Bio 2 of 4: Sister Ita Ford
Ita Ford was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 23,1940. She joined the Maryknoll Sisters in 1961 after graduating from Marymount Manhattan College. Only three years later, health problems forced her to leave. After working as an editor for a publishing company for seven years, Ita re-applied and was once again accepted to the Maryknolls.
In 1973, Ita was assigned to Chile where she joined Carla Piette in a poor neighborhood called La Bandera. After only one year, the U.S. sponsored a coup that overthrew democratically elected Allende and began the military dictatorship of Pinoche under which Ita and Carla lived for years.
Thousands of people who were suspected opponents of the government were tortured, imprisoned, killed, and disappeared. In 1977, Ita wondered, “Am I willing to suffer with the people here…? Can I say to my neighbors – I have no solutions to this situation; I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you.”
Ita left Chile for a year back at Maryknoll. A friend described her to be “like a seething volcano.” She was angry with the injustice and, as a friend of hers described, felt that “The world had people in it who were beating up the poor she loved; the world had millions of other people who were closing their eyes and stopping their ears to keep from being aware of the slaughter going on.”
Even in the midst of her anguish, Ita’s vivaciousness and generosity remained her most prominent characteristics. Her Maryknoll friends explained that “Ita’s buoyant personality, her wit, her sense of humor and fun were striking contrast to the suffering and pain she experienced throughout her life. Her twinkling eyes and elfin grin would surface irrepressibly even in the midst of poverty and sorrow.”
In 1980, after hearing the sermons of Archbishop Romero, Ita and Carla embarked on a new mission to El Salvador. They arrived shortly after he was assassinated on March 24.
That June, Ita and Carla began working with the Emergency Refugee Committee in Chalatenango where they saw first-hand the Salvadoran reality of homelessness, persecution, repression, and violence of the ruthless military dictatorship. In a letter to Maryknoll President Melinda Roper, the two expressed concern that the US government would soon be taking decisive action “under the guise of ‘stopping communism’…” They also proclaimed that “…if we have a preferential option for the poor as well as a commitment for justice as a basis for the coming of the Kingdom, we’re going to have to take sides in El Salvador – correction – we have.”
On August 23, the two sisters went in their jeep to take a political prisoner home – something they often did for people whose lives were in danger. On the way back, they were caught in a flash flood while crossing a river. Carla pushed Ita out the window. While being carried down the river by raging waters, Ita was sure she had met her fate. But finally, she caught hold of a branch and pulled herself to the river bank.
Carla’s body was found the next morning. For Ita, losing her dearest friend had a profound impact and made her question why she had been spared.
Following Carla’s death, Sr. Maura Clarke became Ita’s new partner in Chalatenango. She described Ita as “a powerful example.” Having a new partner aided in Ita’s recovery. Her friends noticed her old spirit starting to return after an assembly of Maryknoll Sisters over Thanksgiving weekend. At the closing liturgy, Ita read a passage from one of Romero’s final homilies: “Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive – and to be found dead.”
The following day, December 2, 1980, she and Maura boarded a plane to return to El Salvador where Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan picked them up. On their way back from the airport, the four women were abducted and brutally killed by National Guardsmen. Continuing with the Maryknoll tradition, Ita and Maura were buried locally in Chalatenango.
Before her death, at the end of a birthday letter to her niece Jennifer, Ita wrote: “… I hope you can come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you, something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be. That’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking and support you in your search.”