok—and that all this is a false alarm.”
It wasn’t a false alarm. The next day the bodies of the four church women were found buried in a shallow grave on an off-beat dirt road close to El Salvador’s Ilopongo airport. They had been raped before being shot. They were Sister Ita Ford, Sister Maura Clarke, Cleveland Missioners Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Lay Missionary Jeanne Donovan.
I had been a member of the Cleveland Mission team from 1970-72. Sister Dorothy had Been my replacement. I also knew Ita. On my arrival in Chile in 1977, I had gone to visit her and the other Maryknoll sisters living in the población of La Bandera to learn about the work they were doing. Ita was as thin as a rail and smoked constantly. The last time I saw her was in Santiago’s cathedral in March, 1980 at the Mass for El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Romero. Ita and her sidekick Sister Carla Piette had been recruited by Romero. He had wanted seasoned missioners who could protect his people by their presence among them.
“Are you still going?” I asked her.
She nodded. “Yes.”
There but for you go I. These women’s lives still haunt me. While I wrote Blood Flowers, I felt them urging me to tell for them the complex, riveting stories of their lives. I wanted more than that. I wanted to tell the larger story of what motivated a whole generation of nuns to travel to Latin American and work among the poor. They are indeed unsung heroines, but not without their foibles, their political naivety, their struggles with their vow of chastity, their vulnerability…..
In many ways, Blood Flowers contains a large dose of self-revelation. I too worked in El Salvador as a nun: I too lived and worked in Santiago’s poblaciones during the Pinochet dictatorship. Later, as a journalist covering Latin American affairs in the 1980s, I interviewed many “Megs” as well as her Salvadoran and Chilean compañeros.
Many readers will think that my heroine, Sister Meg is intended to be myself, but I am also Theo and Queen Mum and Molly and Tere and Raul and Paulina and Rutilio - even Monseñor Romero. The wonderful thing about writing a novel is that you live inside your characters, and you come to love them all.
I’ve worn many hats in my long life: Teacher, social worker, community organizer, economist—not to mention nun, missionary, wife, mother and granny. My last hat: ecofeminist theologian! Theology and philosophy have a way of dumping non sequiturs on unsuspicious bystanders—who, like you—couldn’t care less. If I can get you to fall in love with my characters, feel with them, make you giggle and weep with them—well then, I’ve expanded your heart and in some small way, contributed to making us more human more part of the Great Heart of the Universe.
Mary Judith Ress is a journalist and editor who has been living and working in Latin America since 1970. Her non-fiction work Ecofeminism in Latin America (Orbis books, 2007) won second place in “Best Gender Issues”at the Catholic Press Association in 2007. She has two grown sons and lives in Santiago, Chile.
Blood Flowers can be purchased through amazon.com here.