header icons

From a Middle-Class Lifestyle to Voluntary Poverty and a Dramatic Experience in El Salvador

Mark and Louise Zwick

On Our Way

 We had it all. Or, we had the usual for middle-class people: four bedrooms, three bathrooms, two babies, two cars, two bank accounts and a good salary.  People respected us at the city gates as the Bible says.  What would be next? A cottage on the lake, a boat- a large one, six bedrooms, a Mercedes, an upper-middle-class parish like St. Cecelia’s.

But Suspicious

We suspected, however, that there was more than this to life. We joined a small discussion group whose membership was made up of Jews and Christians and whose purpose was to explore deeper values and reflect them in our lives. We discussed books by Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoffer and Graham Greene. One from the group, a young Jewish man and recent graduate of Yale Law School kept challenging us by asking us where we were going with our lives and our careers. “What is next?” he kept asking, or the old, “And then?” question which reminded us of the questions of St. Alphonsus Liguori we heard years ago: “What is all of this in the light of eternity?”or in the light of a lifetime! It was at this time that we met Willy and Louise Weaver, members of the Church of the Brethren, a peace church. They introduced us to Clarence Jordan’s books and Koinonia and emphasized the importance of concentrating on the Gospels, especially the sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25.

Biggest Influence

The biggest influence on us at this time, were the books of Jacques Ellul, a French Protestant theologian, who had been recommended to us by Daniel Berrigan, S.J., a friend of the family. Tom Gilmartin, Ph.D., of Youngstown, Ohio, formed a group with us and we discussed and read the majority (8 or 10) of Jacques Ellul’s books. Tom was the most humble intellectual we have ever known.

We have never fully recovered from Jacques Ellul’s books – thank God – and his thinking still influences us. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day would have been at home with him in his raising doubts about the technological society, the evils of the “city” and shallow activism. He gave us great insight into the Incarnation, living in the Kingdom in today’s society; his perception of salvation history and eschatology rooted our faith in the Kingdom that is to come.

Dangerous Prayer

The two of us began to meditate more and discuss more. We took a risk—one never knows where prayer, meditation and discussion can lead you. For one thing, it is a way of avoiding the ennui and boredom of life. For another, it avoids falling prey to the syndrome in the famous quote that most men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Time for a Change

 At the same time all of this was going on, Mark, a psychiatric social worker, was working long hours including evenings and weekends, as a member of his agency’s psychiatric emergency team.  Louise was at home along with our children, pre-schoolers.  She helped in parent-participation nursery schools with the children and worked with a support group for the United Farm Workers, but was basically at home with the children. We believed in the importance of being with the children in their early years. Mark, however, didn’t see the children or Louise as much as he would have liked.

But the pay was great! We were saving a lot of money and in our culture this is an overriding factor. We must always make as much money as possible in order to purchase more things and to save for the future and for the education of our children. Men or women totally committed to their careers, almost as if they were celibate priests or sisters, in the name of saving more for the family, may ironically participate in a process of destroying family life.

But Not that Simple  

 It is not easy to pass up job opportunities. A good job makes a person feel good about himself or herself. Mark had a difficult time even thinking about working less, not only because of the pay, but also because his work met his needs as a professional person. He had a good position. Dr. Hewitt Ryan, the psychiatrist who directed county mental health services in Modesto, California, was one of the most creative and innovative directors of mental health in the United States. Mark was respected for his work there and had a good future. He published articles in professional journals on the mental health prevention programs he was organizing among the poor. He was paid well and could save half of his salary in some months. It was hard to argue with the need to “save for the children’s future.” It was difficult to turn away from this.


 One day Mark suggested to Louise that maybe he should quit this job that had taken him away from the family so much. Possibly Louise should go to graduate school, after which we could both work half-time. By the time Mark returned from buying the milk for the children, Louise was on her way to being accepted in a children’s literature and library science program at the University of California at Berkeley. She would become a children’s librarian and Mark would take care of the children during her graduate school. So it was!

“And then…”

 After Louise’s graduate school, we stuck to the half-time idea although it was difficult to find half-time positions. Louise insisted. Louise found a half-time position as a research librarian (half-time work as a children’s librarian was not available) and took care of the children in the afternoon. Mark became director of group therapy for children, his specialty in graduate school, at a community mental health center near Louise’s work.

Louise had a positive experience in her library work as she developed a report and document collection for a research company that prepared environmental impact studies. But she was disturbed by a lack of depth or commitment to genuine evaluation of environmental dangers related to the fear of losing contracts.

Mark trained psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers to be in group therapy. He enjoyed his work, but sometimes wondered about the overwhelming influence of Freudian dogmas.

Our income was cut by two-thirds. We had a small two-bedroom apartment. The people at the city gates were unimpressed—in fact, people felt sorry for us. This was unnecessary, as we were surviving very well with our simple lifestyle and still saving money—“for the children,” that is. We were not and are not against couples with children saving money when in the process of changing lifestyles. It is much better that they have money to take care of themselves rather than have the government or church do it if something goes wrong—we still believe independence is important.

Another Group

 In our suburban neighborhood we found several people to form another group with us, not only for reading and sharing, but also for action—to do something as a group. This was where we met Frs. Larry Purcell and Dan O’Connor, who became member of the community. This group had great potential. We grew in age and wisdom, but we never really did anything, except some part-time efforts with the Farm Workers and efforts at slowing nuclear destruction during the two years we met.

But action isn’t everything. These were very profitable years in terms of growing spiritually.

Passing On and Over

 It was during this time that Tom and Mella Trier became our companions in fantasizing about the future. Tom was Jewish. Mella was raised Catholic. Our discussions about moving on and about growth took on special significance in the light of the Exodus as we celebrated the Passover with the Triers each year with our children and their children.

Tom’s exodus from Nazi Germany at age 7 at the time of Hitler came just in time for him and his parents, who would have been killed had they stayed. Together we read the ancient story of the Jewish Passover. Tom told his story of escape to freedom and we sang the songs of Passover in Hebrew and English. We prayed that the Passover might become a reality to us and we thanked the Lord especially for Tom’s passover.

The Trier experience remains with us still in regard to our feelings about refugees from persecution in any country.

Catholic Worker Roots

 Our discussion-group community volunteered at the soup kitchen of the San Francisco Catholic Worker. The Catholic Workers there were an inspiration to us.

During this time we rediscovered Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Dorothy made much sense to us with her emphasis on simple living, serving others in the Spirit of the Gospels and personalism. We read the history of the Catholic Worker movement by William Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love.

Louise had been to the New York Worker and attended clarification of thought meetings. She had read books about Dorothy Day as part of her reading assignments to become a Catholic when in college.

Mark had met Dorothy Day at the New York Worker along with Michael Harrington (of The Other America fame) who had given him his first tour of the Worker. We pray that Michael not forget his roots, which is a strong temptation for him. Mark also knew Fr. Hugo, Dorothy’s advisor for many years and the person who put flesh on the bones of the famous retreat of Fr. Lacouture. Father Hugo was considered harsh by many Catholic Workers, but he was basically misunderstood. One suspects he objected to certain people living at the Worker whose lives did not always conform perfectly to Church teaching. He did soften with his participation in the Liturgical Movement and the advent of the Second Vatican Council. Mark found the discipline of the retreat movement was helpful as a young man. He always found Fr. Hugo very kind.

Mark made his retreat with Fr. Meenan. Mark was influenced mostly by Fr. Urgan Gerheart (deceased) and Fr. Louis Trivision, who also were retreat masters. These two men, who introduced him to Western mysticism, impacted his life very much. Fr. Trivision, later pastor of Resurrection parish in Solon, Ohio, has been a strong supporter of Casa Juan Diego since its inception.

Not Total Loss 

Our group wasn’t a total loss. We just needed to break up. This is one case where the members of the community were saved by destroying the group. Larry Purcell went on to found the Redwood City Catholic Worker for delinquent and homeless teenagers and now abandoned children, and Fr. Daniel O’Connor founded the Bridge Community for alienated Catholics in San Francisco and today directs, “Bridge Building Icons” in Vermont. We also moved on.

Decision Time

We had been through a number of groups and read a number of books. We had prayed and saved money and talked to a number of people. We had had enough of the numbers. It was time to go. For a number of years, also, we had been very interested in Latin America, especially the comunidades de base (base communities), the Spanish language and Hispanic culture. We had tried learning Spanish to assist the people with whom we worked, but we never had much success.

We had thought that one day we would take a sabbatical—a year off to go to Spain when the children were older, but friends told us at the time that it was better to travel and move around with children well before adolescence, the time when they need a more stable environment.


We decided to apply to the Maryknoll lay missionary program where they put us through three days of intense psychological testing. The testing included questions like, “Do you like to arrange flowers?” – Neither of us does, but we passed anyway with flying colors, and signed up for Venezuela, where we were to assist in a training program.

We flew to Venezuela for orientation, but a problem developed as the priest with whom we were going to work had decided to become a layman and start dating. Maryknoll in Venezuela said the program could go ahead. Maryknoll in New York said that it couldn’t.

We had quit our jobs, which really worried Father Sullivan of the Maryknoll lay program, but we were ready, like ripe fruit, ready to be utilized. We were not about to wait any longer after these years of preparation.

El Salvador

We called Father Ralph Friedrich, an old friend, who had spent a number of years in Central America, to ask his advice. He referred us to Father Bernard Survil in San Salvador, El Salvador. Father Friedrich later became Associate Director of Maryknoll’s diocesan priests’ associate program. Fr. Survil said that he would accept us if we paid our own way, so all that we had saved for the children became very useful.

To prepare, we enrolled in beginning, intermediate and advanced Spanish classes at the same time in the local community colleges. We had language background, Louise in French and Mark in Latin and Italian, which made survival a possibility.

We also began to buy second-hand children’s books to take on our journey. We had a mammoth garage sale in which we sold everything, even our beds, so we had to sleep on the floor until we left. It was a strange feeling, possessing only a car, two children and a bank account.

On Our Way

We kept one car. We loaded it up with 200 children’s books, two little violins and our remaining household goods. We knew life in another country would be difficult for the children, Jennifer and Joachim (in the third and first grades), but they had become good readers and would at least have books to read in their own language while they were beginning to learn Spanish. Louise had taught them to read at home before they started kindergarten. Louise also had a music background and could continue their music lessons.

We had mixed emotions about going: the excitement of going to another country, but also the fear of what could go wrong. Family and friends were worried.

The Trip

Sanborns, the famous insurance company at the border, gave us great help in regard to where to eat and stay. Their trip guide not only gave mile-by-mile descriptions of the journey, including bumps in the road, they also recommended inexpensive hotels and restaurants where our unaccustomed intestines would remain at peace after frequenting them.

Our trip through Mexico went smoothly. It was in Guatemala that the soldiers threatened to put us in jail because everything had not been declared properly at the Guatemalan border. We soon learned, however that the guardia (soldiers) were willing to pay the judge for you, a fact that may have saved Mark’s life in El Salvador.

At the Salvadoran border we had to empty our car completely, an easy accomplishment if one had suitcases. To save space, we had refrained from using suitcases, so all of our clothing, sheets, dishes and pots and pans had been packed loose in the trunk. The same was true with the area behind the front seats, which was filled to make a comfortable area for the children.

The Salvadoran soldiers went through this mammoth pile of things. The only things that upset them were several children’s religious books. We must have had the famous Taize children’s Bible from France.


 We approached El Salvador innocently. At the time there were no serious open conflicts in the country. Thus, we proceeded thinking that things would be fairly safe. Readers need to know this if they read on.

We had not counted on the elections which occur every six years and were due to take place not long after our arrival. The periods after elections are violence-prone, especially if they are fraudulent. Had we known what was going to happen after the election in El Salvador, we would not have gone, but we were there and were going to stay until it was unbearable.

Fr. Survil prepared for our coming by renting half a house for us at $50 per month. At this price we could have stayed for years. We lived in a poor neighborhood in the capital, San Salvador. We had electricity and running water. Most of our neighbors had electricity, but had to carry water. Others had only cardboard huts and cooked outside on open fires.

The streets were not paved and there were open sewers. We could not drive our car to our home because of the holes. We were cautioned not to wear sandals because of the danger of picking up parasites.

The poverty was striking. Unemployment was at 50% and there is no welfare system in Latin America. Many people walked the neighborhoods with some small items they sold, to try to eke out a living. We had anticipated changes in lifestyle, but as North Americans we didn’t anticipate them all. We thought there would be one Laundromat in San Salvador where we could wash our clothes. There was not. So we washed clothes each morning by hand.

We went to the market to buy fruit and were asked, “Where is your bag?” We said, “Bag?”  They would sell us one, but in that economy no one could afford to give us a bag. Each person carried a cloth or plastic bag. Probably the thing that bothered us the most, though, was the dust from the street that poured into our house daily. There was no glass in the windows of our house and there were separations where the walls met the ceilings.

Joachim and Jennifer Zwick, children of Mark and Louise Zwick with friends in El Salvador in 1977.

We were surrounded by poverty, by families struggling daily to survive and maintain a human and Christian existence.  We had come to this neighborhood to share the life of the comunidades de base, to learn about the life and culture and to learn Spanish. And we were deeply impressed by the people. They lived with poverty and great oppression, but with the aid of the Church and the formation and conscientizing of the comunidades de base, reflections on Scripture, trying to build a life together, the people found hope in the midst of all.

We learned a lesson in El Salvador that we have never forgotten. Here in the States we associate poverty with a lack of culture. There we learned that the people, who make up 80 to 90% of the population, though poor, have a depth of culture which we would not expect. We came back with a deep respect for the people and their culture.

The Church

Besides the culture and the comunidades we were greatly impressed by the life of the Church— the institutional church at that! We had been part of the religious and social turmoil of the sixties and seventies in the United Sates which had left us for better or worse with some doubts about institutionalism. Our spiritual needs were met in small groups rather than the parish structure, though we participated in the sacramental life of the church.

To our surprise we discovered that the Church was the only force left in El Salvador to counteract the oppression and violence of the government. The Church, though poor itself, stood with the poor. It was not poor in faith.

State of Siege

 After the elections (1977), which were fraudulent, violence did erupt. We had a hard time understanding the word for state of siege. The people kept shouting, “Hay un estado de sitio, hay un estado de sitio!” It soon became clear. It meant that no public meeting or assembly could occur. It meant an early curfew. It meant people could be easily detained. Protests against the fraudulent elections were met with extreme violence. People were carried off in trucks to mass graves. There was nothing of this in the newspapers.

The state of siege continued. The U.S. priest, Fr. Bernard Survil, with whom we had gone to work, was first imprisoned and then deported three weeks after our arrival. We decided to stay and work with the base communities in his parish and the Sisters at our daughter Jennifer’s school.

Jesuit Killed

At the same time, Father Rutilio Grande gave his famous sermon at Apopa to protest the deportation of a Columbian priest, Father Bernal, who had a popular radio program. It was this sermon, in which Fr. Grande complained that Jesus would be arrested as a subversive if he came to El Salvador today and the Bible would be considered the same, which got him killed two weeks later.

We were at the outdoor Mass where the sermon was preached and at the national funeral Mass at San Salvador’s cathedral, ordered by the new archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. Fortunately for Fr. Survil, at that time the government deported foreign priests. Salvadoran priests they killed. Eventually, certain members of the Armed Forces began a campaign to kill a Jesuit a day, but international pressure halted that.

Ads attacking the Church were taken out in the local papers. They were sponsored by “Catholic Mothers against the Archbishop.” We wondered who these “mothers” were, but everyone knew that the group was imaginary.

It was forbidden to have meetings of five or more people. The police were told to shoot first and ask questions later if they came upon a group. We knew this because a mother of a policeman was in one of our groups.

We wondered about staying in El Salvador and checked with the American Embassy. Their response was that there were no serious problems and no reason for leaving. They had received no guidelines about the departure of U.S. citizens. Tourism was still a major industry as people from European countries visited.

Romero- Martyr

During our time in El Salvador, Oscar Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador. The government encouraged his appointment because he was known as a moderate conservative who worked with the rich and middle class, a very small percentage of people in El Salvador.

Clergy who visited our house complained about his appointment and his involvement in middle class Church movements. They openly had supported Bishop Rivera y Damas, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador to become archbishop. However, they accepted Archbishop Romero and began to work with him immediately. He was very available. The bishops in El Salvador were very accessible and one could see them any time. When Mark had gone to report the deportation of Fr. Survil he went directly to the seminary and into the former archbishop’s office. The old archbishop, Oscar Romero’s predecessor, wanted to ordain Mark to replace Fr. Survil, but there was a matter of celibacy and a few other things. The mention of ordination was a humorous way of saying there was no on one to replace the deported priest—and there would not be in the foreseeable future.

Oscar Romero soon became close to the poor people of San Salvador and could be seen participating in their celebrations. When Father Rutilio Grande was killed, the archbishop was very moved and was convinced by his people, his religious and clergy, that he must protest this senseless murder. For the funeral he closed all the churches of the diocese and had one Mass in the cathedral. The Catholic schools where the government officials sent their children were closed. Ironically, the religious schools were the best in El Salvador.

The Archbishop began to use the Archdiocesan radio to protest the arrest of innocent people as soon as each incident occurred. He spoke beautifully and clearly about the need to live according to the New Testament—so clearly that in our beginning Spanish we could understand. As we walked through our colonia, all the radios would be tuned to his station, and his voice from many radios came through as one voice.

The government was losing with the archbishop. He was leading the people to peace and away from war. He was eventually shot to death as he consecrated the bread and wine at Mass, recalling Jesus’ giving of his life. At that moment he gave his own life for his people.

Tremendous Experience

Needless to say, what happened to us in our months in El Salvador had a great impact on us, not just politically, but spiritually as well, especially the Lenten experience. Every week we wound through the narrow streets of our colonia, making the Stations or Way of the Cross, a Catholic custom of meditating on various episodes of the final hours of the life of Jesus, prior to his being put to death.

The people of the colonia took turns sponsoring one of the Stations, depicting an episode of Christ’s final suffering, and constructed a simple altar in front of their homes.  The situation was such that even doing this could be considered subversive. The people of our colonia were living the Way of the Cross in their lives, having lost family members to government oppression. Some would lose family members later. The continuation of the sufferings of Jesus in the Body of Christ, the church that St. Paul wrote about, became a stark reality in the lives of the people of our colonia.

The washing of the feet on Holy Thursday took on special significance. A French Jocist priest, harassed for even being in our neighborhood, performed the Holy Thursday ritual. He washed our feet and the feet of poor mothers who had or would lose husbands and sons in the oppression.  His church was a shed a few feet from the railroad tracks.

We began going to daily Mass with the nuns with whom we worked in the comunidades de base. When Mark fell on a large glass drinking water container and almost cut off his arm, we became especially attached to the Sisters who treated him daily at their clinic because a serious infection had developed.

During our stay in El Salvador our children attended school completely in Spanish. It was very difficult for them initially, but little by little they adjusted, made friends and learned Spanish. Jennifer attended the school run by the Sister of the Assumption that worked with us in the comunidades de base. Joachim attended a small Protestant school across the street from our house.

While they were in school the children learned nothing academically, only Spanish, because they didn’t understand. However, learning Spanish was a great gift and they had no difficulty adjusting to their grades upon our return. We now understand the pain of those Spanish-speaking children who have to go to school completely in English before they have learned any English.

The children were homesick, but Louise worked with them around the library of 200 children’s books we had brought with us. She had to ration them each day so they would last. Louise also worked with them with daily violin practice, so they would not lose too much ground and forget what they had learned in the States.

Being overprotective parents, we monitored our children’s activities very closely, taking them to school and picking them up. In the beginning, they were a neighborhood curiosity, but gradually the children of both cultures grew accustomed to one another. Jennifer was greeted with a friendly, “Hola, Gringa.”

The children’s intestines had an awful time adjusting to the water in our area and they were very sick. Louise worked closely with one of the Sister-nurses when they were ill. On one occasion Joachim shocked a Sister from Spain by his serious insubordination when he, upon hearing that he was to receive a shot, locked himself in the bedroom and wouldn’t come out.

Every Saturday we took the children to a special ice cream store and to the movies, which often were in English with Spanish sub-titles.

Church Groups or Communist Groups?

 One of the saddest days of our lives upon our return to the United States was to watch Malachi Martin, an author and ex-Jesuit, tell Pat Robertson on his television program that many Latin American priests and even bishops were communists. This accusation borders on being a death sentence in Latin America.

In El Salvador, accusations of subversion and communism have given permission to that government to kill labor leaders, teachers, catechists, Sisters, priests and lay people. We never saw or met or talked with a communist in our months in El Salvador. We saw religious Sisters and lay people trying to grow spiritually, trying to form community, trying to improve their human condition just a little, trying to see more in life than just the carrying their cross theme and going to heaven someday. Malachi Martin saying this on national television contributes support to a foreign policy that provides guns to kill the innocent. We have found it hard, very hard, to forgive either man.

Death and Danger

Mark never thought much of his participation at the protest Mass where Father Rutilio Grande, S.J., gave his last sermon (in which he said Jesus would be considered a subversive if he came to El Salvador today), until several days after the funeral of the priest. Mark realized later that he was one of the few Anglos at the Mass. Fr. Bernard Survil had asked Mark to get a lot of pictures, but unfortunately Mark didn’t have a camera. When Mark parked his car on the day of the protest Mass, he had noticed that the car next to his was a brand new model with a pistol on the seat and was driven by a well-dressed man. The presumption was that he was a government agent.

When going to Fr. Rutilio Grande’s wake in Aguilares, the jeep in front of us, which was full of the Sisters and members of the comunidades, became involved in an awful accident, with people flying through the air.  It was bad enough that our small children witnessed this and that some people were injured, but the paramount feeling among the Salvadorans accompanying us was fear that the guardia would find out about the wreck and that we were on our way to Fr. Grande’s wake when it happened.

As far as the government was concerned, we were obviously related to Fr. Survil, who kept upsetting the government with leafleting our colonia with peace and justice materials. Fr. Survil would walk through the colonia talking to the people and selling Justicia y Paz, an innocent publication which the government saw as subversive.

After he was jailed the first time, Fr. Survil still refused to stop distributing the church publication and continued to write letters to the editors of many newspapers in the United States. He was picked up one evening by plain clothes agents (according to our neighbors) shortly after visiting with us and discussing future plans.

Not long after the death of Fr. Rutilio Grande and the deportation of Fr. Survil, Mark was going to the El Camino Real, a fancy hotel, to purchase the Miami Herald to catch up on the news. On the way he was stopped by two members of the guardia who had mammoth guns. They asked for his car papers. Unfortunately, after much talking, and Mark acting like a dumb North American, they said that the car papers were not in order. They ordered him to get into his car and follow them to jail. One of the soldiers got into Mark’s car with him and with his big gun to make sure he would not try to escape.

Mark’s thoughts raced in various directions as they drove off. He thought about Fr. Rutilio Grande and Fr. Survil and about Louise and the children. After driving several miles, they came to a deserted area where the soldier in the lead stopped and both soldiers ordered Mark to get out of the car. He stood between the two soldiers with their big guns, more talking about the papers. Mark was hoping that they would pay the judge for him. They agreed to pay the judge and Mark went home to hug Louise and the children.

The family returned to the United States and spent 2 years working in the Rio Grande Valley. Then we moved to Houston to work in social ministry at St. Theresa Church. Plans for the establishment of Casa Juan Diego began in 1980, but that is a story for another issue.  

Houston Catholic Worker, August 1987.