At the Foot of the Cross

Remembering Ann Manganaro, SL
This story is included in these collections
Photo by Mev Puleo

In June 1990, I was present in El Salvador when the guerrilla leader Maria Serrano came down from her mountain headquarters, during one of the bloodiest periods of the Salvadoran Civil War, to join a celebration honoring my lifelong friend, Ann Manganaro, on her twenty-fifth anniversary as a Sister of Loretto. One of the highest-ranking women in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), Maria was dressed in fatigues and accompanied by several armed rebels. A small group of us, including Ann’s mother Mildred, had come from the United States for the occasion, and were gathered on the porch of Ann’s mud bungalow in Guarjila, a resettlement village in the province of Chalatenango, where as a Jesuit Refugee Service volunteer she had helped start a medical clinic. It was a crisp, sunny morning, and despite the proximity of war, a palpable joy and festivity filled the air. People streamed across the hillsides, gathering for the celebration. Maria could not stay long, but before leaving she addressed Mildred with a broad smile: “We don’t have much to bring you, but we bring you our hearts. Thank you for giving us Ana!” To which Mildred brightly responded: “We are not giving you Ana—she’s just on loan!”

Ann’s jubilee celebration in Guarjila took place on Trinity Sunday, just seven months after the brutal November 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests and two women at the University of Central America in San Salvador, and four months after the horrific bombing of a nearby refugee resettlement village, Corral de Piedra, in which five people were killed, including four children. A physician, Ann had been called to aid the victims, and subsequently wrote a stirring account of the incident, “When Citizens Are Targets,” for Commonweal (April 6, 1990). Her commitment to serving the Salvadoran people, and to living among them, informed the jubilee homily by Jon Cortina, SJ, lauding the faithfulness of Ann’s vowed life and the clarity of her “preferential option for the poor.”

The lives of those we know and love present wonderful mysteries of grace. How did a shy young woman from the suburban Midwest turn into someone brave enough to travel by foot from village to village, tending the wounded and training health-care providers? How did my friend become a person renowned for being able to calmly talk her way through military check points—and even, on occasion, out of a commander’s office (she told me how her blood ran cold when he asked her, “Are you with Maryknoll?”)—in the very same province, Chalatenango, where the North American women religious martyred in December 1980 had worked, and where Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke are buried. Year after year, knowing Ann Manganaro gave me an intimate and inspiring look at the ups and downs of a life dedicated to a vision of good works based on faith, even as it bestowed the joys of a friendship that grew, in mutual regard and reward, over three decades.

Ann and I had met in high school in 1960. We had both grown up in devout Catholic families in suburban St. Louis; Ann was a year behind me at Nerinx Hall, a girls’ school run by the Sisters of Loretto in Webster Groves, Missouri. I remember her in those years as quiet, even introverted, and an exceptionally good student. At Nerinx, the sisters created a lively and congenial environment where academic excellence, emotional maturation, and Christian values were nurtured and modeled. Following high school, Ann and I joined sizeable contingents of Nerinx grads entering the Loretto novitiate in rural Kentucky. In the early 1960s, during Vatican II, Loretto provided what in retrospect seems like the best of two worlds. During our first years of novitiate, a semi-monastic environment prevailed, with emphases on daily Eucharist and the Divine Office, silence, choir (with a good amount of Gregorian chant), study, and manual labor. After we returned to St. Louis to complete our studies at Webster College, the challenge involved learning to recognize and respond, as Gaudium et spes exhorted us, to “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of the world around us—“especially among those who are poor or who are in any way afflicted.”

It’s remarkable to look back and see how what Vatican II called the “signs of the times” came to challenge the dominant views of church and state Ann and I had grown up with. For example, while the fresh air ushered in by the council renewed the prayer life of the church, the release of Humanae vitae unleashed endless questioning of the church’s teaching authority. The ongoing war in Vietnam was challenged not only by pacifists, but also by those applying just-war criteria. The courageous, prophetic witness of Dr. King and the civil-rights movement came to stand in stark contrast with images of cities in flames and the assassinations of our national leaders, including of course King himself. Miraculously—a favorite word of Ann’s—we were given, precisely at this crucial junction, a vividly compelling study of scripture as a “living word” or a “two-edged sword,” a foundation that linked the contemplative novitiate years with the challenges raised by social-justice issues, providing a grounding for the rest of our lives.

Following college, in the summer of 1969 Ann and I joined another friend to volunteer at the Catholic Worker community in New York City. It would prove to be a sort of second novitiate. In The Other America, Michael Harrington credited the Catholic Worker for teaching him about “the terrible reality of involuntary poverty and the magnificent ideal of voluntary poverty.” Ann’s introduction to the Catholic Worker, and to the witness of its co-founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, put flesh and bones on her faith, and became a sort of substratum for her life. “It was just a summer,” she recounted in an interview years later, but “the Worker’s particular slant on the Gospel”—integrating the works of mercy with the works of justice and living with the poor—was “a real source of revelation that has since been a strong source of nurturance for me.”

After that summer in New York, Ann returned to St. Louis and began teaching young children (the initial charism of the Sisters of Loretto). I remained at the Catholic Worker, soon to leave the Sisters of Loretto, and while Ann and I never again lived together, by God’s grace our friendship not only persisted but deepened and expanded over the years. We wrote one another faithfully, and after I was married Ann would visit my family and me in New York at least once a year. We spent time together in St. Louis in the summers, when my family and I were visiting relatives. Good fortune also made it possible for us to meet at the Loretto Motherhouse several times over the years, and for both my husband Pat and me to visit Ann in El Salvador.

In St. Louis, Ann continued teaching young children, first at an inner-city parochial school, then at the New City School, a progressive elementary school. After that she pioneered and led the Neighborhood School, a racially and economically diverse school that assisted poorer families through a tuition-sharing program. For Ann this was a time of questioning and frustration regarding the church and religious life, and for a while she stopped praying and attending Mass regularly. Perhaps her scripture studies and her summer experience at the Catholic Worker collided to bring this “crisis of faith” to the fore. At any rate, one afternoon in 1970 she took her Bible in hand and walked to nearby Forest Park. There, sitting beneath a tree, she read the Gospel of Matthew from start to finish. When she was done, she said to herself: “This is true! This is what I want my life to be based on.” By the time she left the park that afternoon, Ann was a changed woman. She was all of twenty-four years old.

FROM THEN ON—in small, quotidian ways as well as grander ones—Ann’s life would reflect the advice offered by Pedro Arrupe, SJ: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, falling in love in quite an absolute final way.” Part and parcel of this new and absolute commitment to a Gospel-centered life was Ann’s decision to embrace voluntary poverty. She had grown up in a comfortable middle-class home, and at times she wondered: Who was she to be talking about living poorly? Such questions spurred small lifestyle changes that eventually evolved into the radical voluntary poverty her life came to reflect. Her diet became basically vegetarian; her wardrobe became simpler and sparser. The Sisters of Loretto had stopped wearing a traditional religious habit in the mid-1960s, and early on Ann wore dungarees and sweatshirts. Eventually she pared down to an almost habit-like outfit that proved as easily recognizable in the corridors of St. Louis’s Cardinal Glennon Hospital as it was in the hills of Chalatenango: modest black skirt; white blouse, sometimes with a small decoration or embroidery; and flat, Chinese-style shoes, like slippers or ballet shoes (Ann swore by them, and seemed to have had no trouble walking in them for hours across El Salvador). A Maryknoll sister Ann lived with for a while later told me, “Ann showed us how to live the vow of poverty.”

While six years would pass between that transformative day in the park and her decision to make final vows as a Sister of Loretto in 1976, the clarity of conviction Ann had reached grounded and guided her. From then on, her faith and prayer were nurtured by active participation in several communities: an informal small Christian community, called Kopavi, in St. Louis; the Loretto community; and the “basement church” at St. Louis University. Ann loved music and grew to appreciate the psalm/hymns created by the St. Louis Jesuits. Prayer in common and sharing in the Eucharist were important in the years she lived at Karen House, the St. Louis Catholic Worker house she helped found in 1977. And over the years in El Salvador, along with her own personal time for prayer and reflection, Ann would say morning prayer with the Oblate of the Sacred Heart sisters, who also lived in Guarjila.

Friendship and community were essential for Ann. Making final vows on a cold winter night in St. Louis in 1976, surrounded by friends, Sisters of Loretto, and family members, she finished her own eloquent personal vow statement, then asked the other sisters present to join her in reciting the closing portion of the traditional vow ceremony. It was an inspiring affirmation of how central Loretto was and would continue to be in her life. Over the five years Ann lived in El Salvador, she regularly wrote letters to the community, single-spaced typewritten pages describing her work and the lives of the Salvadorans she had come to know and love. With journalistic acuity, she chronicled the ongoing daily warfare around her, and the culpability of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military. These letters inevitably included an appeal for readers to contact their government representatives and insist on ending support for the brutal injustices perpetrated by the Salvadoran government and its military. Some years later, when Ann was ill and had come home from El Salvador, she showed me a letter she’d received from Sister Mary Luke Tobin, the extraordinary leader of the Sisters of Loretto and one of the few women invited to Vatican II. I was struck not only by the great love and support Luke was sending at a time of trial for Ann, but also by a question she addressed to her—“What should we [Loretto] be doing in Central America?”—and the faith in Ann’s judgment that it disclosed.

By God’s grace, as I mentioned, our own friendship flourished over the years. Common interests and values—a love for Loretto, for the church and the Catholic Worker, and, of course, for the St. Louis Cardinals—bound us together in support and challenge. We were able to pray together, tease, correct, advise, argue with, and encourage one another. Ann delighted in watching my children grow up, and we were fortunate, even with the miles between us, to be able to accompany one another in significant moments. Ann was with us shortly before Hannah’s birth and when Justin was baptized. Pat and I were present when she made her final vows. In the summer of 1991, when my mother was killed in an automobile accident, Ann delayed a return flight to El Salvador in order to sit with us, offering incomparable solace.

Along with these important points of contact at crisis moments came the simple pleasures of friendship, of knowing someone well. Ann loved music. Her vow of poverty notwithstanding, she loved to eat. And she drove like a bat out of hell! I first discovered this the summer we took a “drive away” car from St. Louis to New York, and I found myself repeating “slow down!” over and over. Years later, traversing El Salvador’s rough and military-patrolled roadways, Ann was driving a small group of us in a Land Cruiser to Guarjila for her jubilee. More than once I hollered from the back seat (to appreciative nods from my fellow travelers): “Ann, it’s okay if we get there five minutes later—take it easy! Slow down!”

There were many other occasions over the years when I was concerned for Ann’s safety or well-being. As she began seriously looking into living in Central America in 1987, the first place she considered was Guatemala. My heart sank in fear for her safety; when I brought it up, she told me gently that any place she would go would inevitably pose dangers—which proved true in spades when she wound up in El Salvador in the midst of its civil war. I repeatedly encouraged Ann to make sure she had companions or a community wherever she did decide to go. Despite genuine efforts to make this happen, she often ended up far too isolated. It’s hard not to think that the loneliness she experienced over the years in El Salvador was as traumatic for her as the horrors of the war itself—but it is even harder to think she would have chosen otherwise.

In the summer of 1975, Ann overcame her natural reticence to tell me about a growing friendship between her and John Kavanaugh, SJ, a Jesuit priest at St. Louis University and later a columnist for America. She greatly admired his roles as a gifted teacher, mentor, author, and chaplain to students; he also played the guitar and had a good singing voice. It was clear to me that Ann was falling in love. Their relationship—one of uncommon depth and fidelity to their religious vows—would become life-giving for each, illuminating and strengthening the path toward what Dante called “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

It was during this time that Ann began writing poetry. Her poems, she said, were “intensely personal,” and while she had no intention of publishing them, she would often send them to me, written out in her distinctive hand. While her earliest poems were replete with images flowing from her love of nature, and her later ones resonant with the sounds and faces of El Salvador, her middle poems were written primarily for John. A certain haltingness, bespeaking new love, comes through in the first of them, soon replaced by cadences reflecting the “utter amazement” she felt at being “loved so marvelously, so reciprocally.” At root was a sense of the essential sacrifice included in their love for one another, as in these tremendously poignant lines from a poem she wrote in 1979: “A toast to the beautiful brown-eyed children we might / Have had… / Our daughters and sons remain / Unborn, lovely, laden with all the grace / Which by God’s grace we learn to bear elsewhere.” On the back of this poem Ann wrote: “I think you are the only person besides John I’ve ever shown either of these to, but perhaps I’ll be braver now.”

"BRAVER" INDEED DID Ann become, and in so many realms of her life. Having decided to study medicine, she began premed studies in St. Louis in the spring of 1977, not long after making final vows. That fall she moved into Karen House, whose address, “1840 Hogan,” would be her “home” address for the rest of her life. There Ann took on her share of the myriad tasks necessary to make a Catholic Worker house of hospitality function, and continued doing so while finishing medical school—with honors—in 1982, and a residency in pediatrics, in 1985. Around this time, she confessed to feeling “very tired.” That was unsurprising, given the many demands on her time and energy. But in June 1985, she discovered she had breast cancer. Surgery was followed by months of chemotherapy, during which she continued working both at Cardinal Glennon Hospital and at Karen House, with occasional respites at her family’s home. The experience gave her a “keen sense” of her own mortality, Ann said, and an “overwhelming and almost literally uplifting sense of being loved by so many people.”

Her plans to go to Central America were delayed by her doctors, who advised two years of close follow-up. Finally, in January of 1988, Ann wrote to tell me that she had arrived in El Salvador. Despite the violence and brutality of civil war, the country quickly became home. She described feeling almost overwhelmed by the loving welcome Salvadorans showed her—“just because I came, just because I’m willing to be here with them in the midst of all their suffering and struggles,” as she wrote in June of that year. Working with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), she went to Guarjila, a newly established resettlement village for refugees who had been forced to flee across the Honduran border and were returning to build a new life. The diocese of Chalatenango had organized a program to address the significant health problems of the returning refugees; health promoters in each village were chosen for training, and Ann, along with other international volunteers, helped develop the training program.

For the next five years Ann would remain “willing” to live amid the dangers of war and the suffering of those she lived with and came to love. In the midst of death-squad slayings, bombings, and disappearances in Guarjila and surrounding villages, she was able to provide routine health care, and often acute care for gunshot or bombing wounds. On one occasion, as she wrote me, a diagnostic mnemonic from med school days—“Hot as a hare, red as a beet, mad as a hatter”—helped her diagnose a case of acute poisoning and save a young man’s life. Her primary work, however—and what became her major long-term contribution to health care in Guarjila and its surrounding area—was in the field of maternal and infant care, and the ongoing training of the local health-care promoters she taught to provide it. Ann loved babies, and took great delight in being part of a team that helped reduce both infant and maternal morbidity and mortality.

The founding name of the Sisters of Loretto was “Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross.” In El Salvador, Ann was clearly at the foot of the cross, day and night, with the Salvadoran people. Inspired by the vitality, tenacity, and courage of those with whom she lived and worked—“I find myself learning from them what I always hoped to be true,” she wrote, “that love is stronger than death”—she nevertheless acknowledged “terrible pangs of loss and loneliness.” A letter of May 1990 describes “a sense of doom and foreboding,” and confesses that “all the sorrows and horrors I’ve witnessed in the last two and a half years finally caught up with me.” Her work was “most satisfying,” yet it was “overshadowed by the reality of the war that penetrates all life here, including my own.” Though solidarity with fellow JRS volunteers and others serving in El Salvador bolstered her spirit, at intervals Ann experienced painful mood swings, and in these periods described herself as feeling “preoccupied, foolish, awkward, anguished at times, off-balance,” and prone to a great sense of failure and disappointment. At such low moments, her balance returned primarily via prayer, which restored her, she wrote, through “sheer literal grace.”

As the war in El Salvador wound down and then—in January 1992—officially ended, Ann described the complexities of the calm that peace had ushered in, writing that “the full impact of the war, of all the pain and death and destruction is only beginning to be felt,” and noting that only now “do we begin to let our emotional barriers down and realize what we’ve lived through.” Describing a retreat she’d made that fall as an experience of “deep grace,” she wrote of feeling she’d been given “a heart of flesh” and of being “re-centered, refocused, rekindled somehow,” adding that “I hope it lasts!” It wasn’t long, however, before she admitted to feeling weary, “very tired and very sad.” She marked it down to knowing she’d be leaving El Salvador soon (she was exploring the possibility of going with JRS to Mozambique), and to “post-trauma stress,” which she described with textbook-like precision: “I had four years of tragedies stored up inside me. All of these memories start surfacing, one after another.... You store up a lot of experiences you don’t adequately mourn or grieve or even feel.”

She was, as always, deeply immersed in the community around her, a world very far from my own; and thus I was taken completely by surprise one morning at work in April of 1993, to hear Ann’s voice on the phone, telling me she was at home. “Ann, how are you?” I asked. “Well, Kathleen, I’m a little under the weather,” she responded. In fact, she had returned to St. Louis after having suffered weeks of fatigue and intermittent chest pain, nausea, and loss of appetite. One afternoon, exhausted, she lay down to nap. Palpating her own abdomen, she was shocked to discover that her liver was swollen and misshapen. Only after having completed an advanced training program for health promoters did she see a doctor in San Salvador, who advised her to return home for further tests. By the time Ann called me, scans had confirmed metastases of her breast cancer to her liver, sternum, and spine. She went into the hospital that evening.

FROM THEN ON we talked almost every day. Ann asked that I and other friends “keep praying for me to keep my spirit strong,” and admitted to feeling scared. “I think I’m afraid of dying, but mostly that I won’t have one more day to feel good,” she told me. “I feel so sad and depressed and robbed!” Soon tests revealed further metastases. Ann informed her doctors that should she fall into a coma, she did not want to be put on a ventilator. She did opt for more chemotherapy, however. “I want to have some more time with my family and friends,” she explained to her oncologist.

Fortunately, there was more time—but not enough. These were incredibly rich days, however. Both in the hospital and at her mother’s large and gracious home, where she had grown up with her eight siblings—her father, a doctor himself, had died fifteen years earlier—Ann allowed us to accompany her day and night, to massage and bathe her, to hold her hands. She reveled in prayer and song and silence, and kept her sense of humor. She deeply appreciated the Eucharists we shared (with John Kavanaugh as celebrant), the music sung heartily by co-workers from El Salvador and Karen House, and by Loretto friends. “I carry your heart in my heart,” she would say to us each night, quoting a poem by E. E. Cummings. Close friends came from far and near. Her mother, Mildred, showed extraordinary courage over these weeks, overcoming her own profound distress to comfort Ann physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

“Really hard” feelings, as Ann called them—feelings of hopelessness and even despair—were never far away. But she was able to pray, and to listen to others pray. We talked on Pentecost Sunday, just a week before she died; she’d felt well enough that morning to be carried outside to the garden for Mass, and she was ecstatic. “Kathleen,” she said, “I think there’s been a miracle!” Though that day’s gifts of hope and strength quickly vanished, they offered sustenance for all present. Two days before Ann died, friends prepared a prayer service. John Kavanaugh noted that the day’s Gospel happened to be the very same one read at her final vows Mass—about the rich young man asking Jesus how to gain eternal life. When John had trouble locating it, Ann took the Bible and searched herself. Instead of the reading about the rich young man, however, she chose a reading about taking up your cross—and, as John later told me, changed it to inclusive language and read it aloud in a broken voice: “Those who lose their life will find it.”

One of Ann’s favorite places in New York City was the Cloisters, a museum magnificently positioned on a hillside in upper Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River. It holds the medieval art collection of the Metropolitan Museum, and almost every time Ann visited we would make a trip there. Inevitably she headed straight to the quiet, dark room holding the beautiful Unicorn Tapestries. One time, for variety’s sake, I suggested we go instead to the Metropolitan Museum itself. How we laughed on discovering that the first room we were drawn to turned out to be the Met’s great hall of—medieval art! But the Met also holds an exquisitely beautiful early Renaissance painting, Giovanni di Paolo’s Paradise (1445), that we both loved and returned to several times over the years to see. In it, elaborately garbed groups of saints and angels joyfully greet one another in a resplendent garden of Paradise. We always tried to identify the figures, and then imagine out loud who our own casts of characters in paradise might include.

Di Paolo’s painting overflows with vivid beauty and hopefulness—qualities that come to the fore now, as I recall the gatherings both in Guarjila for Ann’s jubilee and in St. Louis in 1993, after her death. John Kavanaugh was the celebrant at Ann’s funeral, as he had been at her final-vows Mass years earlier. Later, in the years between Ann’s death and his own in 2012, John would collect and print her poems, interspersed with selections from her journals and his own commentary; and the first reading at Ann’s funeral was a poem she had written at Easter, 1981, titled “What is at stake is Paradise.” Remembering that, and also our conversations over the di Paolo painting, I wonder who either of us, today, might picture in “paradise.” Ann, of course, has it easy—all she has to do is turn around.

It’s been over twenty years now since my friend died—she would have turned seventy last July—but her unique witness of love of God and neighbor continues to be celebrated and remembered today, inspiring and challenging all of us, as Jesus exhorted, to “go and do likewise.” While Ann would not wish attention, two memorials might pass muster. Several years after her death, a new, much larger clinic was built in Guarjila and named in her honor (La Clínica Ana Manganaro). On the outside wall of the clinic, to the left of a window, is a portrait of Blessed Oscar Romero, and to the right, a matching portrait of a smiling, obviously happy Hermana Ana. Back in St. Louis, meanwhile, the Loretto community made it possible for a small garden to be created at Nerinx Hall, Ann’s high school. The plaque, placed there by the health-care promoters she guided in El Salvador, remains today, inscribed with an image of a rainbow and dedicated, in both Spanish and English, “To Sister Ann, Who Taught Us All the Colors of the Rainbow.”

Like many others whose lives she touched, I feel blessed to have had Ann “on loan” for as long as I did. My own personal memorial, one of immense gratitude for the gift of our friendship, is captured in a lovely reflection by Raïssa Maritain about a statue of God molding Adam at the Chartres Cathedral: “A feeling which opens the heart toward God is good. That is why true friendship is good.”

Published in the September 9, 2016 issue: 

Kathleen DeSutter Jordan is a retired nursing supervisor and a former associate editor of the Catholic Worker.

This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Religion
Religion
Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections