Through the decades, more than 20 Columban Fathers have been martyred while on mission. However, not until 1983 did martyrdom touch the Columban Sisters, after police accidentally gunned down Columban Sister Joan Sawyer in Lima, Peru.
A native of Northern Ireland, Sister Sawyer became a U.S. citizen, and served in Boston and Chicago before transferring to Lima in 1977. One of her duties there was to serve as a chaplain for the San Juan de Lurigancho Prison in Lima.
On December 13th, a group of 10 armed prisoners took several women as hostages, including Sister Sawyer, who was at the prison for her routine weekly visit.
The inmates threatened to kill the hostages unless they were provided with a vehicle and driver to take them out of the prison. The authorities complied, and the prisoners sped out of Lurigancho in an ambulance with their captives.
But the Lima police were lying in wait for them. About a mile outside the prison, police officers ambushed the vehicle with a barrage of small arms fire. The prisoners surrendered after a brief fight, but Sister Sawyer had been killed.
Her funeral attracted thousands of mourners, several of whom shouldered her casket. An enormous funeral procession traveled 15 miles, from her home parish, through downtown Lima, and to her internment in a Lima cemetery.
Shortly afterward, at the spot of Sister Sawyer’s death, mourners put up a cross with the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill,” written in Spanish.
On December 13th, 2013 – the 30th anniversary of the shooting – a group of Columban Sisters and Fathers, along with friends of Sister Sawyer, held a commemorative Mass in Lurigancho Prison.
To this day, Sister Joan Sawyer remains the only Columban Sister to be martyred while on mission.