Priestess, Traitor, Enemy, Saint

In Issue 75 by Sandro F. Piedrahita

Photo by David Torres on Unsplash

“Suffering is the ancient
law of love; there is no quest
without pain; there is no lover
who is not also a martyr.”

Blessed Henry Suso

Comrade Juana understood Comrade Bárbara’s belief that Sister Rosemarie McKillop, the diminutive nun from Perth, Australia, posed a great threat to the success of the Shining Path. Like many priests and nuns, like many human rights organizations, like the democratic left, Sister Rosemarie offered the destitute masses of Perú an alternative to the armed struggle. She preached that the marginalized campesinos could achieve justice through peaceful methods and even distributed food to the poor from “imperialist” charitable organizations like Caritas. Such conduct had to be quashed, for such groups were inimical to the revolution. Charity was an instrument of the bourgeoisie which sought to remain in power and did nothing other than lull the oppressed classes into complacency. Comrade Bárbara had taught Comrade Juana that the Shining Path could compete with the Peruvian military among the peasant classes – given the soldiers’ many excesses, given their numerous crimes, given their multiple massacres – but those who opposed the Shining Path by offering a democratic solution to the poor were more problematic. They could turn the minds of the peasants away from the religion of violence taught to them by the Shining Path and thus were the worst enemies of Sendero. In a word, they had to be destroyed mercilessly or the revolution would fail. And in their numbers was included that crass revisionist nun, Sister Rosemarie McKillop.

The little nun from Australia had already shown that she was a particularly dangerous foil to the Shining Path, given what she had done in Lima and given what she was doing in the Andean village of Huasahuasi. So, Comrade Bárbara had given the order to her platoon. Take over the town of Huasahuasi so that Sister Rosemarie can be brought to justice and punished for her deception of the masses. Comrade Juana, as usual, followed Comrade Bárbara’s directives to the letter and was eager to commence the “popular trial” of the Australian nun. But over the previous night Comrade Bárbara had developed a great fever and the guerrillas had to postpone the ajusticimiento of Sister Rosemarie while Comrade Bárbara struggled for her life.

So instead of killing the Australian nun upon their arrival to Huasahuasi, the revolutionaries took Comrade Bárbara to the rectory of the Church of Santa Rosa de Lima so that the leader of their platoon could rest and hopefully get better. That was the church where Sister Rosemarie celebrated her daily Masses and dispensed Communion to the campesinos despite the fact she was a female religious and not a priest. To the consternation of the bishop of the province of Tarma, the Australian nun had decided that if there was no priest available to lead the peasants in Mass or to give them the Eucharist, she would do so herself. She saw no alternative, for she felt the men and women of the village were in dire need of spiritual nourishment given the horrors they were being subjected to, at the hands of the Shining Path as well as those of the Peruvian military. What the bishop didn’t realize is that Sister Rosemarie made a long trek every month to the village of San Cristobal, in order to obtain consecrated hosts from the local priest so that she could distribute them to the peasants of Huasahuasi. Of course, when the hosts ran out, she did not hesitate to give the comuneros unconsecrated bread during the Eucharist, for she figured that at least that way they would be remembering the Last Supper, even if the body of Christ wasn’t incarnate in the bread.

Comrade Juana had first heard about Sister Rosemarie McKillop when the nun had led a nineteen-day hunger strike in Lima, demanding that the military officers who had orchestrated the massacre at Accomarca be prosecuted like ordinary criminals. This is what made Sister Rosemarie particularly dangerous, the fact that she decried violence from wherever it came and was not afraid to criticize the actions of the Peruvian state or its military lackeys. Indeed, during her hunger strike, many had accused the nun of being a traitor who helped the Shining Path through her actions and a prominent bishop, Juan Carlos Echenique, had chastised her, saying that "foreign religious who know nothing about our country are just covering the tails of ruthless political movements, almost all of them Marxist and Maoist.” But the little nun would not desist. A great crime had been perpetrated at Accomarca and those who engaged in the crime had to be brought to justice. Seventy peasants, men, women and children had been killed by the army in that village. The soldiers had forcibly removed comuneros from their homes, then beaten them with the butts of their weapons before shooting them in the back of the head. When the Peruvian government announced there would be no charges against the soldiers given a “lack of evidence,” Sister Rosemarie was incensed. Only when she was on the verge of death due to starvation did the Peruvian government announce it would commence prosecutions. More than fifty thousand Peruvians assembled in front of the convent where Sister Rosemarie had been fasting. And from that moment forward, many of the peasants – targeted by the revolutionaries and the military at the same time – started referring to her as “Santita Rosa María,” for she defended them from both sides in a war which they knew was outside their control. At the same time, the Peruvian military grew to detest her, for despite her frequent criticisms of the Shining Path, she lambasted the “mano dura” reaction of the army in the same breath.

Comrade Juana could not understand why Sister Rosemarie had not escaped from Huasahuasi when she had been given the chance. After all, the Shining Path had warned her as well as the three other nuns and the priest who worked in the village to leave town and all of them had done so, except Sister Rosemarie. Other priests and nuns had recently been killed by Sendero – two Polish priests and an Italian in Pariacoto and a Carmelite sister in Junin – so Sister Rosemarie must have known it was not an idle threat. And yet she stayed, like a priestess among the peasants, preaching the Gospel of Christ. Comrade Juana remembered the nuns who had taught her at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles and wondered if they would have done the same. But despite still having some fond memories about Sister Gracilda and Sister Leonarda, Comrade Juana, under the tutelage of Comrade Bárbara and her own husband, had slowly begun to detest religion, for she saw it as the greatest obstacle in the conquest of the minds of the peasant classes by the Shining Path. And yet Comrade Juana was intrigued by the little Australian nun who defied the Shining Path, the Peruvian military and even the Church itself.


When the rebels first arrived, Sister Rosemarie expressed no fear, not even surprise, and Comrade Juana suspected she had been expecting them for a long time. After all, the Shining Path had given her one warning after another for a period of many months. But Sister Rosemarie opened the door to the rectory without trepidation when the rebels knocked and, upon realizing that two of them were carrying a sick woman in their arms, she guided them to a room where Comrade Bárbara could lie in bed. Asked if there was a doctor in town, Sister Rosemarie had answered that there was not, but that she had worked as a nurse when she had been on a mission in the jungles of El Salvador and knew how to treat a fever. She told the rebels that Comrade Bárbara had to drink a lot of fluids and hopefully would recover quickly, but that did not happen. On the contrary, Comrade Bárbara began to suffer from other symptoms, a stiff neck, sensitivity to light and a pronounced confusion. Not having any medicines, Sister Rosemarie did all she could throughout the night at least to keep the woman comfortable and prayed for her without cease. Little did the tiny nun realize that the woman whose life she was trying to save was her sworn executioner.

On that first night, neither Sister Rosemarie nor Comrade Juana was able to sleep, for they were busy placing cool washcloths on Comrade Bárbara’s forehead, wrists and groin in an effort to keep the fever from worsening. The sick woman became so confused she could not speak in a normal fashion and at some point started muttering nonsensical phrases. Only in the morning could Comrade Juana and Sister Rosemarie rest as a young senderista named Renata – probably no older than fourteen – took over the job of placing cold compresses on the forehead of the sick revolutionary. Sister Rosemarie went into the kitchen and prepared a breakfast of chupe and chicharrones for herself and Comrade Juana. By then, Sister Rosemarie knew Comrade Juana was an American for the two women had been speaking English throughout the night. But at first, it seemed that the two women had nothing else in common. Though they had started at the same place – loving the cause of social justice – one had chosen the path of peace and the other the path of violence.

At first, Comrade Juana was reluctant to speak to the silver-haired nun, for the American revolutionary was sure the Australian Josephite would use the opportunity to give her a sermon. But Sister Rosemarie did not start by speaking about politics or religion or of anything controversial. In a cheerful voice – as if she didn’t realize the great danger she was in or the intentions of the woman with whom she was speaking – the nun began by talking about sports.

“What I most miss about Australia is playing golf and tennis. Sure, you can do it in Lima, but you have to be a member of a club. Also, I wish I could watch the matches of my favorite football and rugby teams. I loved barracking for the West Coast Eagles and the Fremantle Dockers. What about you? Your country is known for its sports. Did you love football, basketball or baseball?”

Comrade Juana was unresponsive.

“I never cared too much about sports,” she answered. “And I never played tennis.”

“You must think it’s funny for a nun to play tennis,” Sister Rosemarie continued. “Some people looked at me askance in Australia. But I never thought joining a religious order meant you have to avoid the innocent pleasures of life. Some of the peasants of Huasahuasi laugh when I participate in their soccer matches or when I join in their dances on special occasions. I’ve even become something of an expert in dancing the huaynito.”    

Comrade Juana responded almost reflexively.

“None of the nuns at my high school ever played soccer, golf or tennis. And I never saw any of them dance. Unlike you, they wore a veil all the time.”

“So, you went to a Catholic school? What order did your nuns belong to?”

“They were sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. But I’d rather not talk about religion or about my past.”

“Who’s talking about religion? I just find it interesting that given your background you ended up in Huasahuasi just like me.”

“For different reasons,” answered Comrade Juana. “For very different reasons.”

“I’m not so sure,” replied the petite Australian nun. “A young American woman fighting for the revolution in Perú. Surely you have something of the religious about you, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“I think religion is what has kept the peasants of Perú in near slavery for four-hundred years. All the priests and nuns do is keep the quechua-speaking people docile, so they don’t take what’s properly theirs through violence if necessary.”

“That’s where we diverge,” replied the nun, no longer speaking in a mirthful tone. “Violence only breeds more violence. Terror only breeds more terror. The answer is in front of everyone’s eyes, ubiquitous and all-encompassing. The solution is Christ.”

“I said I didn’t want to speak about religion. You’re a fanatic, still believing in solutions that have never worked. Perú has been a Catholic country since its inception, and the only thing the Catholic religion has done is help subjugate the Indian masses. I’m sure you know that’s how Spanish domination of the Inca peoples began, when Atahualpa was strangled with a garrote because he threw a Bible which he couldn’t understand onto the ground.”

“And you think Communism forcibly imposed is an alternative? You say you follow the great helmsman, Mao. Were the peasants of China any better off after his revolution? Did killing millions of people really make their conditions better? I’m afraid it’s not me who should be labeled a fanatic.”

Suddenly Comrade Juana was angry.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve been brainwashed for years, just like all the Americans who turn a blind eye to injustice. Only Maoism will lead to a new Perú.”

“I assure you I don’t turn a blind eye to injustice. I’m working every day to make the Indians have a better world. I left a life of comfort in Australia to help minister to the Indian masses. And I call them the way I see them, to use an American expression. The way of the Shining Path is not the way. Don’t forget what Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

“The improvements you seek are cosmetic. Presidente Gonzalo has said it time and again. José Carlos Mariategui analyzed the conditions of Perú’s peasants sixty years ago and nothing has improved. At any event, I don’t want to listen to any more of your Christian polemics. I’m going to go for a walk. Thank you for the breakfast.”

“May the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding be with you,” the nun responded.


That night Comrade Bárbara’s temperature increased to dangerous levels and Sister Rosemarie decided to use some herbs used by the quechua people to treat fevers: elderflowers, catnip, yarrow, white willow bark, and lemon balm. Comrade Juana was in a stupor, thinking her ally’s life might soon end, and the short Australian nun took over. Sister Rosemarie was not frantic but calm, acting with a steely resolve throughout the night. When Comrade Bárbara began to vomit, Sister Rosemarie wiped her face and chest as if she were her own child in need of care. And she kept vigil over Comrade Bárbara all night, praying at all times. Comrade Juana marveled at her kindness, thinking it was just the nun’s nature, just as hatred and resentment was in the nature of Comrade Bárbara.

“I wanted to tell you something,” Comrade Juana said to the little nun. “When I called you a religious fanatic, I didn’t mean to impugn your actions. I know about your hunger strike in Lima, and I respect you for it. I just don’t think it’s enough.”

“That was nothing,” Sister Rosemarie responded. “I achieve a lot more through my prayers. Do you remember how to pray, Juana?”

“I know you think I’m wicked given my actions,” Comrade Juana responded, skirting the nun’s question, “but you have to understand that I see no alternative to revolutionary violence. I think religion has failed. The Catholic Church decries abortions in the United States, but it says nothing about the fact that after Haiti and Guatemala, Perú has the highest infant mortality rate in the hemisphere. Presidente Gonzalo once said that those who die in the armed struggle are a lot fewer than all the Andean children who perish in the first year of their lives due to the neglect of the Peruvian state and those who run it.”

“So, you have to kill to fix that?”

“It’s the only way to change things in this country.”

“I don’t buy it,” the nun replied. “And no other institution in the world has done as much about the state of the poor as the Catholic Church. Have you heard about the Church’s ‘preferential option for the poor,’ announced at Medellín, Colombia and further affirmed at Puebla, Mexico? I believe in a militant church, unafraid of those in power. The Church has always expressed solidarity with those in suffering. But the Shining Path has gone too far, espousing violence as the only solution. And now your group is even persecuting the religious, Catholics as well as Protestants. I know your leader proclaims ‘death to the preaching dogs’.”

“Have you heard of Nelly Evans Risco or Carlos Torres Restrepo?” Comrade Juana asked. “One a Peruvian nun, the other a priest from Colombia. Each of them abandoned the Church to become revolutionaries. They realized that what they wanted to achieve could not be found in churches. Nelly is languishing in a prison for belonging to the Shining Path while Carlos was executed by the military after an ambush. They understood that the response of the Church is too weak, too tepid. Both arrived at the conclusion that the people must take up arms.”

“They gave up on prayer,” responded Sister Rosemarie. “Prayer is an incredible weapon, much more powerful than grenades or bayonets.”

“This time,” said Comrade Juana, “I’ll be the one to remind you of a psalm. ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?’ Prayer has accomplished nothing in Perú. We’re talking about four centuries of virtual slavery. How long must we wait for divine intervention? It is the time for action. The wolves are powerful and numberless the lambs.”

“You’re forgetting the importance of the Cross,” replied Sister Rosemarie in a gentle voice. “Yes, the poor shall always be with us, as well as the sick, the old and the infirm. Killing thousands of Peruvians will never remedy that. But we can help the poor carry their Cross. In fact, we have the obligation to do so. And that includes political action, but never violence. You must remember the victory of life manifested in the Resurrection of Jesus.”

“I’m afraid thinking like that only leads to a muted despair and resignation. It tells the poor to simply accept their oppression on this earth in the hope of a better afterlife. It is a cliché, I know it, but religion is the opiate of the masses. That is why religion must be quashed in Perú and throughout the world.”

“The quechua peoples have always been deeply spiritual, even before they became Christians. You can’t kill that instinct in them. They saw God in the elements, the sun, the moon, the harvests. You are trying to beat that out of them through fear and your own type of oppression. I wish you could see the joy in their faces when they celebrate the Catholic feasts, how closely attuned they are to the divine, despite their circumstances.”

“We are trying to eliminate the Indians’ religious feasts, both the Catholic ones and the ones of Inca origin. The peasants have to focus on the present moment, the armed struggle, not inexistent deities.”

“Would you be willing to pray? I think your heart is in the right place, but you need the Lord’s guidance. Pray so the Lord can infuse your spirit and tell you how to best help the peasant masses of Perú. Social injustice is an affront to God.”

“I knew that at some point you were going to give me a sermon. But I don’t need to pray. That would only weaken my resolve.”

“All right, I won’t insist,” said the nun, “but realize that this moment is an invitation to grace for you from the Lord. God didn’t put us together for no reason. If you miss this chance to receive the grace of God, it may not come again. So, ponder it as you prepare to sleep.”


The following night Comrade Bárbara’s condition worsened, and she lost consciousness altogether. Sister Rosemarie told Comrade Juana to prepare for the worst. Since there was no priest in town, the Australian nun decided to give Comrade Bárbara the sacrament of Extreme Unction herself, even though she knew the sacrament was ineffective for those who persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin, and the nun was sure the dying Shining Path guerrilla had a long list of sins behind her. But Sister Rosemarie knew that the anointing of the sick could help gain the forgiveness of sin, and she administered Viaticum to Comrade Bárbara without fear or hesitation.

Comrade Juana did not object. For a few days, at least, her animosity toward the Catholic faith had been mitigated by Sister Rosemarie’s shining example of charity. But she did ask the nun how she could deliver the sacrament, even though she was not a priest.

“That is another point that you and I have in common,” responded the nun in a cheerful voice. “I am in my own way a rebel. I’ve already been reprimanded for saying Mass in the Church of Santa Rosa and giving the Indians the Eucharist, but I see no alternative given that there is no priest in Huasahuasi. At all events, I always make an effort to use only hosts consecrated by the priest in San Cristobal. But frankly it seems to me that the preoccupation of our Church leaders with power and control over who can celebrate the sacraments is misguided. Then again I’m only a little nun. Who am I to tell the prelates of the Church how to run a two-thousand-year-old institution?”

  “I see,” said Comrade Juana. She was fatigued by the night’s events and was incapable of doing anything to help improve her friend’s condition.

“Why don’t you pray?” Sister Rosemarie inquired. “I can tell that you are exhausted. Ask the Lord to give this woman a chance to repent. I have gathered that she is your leader and must have committed her share of crimes. Death itself is not something to be feared, but death in a state of sin must be avoided at all costs. I’m afraid your comrade will not be dying a holy death despite the Viaticum I have administered.”

“Lead me in prayer,” said Comrade Juana.

“Oh, Virgin Mother,” the nun prayed in a hushed voice as the American guerrilla repeated her words. “Please don’t allow Bárbara’s soul to be taken yet. There is so much that needs to be forgiven. Give her the chance to live a life open to God’s grace so that at the right time she may die a holy death.”

It had been so many years since Comrade Juana said a prayer, but her few days with Sister Rosemarie had reminded her of prayers almost forgotten.

“Did you know,” asked Comrade Juana, “that if she heals from this malady, Comrade Bárbara will order your execution? Why don’t you and I go to Tarma on the pretext of buying medicines and you make your escape? After all, from a medical perspective, there is nothing left for you to do for her. And as far as her soul, you have already given her extreme unction.”

“I don’t think she’ll kill me after what I have done for her. Nobody could be so hardened. I don’t want to abandon my dear cholos now that the Shining Path has invaded their town. They need me now more than ever. You should know that if you touch a hair on my head, the Indians of Huasahuasi will violently rebel against you. You must understand they love me.”

“Aren’t you afraid of death?” Comrade Juana could not understand Sister Rosemarie’s obstinacy in the face of such grave danger. “If she heals, Comrade Bárbara will conduct your juicio popular. I have no doubt about it. She is the most stalwart of revolutionaries.”

“Do you mean the most heartless?” asked Sister Rosemarie.

“She has a heart of stone,” Comrade Juana confided.

“Well, if she conducts a popular trial, the villagers will vote to acquit me. After all, what charges could possibly be leveled against me?”

“It’s not that simple. Popular trials always end in convictions. And you’ll see. In the face of fear your cholos will abandon you.”

“I’ve been in danger before, and the Lord has always provided. I have been saved from the military and I’m sure I’ll be saved from the senderistas. Unless God wants to bring me home. If that’s the case, there is nothing I can do about it. It’s in the hands of God.”

“What do you mean?” asked Comrade Juana. “What happened with the military?”

“Every January the campesinos of Huasahuasi celebrate the feast of Saint Sebastian. People come from all over the province. It’s a gaudy affair, with great processions and sacred dances. The peasants wanted me to conduct the ceremony since I was the only religious in town. But one of the comuneros warned me not to attend, since he had heard news that the military thought the celebration would be full of senderistas and the sinchis were planning an attack. Worse, he said they would come personally after me, since the military thought me a traitor after my hunger strike in Lima and my frequent complaints about the excesses committed against the peasants by the army. But I went any way – I will not yield to evil, no matter where it comes from – and sure enough the military arrived in helicopters and massacred nineteen people. I was scraped by a bullet. You can still see the small scar on my ear. But miraculously I escaped the massacre with my life, for the Lord was protecting me. In the great tumult which followed the arrival of the military, the sinchis simply lost sight of me. You see, like the peasants, my life is threatened both by the military and the senderistas, but I refuse to cower to either side in this insane war.”


Just as Herod of Antipas had been gladdened to hear the words of Saint John the Baptist, the man Herod held in captivity and was prepared to kill, Comrade Juana came to enjoy her conversations with the little English-speaking captive she knew was destined for certain death if Comrade Bárbara ever recovered. Of course, Comrade Bárbara remained in a coma and there was nothing to do about it. A doctor had been brought from Tarma, and he had confessed to being perplexed by the cause of her malady and could not think of any cure. By then, the campesinos of Huasahuasi and the Shining Path guerrillas had achieved a sort of modus vivendi. The peasants lodged and fed the revolutionaries – there were about forty of them in town – and the revolutionaries for the most part left the peasants in peace. The senderistas knew that the purpose of their mission had been to bring Sister Rosemarie to justice, but in the absence of an order from Comrade Bárbara nothing could be done. And the Shining Path guerrillas had begun to understand why the peasants referred to the little Australian nun as Santita Rosa María, for the rebels were greatly disturbed when they found out about the great love with which the nun was tending to the terrorist.

By then, Sister Rosemarie had begun to spend much of her time with Comrade Juana teaching her about what the nun called the Gospel of Love and the lives of many saints, particularly those who had died as martyrs of social justice in Latin America. Comrade Juana did not object, since the nun’s words returned her to the days of her ancient adolescence when she firmly believed in saints and martyrs and wanted nothing more than to emulate them. First and foremost, Sister Rosemarie spoke to Comrade Juana about the Passion of the Christ. To the Australian nun, that story encapsulated the mission of every person on earth, to carry one’s heavy crosses willingly for the sake of one’s brothers and sisters. And to carry the crosses of one’s neighbors too when it was necessary. Comrade Juana listened to Sister Rosemarie’s words through a revolutionary lens and thought that by consecrating herself to the difficult life of a Shining Path guerrilla she was willingly carrying the crosses of all the desperate Indian masses. So an inkling – just an inkling – formed in Comrade Juana’s mind, that perhaps the revolution and the Christian faith were not completely incompatible. Sister Rosemarie thought she was making progress with Comrade Juana. In her heart of hearts, the Australian nun wanted to convert the American guerrilla.

Sister Rosemarie also spoke often to Comrade Juana about the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero as a shining light on the pressing question of what Sister Rosemarie called the two forms of revolution – that proclaimed by the Christ and that proclaimed by the barrel of a gun. Sister Rosemarie had been living in San Salvador at the time the archbishop was assassinated during a Sunday Mass and had worked closely with him before his death. In the nun’s mind, Archbishop Romero exemplified the proper Catholic response to issues of social justice – a fearless defense of the poor and the oppressed coupled with an unremitting repudiation of all forms of political violence. Like Sister Rosemarie herself, Archbishop Romero had courageously denounced violence by the rebels as much as by the military, which led both sides to desire and plot his death. When she heard his story, Comrade Juana was perturbed, thinking Sister Rosemarie might share the same fate, and for similar reasons.

“Archbishop Romero lived in a country much like Perú,” said Sister Rosemarie, “beset by vast class differences and an endemic violence coming from both sides of an unrelenting war. And Archbishop Romero wasn’t shy about his criticism of either side.”

“I’ve heard about him,” said Comrade Juana. “No question he was a martyr, though I think he mostly criticized the military.”

 “As a witness to the light, Archbishop Romero feared no one and spoke the truth of Christ, decrying the use of violence by the military as well as the rebels. For this, he was shot through the heart in the middle of a homily preaching peace. You should learn from his example. Instead of killing the enemy, engage in a brotherly effort to transform him and defeat him without violence, applying the injunctions of the Christ. If anything, accept self-sacrifice, but never, ever engage in the killing of another. You can witness unto death to the Gospel, to the God of the poor, to the God of life – to quote a Peruvian theologian – but you can never murder. For persons with your deep concern for the poor and marginalized, martyrdom may be the necessary choice, but not surrender to atrocities and despair. Romero was never quiet, never complicit with oppression, but he was also never violent.”

“Wasn’t he an advocate of liberation theology? Don’t those who follow the doctrine say that under certain circumstances taking up arms is the only way to achieve liberation? Aren’t you sugarcoating his message?”

“The term ‘liberation theology’ was actually coined by a Peruvian priest named Gustavo Gutierrez in his book, ‘A Theology of Liberation.’ I have read it in detail and agree with much of what he says, and I can tell you he never espouses violence.”

“I’ve heard differently. I think he once said action is more important than prayer.”

“Father Gutierrez does say that the Church must fight for justice here on earth rather than just thinking of the afterlife, but he says change must be achieved through education, strikes, massive protests, engagement with lawmakers and collaboration with human rights groups. Father Gutierrez has never said that violence is a solution to the problem of systemic oppression in Latin America. I can assure you that what I’m doing in Huasahuasi is much more in line with what Father Gutierrez teaches than any of the massacres or selective assassinations perpetrated by the Shining Path. ‘Terrorism, whatever character it shows, is inadmissible,’ the good priest has written.”

“Don’t lecture me,” Comrade Juana replied. “You fail to understand the scientific basis of Maoism. We want revolution, not incremental change. Mao stated it plainly many years ago. A revolution is an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. You will never understand.”

“No, I won’t,” the nun agreed. “You exhibit the naivete of the typical Latin American revolutionary. Just in case you don’t know it, the philosophy of Father Gutierrez dictates that the actions of the Shining Path and the abuses of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign are both grievous ‘social sins.’ His criticism of Sendero is unapologetic, even as he forcefully defends the poor. The Dominican priest is first and foremost an advocate for what he calls a ‘theology of life.’ The option for life is at the core of the Christian faith.”

“But does he propose a solution? The Church always speaks with pretty words and talks of lofty goals, but words without action are worthless.”

“Father Gutierrez has proposed a solution and he has warned the elites in Lima that the challenge is enormous. He has written again and again that one inescapable condition for the establishment of peace in Perú is the construction of true social justice. He warns the government that a respect for human values cannot be forgotten even for those who violate them by spreading terror and death. According to Gutierrez, what is needed are titanic efforts on the part of the Peruvian people to confront this crisis. Yes, I think those are the words he used. Titanic efforts.”


On the twenty-seventh day after the guerrillas’ arrival at Huasahuasi, Comrade Bárbara suddenly rose from her coma. Comrade Juana and Sister Rosemarie were both in the room when she awoke.

“Where am I?” she asked. “I feel thirsty.”

Sister Rosemarie clasped both hands together and looked at Comrade Juana.

“The miracle we prayed for at last has happened!”

“Who are you?” Comrade Bárbara queried, looking at Sister Rosemarie. The guerrilla leader hadn’t understood the nun’s words, as she was speaking in English.

“That’s Rosemarie,” Comrade Juana intervened. “She has been taking care of you all this time.”

“Rosemarie McKillop!” exclaimed Comrade Bárbara. “What business do you have with me? You’re the person we came to bring to justice.”

“I prayed for you,” the nun explained. “And the Lord has granted you a great miracle. He has bestowed his grace upon you, given you one more chance.”

“I don’t believe in miracles,” responded Comrade Bárbara.

“You’ve just received one,” said the nun. “Now it is up to you to accept or reject God’s grace. By grace you have been given the opportunity for salvation. You can now change your ways and accept the Lord Jesus. Or reject Him if you wish. The choice is up to you.”

“I don’t understand your blather. I came to Huasahuasi for your ajusticiamiento. And don’t think for a second that my sickness changes anything. I shall tell my men to prepare for your popular trial this evening.”

Comrade Juana gently spoke.

“Rosemarie has been giving you medicines and has watched over you day and night. I think we should just leave Huasahuasi and let her be. Perhaps make her promise never to celebrate Mass again.”

Sister Rosemarie said nothing. Suddenly she was afraid. She had never expected that after saving Comrade Bárbara’s life, the woman would respond by trying to take hers.

“I don’t think so,” said Comrade Bárbara. “We’ve warned her again and again. If we just leave town, the peasants will not fear the Shining Path. And all the Catholic nuns and evangelicals in the province will be emboldened. I want to make her an example. Why else do you think I’ve come to Huasahuasi with forty men?”

“You don’t realize what you’re doing,” Sister Rosemarie said as her clammy hands began to sweat and her cheeks to flush. “Jesus has granted you a great miracle, an act of divine grace, and this is the way you want to repay Him? You are wasting a marvelous opportunity. God put you in a coma for a reason.”

“You just want to save yourself,” Comrade Bárbara responded.

Sister Rosemarie looked at Comrade Juana with searching eyes, as if the nun thought Comrade Bárbara could be dissuaded.

“Bárbara – ” Comrade Juana began in a tentative voice.

“Don’t insist,” Comrade Bárbara interrupted. “I’m not about to change my mind. You’re always like that, Juana. You always agree with the last person with whom you’ve spoken.”

“At least save yourself,” Sister Rosemarie said to Comrade Juana. “You too have received God’s offer of grace. It may not come again. Don’t participate in this sham trial,  call it quits.”

“What do you have to say?” Comrade Bárbara addressed Comrade Juana. “Are you going to betray the Indian masses because you’ve spent a few days with a nun? Give up on the revolution because you’ve heard a little talk about a Christian God who was imposed on the Indians in order to dominate them?”

Comrade Juana looked at Sister Rosemarie with an apologetic face. Then she turned to Comrade Bárbara.

“I have sworn allegiance to the revolution and I don’t intend to abandon it now.”

“Good,” said Comrade Bárbara. “Tell Comrade Renato and Comrade Feliciano to gather the peasants in the square this afternoon at four. Then we shall let them decide whether or not this woman should be immolated.”


By four o’clock, the plaza was full of Indians who wondered why they had been assembled in the town square. All forty senderistas were among them, carrying rifles and hammer-and-sickle flags. They expected there might be a commotion, as the peasants loved Santita Rosa María with all their might and were unlikely to accept her murder without opposition. And yet Comrade Bárbara, who knew nothing about them, was convinced that after she read the charges, all the peasants would vote to convict. She had seen it dozens of times in other villages when mayors, cattle thieves, even adulterers had been ajusticiados by the peasants after the litany of accusations had been read to them by Comrade Bárbara. Some of the peasants were as bloodthirsty as the senderistas.

Then Sister Rosemarie was brought before them, blindfolded and in handcuffs. As soon as the nun appeared, the peasants began to boo. For what possible crime could this woman be tried in the town square? All she did was instruct and feed the peasant children and officiate the Mass on Sundays. “Spare her! Spare her!” the crowds began to chant. Comrade Bárbara, armed with a bullhorn, did not desist. Sister Rosemarie was accused of being a 'Yankee imperialist' and managing the Caritas foodstuffs, a form of aid for the poor which supposedly was provided by the CIA. But the peasants would have nothing of it and shouted out that Sister Rosemarie was not even a Yankee, she was Australian. Comrade Bárbara continued with her list of accusations, that Sister Rosemarie was an ally of the military, that she was an enemy of the peasants because she criticized Sendero Luminoso, that she had met with military officers in Lima to help prepare them for an attack against the Shining Path in the province of Junin. Of course, all the peasants knew the charges were untrue. Sister Rosemarie avoided talking of political subjects at all times, unless allegiance to Christ could be deemed a political subject, and everybody knew about her nineteen-day hunger strike in Lima meant to bring abusive soldiers to justice.

But Comrade Bárbara was insistent. She began to cry out the bromides of the Shining Path, about the need for revolution, about how the Indians were being suppressed, about how the religious authorities in Perú were allies of the military. The peasants were further and further inflamed and began to struggle with the senderistas in their midst in order to approach the dais where Sister Rosemarie was standing and liberate her. Comrade Bárbara gave the order to shoot them and still the peasants continued in their efforts to free the captive nun. By the end, more than forty peasants had been shot. Comrade Bárbara took the pistol at her side and killed the nun herself.


On the day of Sister Rosemarie’s canonization, more than five-hundred peasants from the hamlet of Huasahuasi descended from the Andes to participate in the ceremony in Lima. They arrived in Amerindian garb – the men in ponchos and chuyos, the women in multi-layered pollerones and colorful shawls – and all of them were in a festive spirit. The truth is they had been praying to Sister Rosemarie for years and had recognized her as a saint long before Pope Francis announced he meant to canonize her. By the time the peasants arrived, the Plaza Mayor where the Lima Metropolitan Cathedral was located was full of people – perhaps more than a hundred thousand – and there was a rumor that a delegation of former Shining Path guerrillas was in their number, including many who had participated in the massacre in Huasahuasi on the day Sister Rosemarie was killed. When Pope Francis heard the news, he was delighted, knowing onetime terrorists had completely turned around their lives, in no small part due to the example of Sister Rosemarie. The ravening wolves had turned into lambs by being witnesses to her Christlike acts of self-sacrifice.

Before Pope Francis delivered his speech making Sister Rosemarie a saint, a number of speakers rose to the pulpit and narrated their experiences with the Australian nun. The varayoc of the village of Huasahuasi, already an ancient man, said he had never met a person whose very essence was to love – without conditions, without demands, without seeking any self-gratification – and how she had rescued the villagers of his town from a growing and deep-seated despair. Even after her death, she was a cause for hope, he said, for she showed them that not even her execution could extirpate the love she had taught them to practice through her conduct.

“She was a taytacura,” he said, using a quechua term. “Like a priestess to the masses.”

The varayoc was followed by a woman in her mid-thirties who announced that when she was a mere twelve-year-old, she had been among the Shining Path guerrillas who had orchestrated the death of Sister Rosemarie and that she had participated in the massacre of the forty peasants who had been trying to defend the nun.

“She taught me the Gospel of Christ,” the young woman said, as her eyes began to well. “I had learned the gospel of hate, and her example showed me that there was another shining path. A path of peace and mutuality and love. I went to Confession after the murder of Sister Rosemarie. I abandoned the guerrillas and never turned back. I don’t think I would have changed but for my interaction with that holy woman. I would have kept on killing, kept on dying to myself a little bit at a time each day.”

Finally, after five more speakers spoke, Pope Francis rose to the dais.

“Sister Rosemarie was a martyr of the faith,” he began. “A brilliant example of a person preaching the Gospel of Christ not just through words but through her conduct. When there was no priest in town, she took it upon herself to make sure the peasants of Huasahuasi did not lose their faith in Christ despite warnings and threats from the Shining Path. When military officers killed fellow human beings with impunity, she went on a hunger strike to demand justice. She would resist evil wherever it came from – from the rebels or the military. Some say she was a radical and I agree.

“Sister Rosemarie was defamed, slandered, soiled, that is, her martyrdom continued even by her brothers in the priesthood and in the episcopate who criticized her as a radical.  But Jesus was also a radical. Not a radical for evil but a radical for love. And Sister Rosemarie was a radical in the same way. She left the security of teaching high school in Australia, even her own safety, in order to live her life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to her adopted people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and her brothers and sisters. She was a traveling companion of our poorest brothers and sisters, even as far as martyrdom.

“And she demands that you act now, that you follow her example. Are you a radical when it comes to opposing violence, no matter what its source? Are you a radical in following Christ’s dictates to help the poor and the downtrodden? Do you clamor for justice? Would you sacrifice your very life for the cause of love? I know Sister Rosemarie’s canonization is controversial in some quarters, but I tell you the way she lived her life will inspire people long after they have forgotten the name of Presidente Gonzalo or of the military officers who killed peasants under the banner of counterinsurgency. She is a saint for Australia but also for Perú, for all Latin America. For our problems are not over, poverty and oppression have not disappeared, violence raises its ugly head every now and then from different quarters. We must be radicals, yes, radicals for love to the point of martyrdom for Jesus Christ and the least of our brothers and sisters. Nothing less is required of you as Christians.”

And the masses cheered. The peasants rejoiced. The senderistas cried.


The story of Sister Rosemarie McKillop is fictionalized, but it accurately reflects what was happening to Roman Catholic priests and nuns during the 1980s Shining Path insurrection in Perú. Like Sister Rosemarie, priests and nuns were attacked, persecuted and even killed by the Shining Path, since the rebels felt that any aid to the poor outside the revolution was anathema to their cause and would only weaken the resolve of the peasant classes. At the same time, the Peruvian army also attacked the priests and nuns, accusing them of being complicit in the crimes of the Shining Path and of being secret Maoists and Marxists because they denounced human rights abuses. Like the peasants themselves, priests and nuns were caught in the middle of a struggle between the guerrillas of the violent left and the reactionary right-wing military. Suffice it to say that a great many priests and nuns were harassed and assassinated for their unambiguous denouncement of the abuses and massacres committed by both the Shining Path and its nemesis, the Peruvian military. One can remember Polish Franciscan Fathers Michal Tomaszek and Zbigniew Adam Strzalkowski, Italian Father Alessandro Dordi, Good Shepherd Sister María Agustina Rivas López, known as "Aguchita," as well as others. In addition, many religious were given warnings by the Shining Path to leave the places where they were ministering to the peasants, and the guerrillas indiscriminately bombed churches and other places where priests and nuns congregated to help the poor.

What happened to the nuns and priests in Perú during the Shining Path insurrection was unique in Latin American history. Priests and nuns have been killed by right-wing death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile and other countries over the years. Indeed, it is believed that as many as eight hundred priests, nuns and lay preachers have been killed in Latin America just in the last ten years. But the case of 1980s Perú is different for two separate reasons. First, the nuns and priests killed during the Peruvian insurrection were almost all killed by the extreme left-wing forces of the Shining Path, not by agents of a right-wing military. Unlike in places like Argentina, El Salvador and Chile, where state forces did all the killing, in Perú the military was guilty of a relatively small percentage of the seventy-thousand murders committed during the years of the insurrection, although that is not to say that they were guiltless. Second, the Catholic Church was attacked by the Shining Path not because it was the conservative Church of old but because many of its priests and nuns espoused a “theology of liberation,” a term coined by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, and because they followed a “preferential option for the poor.” In another example of the madness of the Shining Path, it was the left-wing nuns and priests who were targeted for abuse and persecution. The Shining Path announced that it was an implacable enemy of priests and nuns who helped the poor because such priests undermined the revolutionary struggle. Not surprising that when the Shining Path explained its reasons for killing the two Polish priests, they were accused of "infecting people by distributing food" from Caritas.

About the Author

Sandro F. Piedrahita

Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic author of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent, with a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College. Most of his stories revolve around Latin American mythical or historic themes, told with a modern twist. Mr. Piedrahita's short stories have been accepted for publication in The Write Launch, The Acentos Review, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Carmina Magazine, Synchronized Chaos, The Ganga Review, Limit Experience Journal and Foreshadow Magazine.

Read more work by Sandro F. Piedrahita .

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