Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U. (1939-1980)

Dorothea Lu Kazel was born in Cleveland on June 30 to Lithuanian-American parents, Joseph and Malvina Kazel. Leaving home, an ex-fiancé, and her only sibling, Jim, she entered the Cleveland Ursuline Sisters in 1960. After profession of vows and a degree, she taught for nine years in area high schools. She also deeply involved herself in ecumenical and interracial community service programs.

Dorothy got her first taste of missionary work when she taught Catholic doctrine to Native Americans on a Papago Indian reservation in Tucson, Arizona. It soon became clear to Dorothy that she was be-ing called to missionary work. In 1967, she volunteered to join the Cleveland Latin American Mission (CLAM). It was during a retreat in 1968 that Dorothy prophetically remarked to some other Sisters that she hoped that whenever she died, Saint Augustine’s saying that a Christian should be an Alleluia from head to toe would be true of her. Dorothy, according to her retreat notes, also resolved to “accept the person I am with all my weaknesses and not to pretend that I don’t have them; that I may accept the fact that I am human and with this human nature to strive to become as perfect and loving a woman, Christian, and religious that I can be.” She professed final vows a year later.

In 1974, after receiving a Master of Arts degree and making a month-long retreat, she left with one other Ursuline for Costa Rica to begin preparations to serve in El Salvador, which means The Savior.

The CLAM team served three parishes in El Salvador. It was an especially tumultuous time there, as a civil war meant daily fear and terrorism, with many kidnappings and unexplained murders. She de-scribed it as “a country writhing in pain—a country that daily faces the loss of so many of its people—and yet a country that is waiting, hoping and yearning for peace.” Sister Dorothy spent more and more time transporting homeless refugees, especially women and children, to refugee centers. Many times she was urged by concerned family members and friends to return home and pursue her missionary work locally. “Maybe next year” was always her response.

Sister Dorothy would have been the first to say that she was only one of tens of thousands of Salvadorans killed or simply missing during that country’s civil war. In October of 1979, Dorothy wrote to Sister Martha Owen: “We talked quite a bit today about what happens IF something begins. And most of us feel we would want to stay here. . . . We wouldn’t want to just run out on the people. . . . I thought I should say this to you because . . . I don’t think they would understand. . . . If a day comes when others would have to understand, please explain it for me.”

She and other team members started refugee centers, organized and conducted educational programs on nutrition, child care, home and health care. On one Mother’s Day, for example, she and Martha Owen planned a party for 500 women! Dorothy also wrote to President Jimmy Carter urging our government to stop supplying weapons to the Salvadoran government, but the war – which was secret to most Americans -- would intensify even more under the administration of Ronald Reagan, when Colonel Oliver North became infamous for running it out of the White House basement.

Then, on December 2, 1980, when Dorothy and another team member, laywoman Jean Donovan, went to the Comalapa International Airport to pick up two Maryknoll Sisters, all four, who engaged in helping the poor and the powerless of El Salvador yet were labeled “political activists," were abducted, raped and shot, then buried together in a shallow grave.

Five men, who were believed to have been ordered by their military superiors to kill the women, were tried in 1984, convicted, and sentenced to 30 years. El Salvador has no death penalty, and two of the five murderers were released early for good behavior. The two generals who are believed to have given the orders to kill the women retired in 1989 to Florida. The Reagan administration awarded one of these the U.S. Legion of Merit, a high honor.

The Interamerican Commission on Human Rights criticized El Salvador’s 1993 Amnesty Law because it violates international standards. “As long as impunity persists, Salvadoran society will be unable to attain reconciliation.” (I.C.H.R.)

The murders of the American churchwomen “shocked the conscience of the American people” and temporarily stemmed the flow of military aid to a country awash in violence, according to Robert White, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the time. (National Catholic Reporter, 2000)

The School of Americas Watch, an effort to close the U.S. Army Schools that train foreign soldiers, was soon founded. This Watch annually protests at Fort Benning, Georgia, on the anniversary of the murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter, and attracts thousands of participants.

At this writing, one or possibly both of the generals who may have ordered the murders is facing deportation. Deportation proceedings, led by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the initiative of Scott Greathead, a lawyer for the churchwomen’s families, cannot be overstated; the new statutory provisions on torture are being applied for the first time against senior level military commanders. The removal of these generals from the U.S. would represent the successful use of one more tool in the accountability arena and will bring us one step closer towards justice for Salvadorans. (The Center for Justice & Accountability)

Written by Sister Colette Livingston, OSU
Archivist, Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland


Works Cited:

  • Amnesty International, UK 2008.  Amnesty International UK is a company limited by guarantee. 
    Registered in England no 01735872, registered office (Interamerican Commission on Human
  • Sister Cynthia Glavac, In the Fullness of Life, Dimension Books, 1996
  • Greg Grandin, TPMCafe Book Club, 2006
  • Dorothy Kazel, OSU, Retreat Notes
  • Pamela Merchant, Executive Director, The Center for Justice & Accountability
  • National Catholic Reporter, 2000 (Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter, 115 E.
    Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111
  • Julia Preston, The New York Times, April 17, 2011