Understandably, Maggiore writes in the first person at times. Her book, she pointed out, represents “a very personal tribute to my friend, whom I admired greatly for her courage and compassion.” The book, a five-year project, “was lengthy not only because of the extensive research and (about 40) interviews, but also because the process was very emotional for me to face,” Maggiore said. “Writing the last chapter leading to Carla’s death … was extremely difficult. I would dive into it, then leave it for weeks or months before facing it again.”
A retired social worker, Maggiore is a widow with three adult children and three grandchildren. As a general rule, she does not use her full name – Jacqueline Hansen Maggiore – but she did so as the author of “Vessel of Clay,” as a further tribute to Sr. Carla. Even after Jackie Hansen married Tony Maggiore, Sr. Carla called her friend by her original surname. More colorful nicknames befell their mutual friend Karen “Crowbar” Crowe and a quiet priest colleague the nun facetiously dubbed “Babbling” Brooker.
By far the youngest of four siblings, Carol Piette was born in Appleton in 1939. Her mother was a homemaker, her dad a grocer.
“She was very close to her father,” Maggiore said.
Jim Piette’s sudden death from a heart attack when Carol was in the third grade was “really a lifetime kind of loss for her,” the author assessed. Carol’s relationship with her mother was more distant and Rose Piette was less than delighted when her youngest decided to join the Maryknoll order.
Unexpectedly, given that the two were virtually lifelong friends, Maggiore learned a good deal about “who Carla was” through the book project. For instance, she was surprised to discover Sr. Carla’s life had been punctuated by bouts of depression.
“The sisters (interviewed for the book) would tell me it did not keep her from working,” the author said. Sr. Carla was encouraged to obtain professional counseling, which she did.
In the reminiscences Maggiore heard from many sisters, depression decidedly took a back seat. What recollections prevailed?
“One is the clown,” Maggiore said. “Another is that (Sr. Carla) was just radically committed to poverty for herself and to serving the poor. And, her spirituality was a very profound spirituality. She could draw out a deeper meaning (from Scripture) than anybody else.” The Appleton native also dabbled in art and wrote poetry.
In 1964 – six years after entering the Maryknoll novitiate after listening spellbound with Maggiore as Maryknoll nuns made a presentation to a mission club at Marquette – Sr. Carla was pleased to be sent as a missioner to South America.
In Chile, writes Maggiore, “Carla instinctively went out to the most destitute – the alcoholics, thieves, hungry children and lonely elderly.”
Assigned to teach at a parochial school, despite having had absolutely no formal training in education, Sr. Carla drew the pastor’s ire when she and another nun took their practice of visiting pupils’ parents to the workplace of a number of the mothers: a brothel. She spoke to the pastor of the innate dignity of those mothers – and suggested he visit them as well.
Quite possibly frustrated by what she perceived as a stagnant situation in Chile in the years following the coup that led to Gen. Augusto Pinochet becoming president of that country, Sr. Carla responded affirmatively to Archbishop Oscar Romero’s call for seasoned, Spanish-speaking missioners to serve in El Salvador. In a sad coincidence, she arrived in El Salvador the very day the archbishop was assassinated – March 24, 1980. Sr. Carla stood as a member of the honor guard at Archbishop Romero’s wake and attended his funeral Mass.
At that time, according to Maggiore’s book, “El Salvador was consumed by lawlessness. Government forces massacred whole villages. People could be killed for any reason – or no reason at all. Mutilated bodies were routinely dumped on city streets and country roads. Because of violence directed toward anyone in the Catholic Church who served the poor and the victims of violence, it was no longer possible for missionaries to do pastoral work with the poor … ” Church workers did what they could; Sr. Carla and others went to the aid of refugees, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, clothing the naked.
On August 23, 1980, Sr. Carla, along with two seminarians and Maryknoll Sr. Ita Ford (who, in a well-publicized incident shortly thereafter, would be murdered with three other missionary friends of Sr. Carla), picked up a newly released prisoner under threatening skies. The party traveled by Jeep, Sr. Carla at the wheel, and it began raining heavily as they attempted to return the prisoner to his village.
Ultimately, writes Maggiore, “Carla decided they could go no further. They let the prisoner out and told him that he would have to walk the rest of the way home. The seminarians jumped out to help turn the Jeep around and were caught in the raging waters of a flash flood … As the force of the water rolled the Jeep onto the driver’s side, Carla pushed Ita out the open window on the uppermost passenger’s side just before the river swept the Jeep away.”
Red Cross workers found Sr. Carla’s body the next morning. Almost immediately, El Salvador residents were calling the nun “Martyr of Charity,” according to Maggiore’s book.
In Wisconsin the day of Sr. Carla’s death, Maggiore dreamed of receiving a telegram from her friend.
“I’ve had dreams before,” the author said, “but I’ve never had anything quite so vivid.” The telegram reported Sr. Carla would be “coming home.” Soon enough, Maggiore read in the newspaper that her friend had indeed gone home – in a spiritual sense.
There is a memorial gathering each year at the river in which Sr. Carla died, near the village of San Antonio Los Ranchos, and a monument to the Maryknoll missioner can be found in a village park.
Jacqueline Hansen Maggiore’s “Vessel of Clay” can be ordered through amazon.com or University of Chicago Press (800-621-2736). The author has made television, radio and personal appearances in conjunction with the book and is available for additional speaking engagements. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.