Kathleen Osberger’s account of her three harrowing months as a religious volunteer with a community of Catholic nuns in Chile a half century ago brings the reader deep into the experience of living, working and trying to stay alive in a dictatorship built on violence and on “disappearing” anyone viewed as an opponent.
Although targeted, arrested and in some cases tortured by the dreaded security forces, Osberger and most of her colleagues — religious sisters, priests and other volunteers from the United States, and social justice workers who were Chilean citizens — survived. But two moments in I Surrender: A Memoir of Chile’s Dictatorship, 1975 show what could have happened to any of them.
One of the handful of residents at the Santiago convent where Osberger was staying was Sister Bernadette Ballasty, a School Sister of Notre Dame, who later was hiding out from the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), the secret police. Ballasty had arranged to “bump into” a Maryknoll sister at a grocery store, but, when she got there, she was met instead by a young Maryknoll Sister — Ita Ford — with a message about a meeting later that night.
It is the only appearance that Ita Ford makes in Osberger’s story, but, for anyone who was paying attention to U.S. and international politics in 1980, hers is a name that brings to mind one of the most horrific assaults on American religious serving the poor and oppressed in Central and South America.
Ford had arrived in Chile shortly before the violent, September 11, 1973, military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, killing him and installing Augusto Pinochet in power. He ruled as head of state and dictator for the next sixteen years.
For several years, Ford ministered to the Chilean people in a shanty town in Santiago before leaving in 1980 to do similar work in El Salvador, Nicaragua. On December 2, she and three other American women — Maryknoll sister Maura Clarke, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan — were kidnapped by five National Guardsmen, taken to an isolated place where they were beaten, raped and murdered.
News of the killing sparked loud public outrage in the United States, and their deaths have been a cause célèbre ever since, cited as the sort of savage violence that occurred routinely in many of the dictatorships of the Western Hemisphere.
Imminent danger of brutality and death
The story that Osberger, a Chicago psychotherapist for the past three decades, tells in I Surrender is an account of living in a regime in which almost anyone, but particularly those working for democratic values on behalf of the powerless, was in imminent danger of such brutality and death.
Indeed, at one point when Osberger herself was hiding out from the DINA, she was paging through a newspaper only to discover that, on a recent night, moments after she left the home of some friends, they had been attacked by the secret police.
Sheila Cassidy, a British doctor, was arrested, jailed and tortured over nearly two months in custody. Enriqueta Reyes Valerio — Cassidy’s Chilean housekeeper who had talked that night with Osberger about her four young children — was killed in a burst of gunfire from outside the home. Osberger writes:
The memories of that night came flooding back. We were in the foyer chatting. I felt anxious and wanted to leave. Finally, I was able to say my goodbyes….Enriqueta accompanied me to the door. We both waved as I closed the iron gate and stepped into the dusky night.
“You are coming with us!”
Even as the security forces were closing in on the Cassidy residence, Osberger headed home, soon realizing that she was being followed. Then, in the early hours of the next morning, the DINA were pushing their way through the front door of the convent, demanding information from the women in their robes and pajamas about a nun they wanted to question. She wasn’t there.
However, the squad leader knew Osberger had been at the Cassidy home earlier. And, as he aggressively questioned her and talked on a phone to headquarters, she realized he was an American.
“You are coming with us! Go and get dressed,” he told her. In her room, Osberger put on layers of clothing, thinking, “I know they will rape me, but at least I’ll make it harder.” The nuns prayed with her, and then she was pushed out the front door, surrounded by machine gun-holding soldiers.
Inside a four-door Fiat, she was shoved into the back seat and forced to tie a kerchief tightly around her eyes, and she writes:
Blindfolded, I spoke to God with a directness and sincerity I had never conceived of before…Silently, I prayed:
“God, I don’t think I have much longer to live. You know the situation and reality are grave and dangerous. I have absolutely no knowledge or power to act or change this destiny. I surrender. I surrender myself to you.”
Volunteering to be of service
Three years earlier, as a sophomore, Osberger, a South Bend native, had been one of 362 women to be the first females admitted among the University of Notre Dame’s 6,000 undergraduates. Three years later, after graduation, she was the only woman among a group of graduates and students from the university who volunteered for two years of service at poor Catholic parish communities in Chile and Peru.
Now, in the early morning hours of November 2, 1975, the 22-year-old was being targeted. That was because the religious sisters who were hosting her in their convent had hidden three members of an anti-government militant group, one of whom had been wounded in a shootout.
After a few hours of questioning, the secret police let Osberger go without harming her, but, now, shaken, she found herself on the run. Over the next month, the government-controlled news media demonized the nuns she lived and worked with as Communists, and most, including her, were eventually driven out of Chile.
A riveting account
Osberger’s I Surrender is a riveting account of her baptism of fire in a nation of fear where the weapon of violence was wielded seemingly against anyone but especially against those working to ease the burdens of poverty, ignorance and hunger.
Although she is a first-time author, Osberger brings an intensity and a you-are-there quality to her story. Part of this is its depth of detail concerning events of nearly a half century ago. To achieve this, she conducted extensive interviews with 21 of the religious sisters, priests, and other volunteers with whom she worked during her three months in Chile.
Even more important, though, is Osberger’s ability to convey to the reader in a palpable way the dread and terror of living and working in Pinochet’s Chile.
I Surrender gains added strength from the contrast that she found between the safe, calm existence in the U.S. and the ever-present fear in Chile, and from the contrast between the brutality of the Chilean regime and the lovingkindness of those religious-oriented Americans trying to serve those in need.
And, beyond this, there is outrage, rooted in the knowledge that Osberger had at the time and that she gained over the next decades, that the violence and oppression in Chile, as well as many other places in Latin America, was aided directly by her own United States government.
For a 21st century audience, I Surrender is an important reminder that committed Catholic religious sisters, clergy and lay people, as well as other Christians, put their lives on the line in Latin America — and sometimes lost their lives — to embody the Christian beliefs of love and service in aiding the oppressed. While the scandals of the Catholic church are well-publicized, and rightly so, I Surrender is an insight into Christianity done right.
A little more than a month after being arrested and released, Osberger was able to leave hiding and get out of Chile, but she did not go home to South Bend.
Instead, she met another volunteer worker in Peru and stayed there to teach school as she had been doing in Chile. She returned to the United States at the end of 1976.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally appeared at Third Coast Review on 9.6.23.