Sister Carol Piette, MM

Born: September 29, 1939
Entered: September 2, 1958
Died: August 23, 1980

For Carla 

Pilgrim, clown, beat up lady
was how you saw yourself
the rest of us, the world
you called circus.

We loved you as Carla,
woman of God, artist, poet
sensitive, suffering.

We shared laughter and tears
a search for new dreams
a love for Chile, and God’s poor.

You journeyed further,
fearless, hopeful and happy,
and arrived home so early.

We miss you deeply
Continue to walk with us now.

The poem is entitled For Carla and was written by one of her friends in mission.

We are united today in our celebration by a sense of tragedy. We are united today in our celebration by a sense of hope. Both our tragedy and our hope are rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ whose tragic death is the source of our hope. Through that death we believe in the fullness of life for our sisters and brothers in Chile and El Salvador – and for our Sister Carla.

Carol’s brother is with us today representing Carol’s mother, sister, and brother. We, Carol’s sisters in Maryknoll, share with you this sudden and bewildering sense of loss. We also wish to share with you our hope and our faith.

Carol Ann Piette was born on September 29, 1939, in Appleton, Wisconsin. She entered Maryknoll on September 2, 1958, took Rose Carol as her religious name, and was known as “Carla” to her friends.

Carla had a deep sense of being a pilgrim on a journey. Her journey in Chile began in 1964. During language school she studied Spanish by delving into Chile’s poetry, rather than memorizing conventional nouns and verbs. Impatiently forging on, as if she didn’t have enough time, she left language school early and began a period of 8 years as a teacher of poor children in the city of Chillan and barrio of Buzeta. She is remembered during that period of time as having a great compassion for the children who were having the most difficulties. She was also remembered even then as always going out to be with the families of the most poor. Those years were solid preparation for the next stage in her life.

In 1973 she began to live in a marginal area of Santiago called La Bandera. She shared the life of the poor there until November 1979, taking steps each day to live in deeper solidarity with them. She came to know the people well, working with them to help find some solutions to their daily problems of unemployment, hunger, and alcoholism, as well as comforting the families of those who had disappeared because of the extreme political oppression. Carla was on call by day and night. She was a person who was evangelized by the poor themselves. She understood the Gospel from their standpoint, as well as from her own weaknesses. Concretely, she worked with Basic Christian Communities, helped form soup kitchens to combat hunger, fostered home industries among the women and did so many other things, it’s impossible to enumerate. Perhaps, most important, is that she would be considered by the people to have been “one of them” to have been their “friend.”

Carla was committed to the struggle for justice and, especially since the military takeover in 1973, actively supported the oppressed in Chile – visiting political prisoners, caring for hunger strikers, communicating and supporting human rights causes through writing and speaking with others. In the midst of these serious situations, Carla was able to see the funny side of things – doing imitations, writing songs and making others laugh.

She was last home in the United States in 1976. She also enjoyed a happy visit with her sister in Chile in November 1978.

In July 1979, during the days before the final liberation of Nicaragua, Carla discussed with the Chile Region her desire to go there if she were needed. Once again, impelled to go forward by her deep missionary spirit, she left for Nicaragua in January 1980. Later, answering a call for an even greater need, Carla arrived in El Salvador on March 24th, the day of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s martyrdom.

Nothing is so striking in the tiny country of El Salvador right at this moment than the contrast between the beauty of its lush, green countryside and the ugliness and pain of the war going on there. In the one short week that we were in El Salvador we kept hearing of violence and death, fears and suspicions; and at the same time we met so many beautiful, gentle, warm people who spoke to us of love and courage and compassion.

We kept bumping up against contrast, irony, and sheer mystery – not the least of which was the death of our Sister Carla. People wanted to tell us about Carla and what she had meant to them in the midst of the violence that surrounds them. All the people we talked to – refugees and bishops, seminarians and cooks – all spoke to us of the special gift they had found in knowing Carla, for however short a time. She brought some meaning into their lives as she lived the mystery of being alive in that country at this time.

When Carla and Sister Ita Ford decided to go to El Salvador, it was a decision to take another step on their pilgrim’s journey. Both heard a call coming clearly and distinctly from the Lord to go to a country suffering the agony of poverty and uncontrolled violence. Neither had any idea of what lay ahead, nor even of what they could do there; but they came to accompany a people in their suffering. “Accompaniment,” “being with,” were words Archbishop Romero used often. He coined the phrase in Spanish, “El Pastoral de acompanamiento” – meaning in English, the pastoral task of being a companion on the way. The story of their five short months in El Salvador is a story of accompanying, of frustrations, of searching, of prayers and fasting, of study and reflection, of friendships formed, of back-breaking work and finally of death.

Carla arrived in El Salvador the very day Archbishop Romero was assassinated, and Ita, the day he was buried. They had come to serve under his direction and they felt his loss keenly. The Church in El Salvador passed into a period of transition and confusion. Ita and Carla also passed through several months of trial and search. During this time they studied all of Romero’s homilies and steeped themselves in his thoughts. As they searched for a place to live and work, the war increased and communities disintegrated as their leaders were killed or the people fled. Refugees grew in number as hundreds and then thousands were displaced by the Army or fled from threats of death. These people needed food and shelter. The Vicariate of Chalatenango then asked the Sisters to work on an Emergency Relief Team for Refugees; and so they began a new work in Chalatenango just a few short weeks ago. It was in this service that Carla and Ita set out, August 23rd in the evening, to take home a recently-released prisoner.

They had crossed several rivers and were returning home. Just as they crossed the River El Zapote, a flash flood came crashing down the ravine. Miraculously, Ita and the two men with them in the jeep were saved. Carla’s last act was to help push Ita through the side window of the jeep just before the current swept it away. Carla was carried down the river and her body was finally found the next morning at about 11:00 a.m. That was August 24th, five months to the day after Archbishop Romero was shot and Carla, herself, had arrived in the country.

That afternoon and night the campesinos came to the church to pray and reflect on the meaning of Carla’s life and death. Bishop Rivera Damas celebrated Mass. The next day, Monday, several other Masses were celebrated and in the afternoon; the Eucharist was concelebrated by 10 priests. Hundreds of people listened to numerous testimonies on Carla’s life and the gift of herself to the poor of El Salvador. They called her “Martyr of Charity” and “First Martyr of the Pastoral of Assistance to Refugees.”

After Mass, all the people marched in procession down the winding road to the cemetery; accompanying Carla as she had so often accompanied them. They buried her in a simple grave in their poor little cemetery. They covered the grave with flowers.

Carla used to say she just wanted to be with the “poor old beat-up people.” As she was with them in life, she is with them still. The poor little beat-up cemetery is on the outskirts of a poor little town. The flowers brought by the people are the offerings of the poor.

Carla told Ita just a few weeks ago that if anything happened to her, we should not mourn but celebrate. And so we do. We remember with joy her life and her gifts. We cannot help but believe, in the midst of our sorrow, that the quality of her love and of her commitment will give new life to the Church in El Salvador.

Moved with much love for Carol’s family, for all the Sisters of Chile and Salvador who knew her best, we feel with them the loss in our lives of our Sister and friend; but we rejoice, too, that Carol is with the Lord and that the witness of her life, her love, and her death is a special gift of God not only to the Church in El Salvador, but to us all.

Our Maryknoll Fathers, representing the Chile Region, concelebrated the Memorial Liturgy at the Center: Thomas P. Golden, Main Celebrant, assisted by: Joseph S. Smith, Donald W. Aubry, and Thomas B. Kirchmyer.