When William P. Ford died last month at the age of seventy-two, after a battle with esophageal cancer, the New York Times called him a “rights advocate.” That he was, having waged a decades-long legal struggle to achieve a measure of justice for victims of El Salvador’s civil war. It was the same war that had claimed the life of his sister, Sr. Ita Ford of Maryknoll, in December 1980.

When Bill’s son eulogized him at St. Cassian Church in Montclair, New Jersey, he described his father as a man of faithfulness and integrity. He was also a generous benefactor. Among other things, he and Mary Anne, his remarkable wife of forty-seven years, provided gift subscriptions to Commonweal for generations of Fordham students.

I met Bill in El Salvador in the early ’80s. He came here often to investigate the killing of Ita and three other U.S. churchwomen—Sisters Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan—who had been raped and killed by El Salvador’s National Guard. Three days before their deaths, Mary Anne gave birth to John, their sixth child. Bill liked to say that Mary Anne’s decision to marry him had made him “the luckiest man alive.” He also said that John’s birth had “saved” him: attending to the concrete tasks of caring for John and Mary Anne helped anchor him at a time when his grief might otherwise have overwhelmed him.

His pain was increased by the Reagan administration’s response to the killings. Bill described that response in Roses in December, an excellent TV documentary about Jean Donovan: “Gradually there intruded upon the sense of personal tragedy the surrounding facts, and it was like a growing horrible realization that we were supporting a government, that government had killed my sister, and my government didn’t care.” Despite the stonewalling and cover-ups, Bill kept up the pressure on the case.

When I think of him, I most remember his words at a Sunday Mass during the war. The Zacamil parish had a bloody history: it had long—too long, for the tastes of some—been one of the main sites for the grass-roots Christian communities that had flourished in the 1960s and ’70s, only to be decimated later by Salvadoran death squads. In 1980, death threats led the parish priests to stop sleeping in the small room attached to the church—a wise decision, given that one night, shortly after they left, the church was blown up.

Four years later, a provisional chapel was built and the parish was reactivated. When Bill and I arrived that particular Sunday, a nun who had worked with Ita recognized him and asked him to say a few words after Mass. Over the years the war had hit the congregation very hard; some members had lost spouses and children, and they knew they could be next. They took solace in knowing that there were people like Bill who cared about them and would do what they could, people who practiced what Archbishop Oscar Romero had called “the theology of accompaniment.” I remember struggling to maintain my composure as I translated Bill’s final words that morning: “There is a bond of blood between our family and you,” he said. “We won’t abandon you. We’ll never walk away from you.”

It was a promise he and his family kept in different ways. His two oldest children would later come to El Salvador and work with Jesuit Refugee Services—his son Bill during the war, his daughter Miriam just after it ended. Bill continued his legal battle against the Salvadoran military. His biggest victory came in a Florida district court in 2002, when two former defense ministers were found liable for the torture of Salvadorans during the war years.

In 2005, Bill returned to El Salvador with his family for what would be his final visit. They came to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the killing of the four women. I have another reason for cherishing that visit: it was then that he and Mary Anne met Guadalupe, the woman I would later marry.

An expert litigator, Bill was a founding partner of a major Wall Street law firm. I could imagine someone saying, “What could be more different—a brother who’s a Wall Street lawyer and a sister who’s a missionary nun?”

Not true, said a person who knew them both: Msgr. Ricardo Urioste, Archbishop Romero’s main assistant. When I called to tell him of Bill’s death and asked him to speak of his memories of Bill so that I could send his words to the Ford family, he said, “To me he seemed so similar to her—in spirit, in his honesty, and in his convictions.”

May they rest in peace.


Related: Death & Lies in El Salvador, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
The Martyrs of El Salvador, from the dotCommonweal blog

Gene Palumbo has reported from El Salvador for CBC Radio, the Christian Science Monitor, Commonweal, and other journals.
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Published in the 2008-07-18 issue: View Contents
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