Before moving to Liberia nearly three decades ago, Sister Kathleen McGuire made a pilgrimage to the graves of four American nuns whose murders during a 1980 relief mission to war-torn El Salvador inspired her own decision to move halfway across the world.
She hoped that, like them, she could bring comfort to emotionally scarred people caught up in the chaos of conflict.
She never imagined that, like them, her charity would result in her death.
Sister Kathleen and four other members of her Roman Catholic order were murdered in 1992 as rebel forces under the command of warlord Charles Taylor cut a path of devastation through the suburbs of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. Their bodies were burned, mutilated with machetes, and left to rot for weeks, baking in the West African sun.
And, as with the slayings of so many of the hundreds of thousands of other civilians in the protracted civil war that decimated the country between 1989 and 1997, their killers were never punished.
But this month, when a federal jury in Philadelphia convicted a Delaware County man, Thomas Woewiyu, of hiding his past as one of Taylor’s top lieutenants, McGuire and the four other nuns finally received some small measure of justice.
Their names weren’t mentioned in court, and their deaths were only fleetingly referenced — drowned out by a string of other atrocities that prosecutors sought to lay at Woewiyu’s feet, including allegations of torture, targeted ethnic killings, and the conscription of child soldiers. But the proceedings marked the first time anyone had been held accountable for even a small role in their murders.
Prosecutors conceded that Woewiyu did not directly cause the nuns’ killings, but argued that his fiery rhetoric as Taylor’s chief spokesman and military adviser created the conditions that led to their deaths.
“The murder of these American citizens was no random act of wartime violence,” they wrote in court filings. “Rather, it was an altogether foreseeable culmination of years of … hostility.”
Still, questions linger for Sister Barbara Hudock, the U.S. leader of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, the order to which the five women belonged.
“No one was ever able to stand up and say anything definitively about what happened and who was involved,” she said in a recent interview. “That’s been our experience all along.”
A cinder-block sisterhood
By the time Sister Kathleen, a 54-year-old former high school teacher, arrived in Liberia in 1991, the fighting already had begun.
In less than a year, Taylor’s rebel forces had seized most of the country’s interior. But Monrovia and its outskirts remained just outside their reach.
It was there, in a whitewashed cinder-block compound in the Gardnersville suburb, that Sister Kathleen’s colleagues had been offering religion, education, and health care to locals since the 1970s.
The women all hailed from the same Adorers convent in tiny Ruma, Ill., about an hour south of St. Louis, and grew up in rural southern and central Illinois. But despite their small-town upbringing, none was known for a retiring sensibility.
Sister Barbara Ann Muttra, 69, had become something of a local legend near the makeshift convent outside Monrovia, renowned as much for her mirth as her mettle. Locals were as likely to recall her sledding down nearby hills in full habit as for sewing up her own leg after an injury.
Sister Shirley Kolmer, 61, served as principal at St. Patrick High School in one of Monrovia’s wealthier neighborhoods, Capitol Hill.
Her cousin Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, 58, mentored young women interested in joining the order, while Sister Agnes Mueller, 62, ministered as a nurse in local hospitals.
Despite the dangers surrounding them, the women felt called to provide relief to a country being ripped apart at the seams.
“I know God wants me to continue to be courage and strength for these people,” Sister Barbara Ann wrote to a friend as hostilities worsened in 1992. “God continues to bless us all and has spared my life from the gun.”
But by mid-October of that year, the gun finally came for the nuns.
Taylor and Woewiyu, eager to seize Monrovia, had launched their most aggressive offensive to date – a campaign known as Operation Octopus that brought heavy fighting to the doors of the small Gardnersville convent.
On Oct. 20, Sisters Barbara Ann and Mary Joel agreed to drive the compound’s security guard to check on his family in a nearby suburb.
But when the women failed to return that evening, their colleagues began to worry. Sounds of automatic weapon fire and mortar explosions crept ever closer. Sisters Kathleen, Agnes, and Shirley decided they had to get out.
They attempted an evacuation on the morning of Oct. 23, before abandoning the plan as too risky. They vowed to try again the next morning, but by then it would be too late.
That night, a squad of rebels under a fighter named Christopher “Mosquito” Vambo — whom several witnesses later identified as a soldier under Woewiyu’s command – charged toward the gates, firing AK-47s and demanding cars and cash.
Eyewitnesses, including many young Liberian aspirants preparing to join the nuns’ order, recounted what happened next for investigators in Woewiyu’s case.
Sister Kathleen was the first to fall, they said, shot in the arm as soon as she opened the gates. She later was executed with a second bullet through the back of her neck.
Vambo separated Sisters Agnes and Shirley, the witnesses said, and accused them of working with Taylor’s enemies. A fighter named “Black Devil” shot them both, silencing their pleas for mercy.
Many of the convent’s other occupants were spared, only to be taken as prisoners and marched into Taylor-held territory. Along the way, one recounted later, they passed the burned-out shell of a car.
The charred corpses of Sisters Barbara Ann and Mary Joel lay inside, slumped over in the seats.
News of the bloodbath sparked an immediate furor. Thousands of Liberian civilians already had died in the fighting and millions more had fled as refugees, settling in large numbers in West Philadelphia and Delaware County. But the murder of five American women of God grabbed the attention of the wider world.
A Vatican newspaper described the scene as a “massacre.” The U.S. State Department condemned the killings as a “repugnant” and “cowardly act.”
Several investigations over the years – including probes by the Archdiocese of Monrovia, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the FBI — blamed Taylor’s rebel force.
But Taylor denied involvement for decades.
“That issue remains contested,” he said at his 2008 war crimes trial in the Hague. “We investigated it, and it was determined [the nuns] were not killed deliberately by [us].”
His subordinates have been more forthcoming. Vambo, who as of 2015 was working as a private security guard in Monrovia, admitted in an interview that year with ProPublica that his fighters likely played a role in the nuns’ slayings. But he bristled at any suggestion that he personally had carried out the attack.
“That’s a lie, that’s a lie, that’s a lie,” he said. “If I did it, God, I will bear the pain for it.”
Some justice at last
Woewiyu’s name was not publicly tied to the nuns’ killings until 2015. Prosecutors had indicted him a year earlier on charges that he had lied about his role in Liberia’s civil war on a 2006 U.S. citizenship application.
But when they revealed in a court filing that they intended to make the nuns’ deaths a part of his case, the 73-year-old grandfather — now living in Collingdale, Delaware County — reacted with swift concern.
“There will be no evidence that Mr. Woewiyu was present for this incident, that he was personally involved in it, or that he ordered the perpetrators to attack,” his lawyer Mark Wilson wrote in a court filing, seeking to exclude any mention of the nuns from his trial. “This atrocity was a rogue mission by bloodthirsty … soldiers.”
Chief among their worries was that testimony about the nuns’ murders would poison the jury against their client – especially in a city like Philadelphia where Catholic roots run deep.
The judge ultimately agreed, barring prosecutors from describing the women as nuns and requiring them instead to use the phrase “humanitarian aid workers.”
Still, the slayings received significant mentions during the trial. Former diplomats testified that they had to negotiate with Woewiyu to retrieve the bodies. Other witnesses said that the murders only further strained already tense relations between Taylor and the United States.
But even after Woewiyu’s conviction, many of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ remain conflicted about the part their colleagues’ deaths played in the case.
Although they are relieved that someone finally has been held accountable, justice has never been their primary concern, said Sister Barbara, the order’s U.S. leader.
Even now, her discomfort in placing too much emphasis on her former colleagues is apparent. Their deaths, after all, are numerically insignificant among the hundreds of thousands of Liberians killed during the war.
“Our goal has been to continue our relationship with the people of Liberia,” she said. “Hopefully, the people there will feel some sense of justice.”
Meanwhile, back in Ruma, Ill., the Adorers continue to remember their fallen sisters in their own quiet way — with a 15-foot sculpture that now graces the convent’s exterior.
Cast in bronze, Sisters Kathleen, Barbara Ann, Agnes, Shirley, and Mary Joel are depicted in a circle — their hands together, their faces forever turned toward the sky.