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Dorothy Kazel (June 30, 1939December 2, 1980) was an Americanmarker Ursuline nun and missionary to El Salvadormarker. On December 2, 1980, she and fellow missionaries Ita Ford, Jean Donovan and Maura Clarke were 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, Ohiomarker. When she joined the Ursulines, a Roman Catholic religious order. In 1960, she took the name Sister Laurentine, in honor of an Ursuline martyred during the French Revolution.

As the Roman 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).

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

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 Salvadormarker. In El Salvador, Kazel worked in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in La Libertadmarker, 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 of 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, Teresa Alexander and Madeline Dorsey, from the airport after the pair arrived from attending a Maryknoll conference in Managuamarker, Nicaraguamarker. 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.

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

Peasants living nearby had seen the sisters' 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 than night on fire at the side of the airport road.

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 the women in a common grave in a nearby field. The peasants did so, but informed a local priest, and the news reached the local bishop and the United States Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White.

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, 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 to her parents in Sarasota, Floridamarker, and Kazel back to her hometown of Cleveland. The bodies of the Maryknoll sisters, Clarke and Ford, were buried in Chalatenango, El Salvador.

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, and 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

According to the Maryknoll Order:
“The [1993] U.N.-sponsored [191118] 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.” [191119].

The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become Minister of Defense in the government of José Napoleón Duarte. After their emigration to Floridamarker, Vides Casanova and his fellow general, José Guillermo Garcia, were sued by the families of the four women in federal civil court.


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. 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. 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, Wimbledoninmarker 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, it also acts as the finance office of the school.


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 [191120]

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