Maryknoll Order

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Maryknoll Order

In 1911 the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, popularly known as Maryknoll, was founded in Ossining, New York. In 1920 the Maryknoll Sisters officially became a separate congregation. Prior to U.S. entrance into World War II, Maryknoll mission activities were limited to the Far East. Since the war forced Maryknoll to cut back on that commitment, it decided to expand to Latin America, where it established missions in Bolivia in 1942 and opened its Instituto de Idiomas in Cochabamba, the largest of the order's language schools. It offers instruction in Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara, and trains missionaries for Maryknoll and thirty other Catholic religious orders, as well as for several Protestant groups. So successful has its program been that between 1965 and 1982 alone it taught about 3,500 missioners.

In 1942 Maryknoll also opened missions in Peru and Chile, and by the end of 1943, it had opened additional missions in Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador. Later Maryknoll expanded into El Salvador (1961), Venezuela (1966), Nicaragua (1971), Brazil (1976), and Honduras (1981). Its Ecuadoran operations, however, were terminated in 1948. Since a primary goal was to increase indigenous priestly vocations, Maryknoll opened a minor seminary in Puno, Peru, in 1944. Although more than 800 boys studied there, only 12 became priests. The seminary was closed in 1969.

When Maryknoll first entered Latin America, its superior general, James E. Walsh, noted that its missioners were "not going as exponents of any so-called North American civilization." Nevertheless, until the late 1960s the order's work was undeniably colored in part by a sense of U.S. superiority and an anticommunist mentality. Parishes were based on the U.S. Catholic model and when possible included a parochial school. The extensive North American presence in the area was seen as a positive force, and missioners often relied on local North American businessmen for moral and monetary support. Numerous development projects were started under the auspices of the Alliance for Progress, but many eventually failed because of local injustice and an overreliance on outside financial help.

As a result of the Second Vatican Council's emphasis on social awareness, Maryknoll began to rethink its role. In its 1966 general chapter, a new mission rationale was produced, placing more stress on the needs of the poor. Encouraged by the Second General Conference of Latin American bishops at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, the society increased its efforts in training Catholic lay leaders. Cursillos (three-day retreats for lay people, followed by weekly meetings) were held. Catechetical training centers were opened, and Christian Base Communities were organized. At its 1973 general chapter, Maryknoll emphasized its responsibility to make U.S. citizens aware of Third World poverty and injustice, and of the role the First World plays in their perpetuation. Already in 1970 it had created Orbis Books, in an attempt to offer the best of Third World theology to North American readers. After two decades, Orbis has become well known for its English translations of liberation theology, publishing works by such notables as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and Juan Luis Segundo. Its School of Theology at Maryknoll, New York, soon created programs in Hispanic ministry and in justice and peace studies, opening its doors to lay people as well as clergy and to non-Catholics and Catholics alike. In 1975 it began an innovative lay missionary program, which has become a model for other religious orders. It has since offered programs for short-term volunteers. Over the years Maryknoll has produced eight Latin American bishops. Five of its members were murdered while carrying out their duties: Father Bill Woods was killed in Guatemala in 1976, and Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and associate Jean Donovan were murdered by El Salvador's armed forces in 1980. In 2006, with over 650 religious and lay missionaries stationed in ten Latin American countries, along the U.S.-Mexican border, and around the globe, Maryknoll members continue to maintain their reputation for a strong and active commitment to the poor.

See alsoCatholic Church: The Modern Period; Missionaries of Charity; Missions: Brazil; Missions: Jesuit Missions (Reducciones); Missions: Spanish America.


There is no study that offers a general overview of Maryknoll in Latin America. For the early years see Albert J. Nevins, The Meaning of Maryknoll (1954), pp. 201-251. For Maryknoll sisters, see Penny Lernoux, Hearts on Fire: The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters (1993). Although not specifically treating Maryknoll, Gerald M. Costello, Mission to Latin America: The Successes and Failures of a Twentieth Century Crusade (1979), contains some important information. The periodicals Mission Forum and Maryknoll, a bilingual (Spanish/English) publication since 1980, are especially valuable.

Additional Bibliography

Behrens, Susan Fitzpatrick. Confronting Colonialism: Maryknoll Catholic Missionaries in Peru and Guatemala, 1943–1968. Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Working Paper no. 338, May 2007. Available from University of Notre Dame, Kellogg Institute,∼kellogg.

Daniels, Jim. Lives of Service: Stories from Maryknoll. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.

Ford, Ita. Here I Am, Lord: The Letters and Writings of Ita Ford, edited by Jeanne Evans. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005.

Kita, Bernice. What Prize Awaits Us: Letters from Guatemala, 2nd edition. Maryknoll, NY: Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, 1998.

                                      Edward T. Brett

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Maryknoll Order