Editor’s note: In his autobiography, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said his “special source” for information about Central America was the Maryknoll priests and nuns there. Apparently ignorant of Mary- knoll’s involvement in leftist and guerrilla activity in El Salvador, and its apologies for the persecution by the Marxist government of Nicaragua, O’Neill relied uncritically on Maryknoll reports, on the assumption that “these people don’t care about politics—their only concern is the welfare of the poor.” In a recent interview with Maryknoll magazine, O’Neill further described this process of deception and self- deception.
My earliest connection with the Maryknoll Sisters was through my aunt, Ann Tolan, who entered Maryknoll in 1923 when I was 11 years old. She was my mother’s sister. My mother died when I was about nine months old, and as a result, I became close to Ann. In religious life she took the name Sister Mary Eunice. She was one of the original 20 Maryknoll Sisters. We were there when she left on the train for China in 1929 as superior of the first group of Maryknoll Sisters to go to Dairen in Manchuria. At that time we thought we would never see her again. When she returned to the United States in 1937 to be the Sisters’ procurator, we began to see her regularly. We made many trips from Massachusetts to the Sisters’ motherhouse in Ossining, New York.
Ann often dropped by my office, and on many occasions brought other Sisters and priests with her. They would always tell me about the work they were doing. After Ann died in 1981, I kept up my relationships with the priests and nuns, especially with Sister Peggy Healy. She was working in Nicaragua and used to write to me from time to time. She told me what was really happening among the people and gave me a picture of that country —just the opposite of what our State Department was saying. She enumerated the abuses being committed by the contras, who were killing innocent civilians and destroying village schools and farm co-ops. As one priest there put it, referring to the contras, “They say they are fighting communists, and I keep burying Catholics.”
I’m not crazy about the Sandinistas, but their country was ravaged by the Somozas for 45 years. We are not responsible for all their problems, but we certainly played a part by supporting the Somozas. That doesn’t mean I like or approve of President Daniel Ortega either. He embarrassed a lot of his U.S. supporters by flying to Moscow in 1985, but that does not mean we should be giving military aid to the contras. President Reagan called them “freedom fighters,” but that’s ridiculous. They were led by some of the same people who ran the national guard under Somoza and were trying to get back into power, not for democracy but for their own ends.
The priests and nuns working in those countries know what’s happening. They tell the truth. If the people are suffering, that’s the message they bring. They’re not in any way tied up with communism or anything like that.
I believed what the missioners reported, and I was adamant that I was going to do all I could as Speaker of the House to keep the United States out of these dubious covert wars. I hope there is less likelihood now that the United States will fund the contras.
I would encourage even more missioners to write or visit legislators and tell them about conditions of people overseas. My door was always open, and it still is.