Not Left Forgotten: Guided by the Spirit of Ita Ford

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Forty-some years ago, in a house on Westminster Place in Saint Louis, just a few blocks away from the current Provincial House of the Daughters of Charity, a thirty-something woman completed her novitiate. She probably spent lots of time in the chapel, praying about her future vocation as a missionary. She may have wandered the garden, backyard, or the neighborhood, reflecting as she walked. She may have had funny stories there because of the antics of her and her fellow novices. But soon her life would change and Westminster Place would become only a memory. Soon, she would be sent on mission to La Bandera, Chile.

By now, this woman would be 72 years old, perhaps approaching her last years of foreign mission or maybe joining the other elderly Sisters at Maryknoll's motherhouse in Ossining. But none of that was meant to be. In December of 1980, at the age of 40, Ita Ford was martyred, along with three others - Sr Maura Clarke, Sr Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan.

I found that house on Westminster Place, paused, and prayed. This was no ordinary former novitiate to me, of which there are plenty in St Louis. This was not just a historical building. It meant something deep to me that it was the former residence of Sr Ita Ford, who has been a personal hero of mine since high school.

Don’t know who she is? I didn’t either until then. In high school, I was somehow introduced to her. I can’t remember now if it was through Spanish class (as my Spanish teacher knew Ita’s companion in death, Maura Clarke) or religion class. Ita had died before I was even born in a far away country I didn’t know, yet I somehow felt connected to her. That intimate connection continued for years, although all I knew about her was from her short biography Missionary Martyr and anything I could find on the Internet.

Ita was a New Yorker, a relative of the Maryknoll martyr of China Francis X. Ford. She entered the Maryknoll Sisters after graduating from high school but was asked to leave the novitiate right before vows because of poor health. That didn't deter her, since she entered again seven years later. This would be her time at Westminster Place, certainly a more peaceful time for her than the first. She had changed and things had changed. The Maryknoll Sisters took on the spirit of Vatican II, taking on a healthier and less institutional formation. She would take her vows in St Louis and then be missioned to La Bandera, Chile. She would stay there for years and then, following the plea of Archbishop Oscar Romero, would volunteer to go to El Salvador and, just a few months after arriving, that is where she would be murdered, killed for all that she was doing to serve the poor.

That is pretty much all I knew about her until 2005, when a collection of her letters and writings, titled "Here I Am, Lord", was published. She was suddenly made real. She was witty and sometimes sarcastic. She was a writer. She was reflective. She struggled with the love God and others had for her. She had a great love for the poor. She, strangely enough, has reminded me of myself sometimes. For reasons I can't explain, I believe she was one of those people that led me to Bolivia in 2007. I have read her letters and writings many times - as a college student interested in foreign mission, as a missionary in Bolivia, as a woman who left her religious community and now as a postulant - and she speaks to me every time in a different light.

As I stood before her old novitiate, I thanked her for what she was meant to me - she was a woman I never met, whose voice I've never heard, whose work I've never seen, yet a woman who has lived on through the influence she has had for me. Saint Therese, certainly a saint quite different than Ita Ford, commented that she wanted to spend time in heaven doing good for people on earth. Although Ita never said anything like that, I believe she has done the same for me. And I believe, as I go through formation with the Daughters of Charity and as I later go through various missions serving the poor, she is and will continue to be with me.

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