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Two Nuns, Including American, Killed in Nicaragua; Bishop Wounded

January 3, 1990

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) _ Two nuns, including one from Milwaukee, were killed and an American bishop and a third nun were wounded in an attack on their car in northeastern Nicaragua, church officials and radio reports said Tuesday.

Church authorities said gunmen ambushed the car Monday night, but one suggested later that a land mine explosion may have been responsible.

The Nicaraguan government blamed Contra rebels for the incident, which the Rev. Marcelino Estrada said took place on a highway near Puerto Cabezas in the remote Caribbean coastal region, about 200 miles northeast of this capital.

The church said it had no information as to responsibility.

Church officials and family identified the slain nuns as Maureen Courtney, 45, of Milwaukee, and Teresa Rosales, a Nicaraguan. Bishop Pablo Schmitz, 46, of Fond du Lac, Wis., auxiliary bishop of Bluefields, was wounded in the arm.

″He has lost a lot of blood,″ said Estrada, a Roman Catholic priest in Bluefields. ″He is out of danger.″

Northeastern Nicaragua is an isolated area with few roads. A stronghold of the Miskito Indians, it formed an autonomous part of the Contra resistance. Bluefields, Nicaragua’s main Caribbean port, is about 100 miles south of Puerto Cabezas.

Sister Jean Steffes, mother superior for the Sisters of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, said reports she received from Nicaragua indicated the church workers were traveling between cities and may have driven over a mine.

″We’re assuming it was a mine. But we just don’t know,″ she said.

She told reporters in Wisconsin it marked the first time members of her order were killed doing missionary work.

She identified the wounded nun as Sister Francisca Maria Colomer, 24, a Nicaraguan. The nun suffered head and face wounds, but would survive, she said.

The mother superior said the two Nicaraguans became nuns on Jan. 21, 1989.

Frances Courtney, mother of Maureen, told journalists in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, ″I just found out, the convent came and told me. They know nothing either. She is dead.″

Mrs. Courtney, who lives with her husband Russel, said her daughter had been in Nicaragua 15 years.

″She was supposed to celebrate her 25th jubilee in the order this December,″ the mother said. ″She was just a lovely little girl.″

Schmitz went to Nicaragua as a missionary in 1972 and was ordained auxiliary bishop in 1984, according to Brother Larry La Cross, a spokesman for the Capuchin Order provincial headquarters in Detroit.

Schmitz was identified as part of the Capuchin order of the Order of the Franciscans.

Thomas Quigley, adviser on Latin American affairs at the Washington-based U.S. Catholic Conference, said he spoke to the provincial superior of the Capuchins in Managua, who gave him this account:

Two carloads of church people started out, including Bishop Salvador Schlaeffer of Bluefields, and Schmitz, his auxiliary bishop.

″They were going to a meeting scheduled for Puerto Cabezas, to meet with leaders of the Miskito community. They drove from Managua, and left yesterday (Monday) morning. They drove to Siuna en route to Puerto Cabeza.″

Schlaeffer and the people in that car decided not to continue driving that night because it was late.

″Schmitz and the three ... sisters of Saint Agnes continued on. At about 7 o’clock last night, they were ambushed, and the result is two people killed, two people wounded.″

Norma Venkler, a classmate of Maureen Courtney in the 1960s at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee, said her friend was setting up an education system for the Miskito Indians.

About 35 Capuchin missionaries work in Nicaragua. La Cross said his headquarters is in frequent contact with them and no concerns were expressed about their safety in the days before the attack.

Radio Catolica reported the attack, as did the government-run Voz de Nicaragua.

Voz de Nicaragua said the attackers were ″Contra forces encouraged by the invasion of U.S. troops in Panama.″ The government did not say why it believes Contras were responsible.

The Contras began fighting the Nicaraguan government in 1981, saying the leftist Sandinistas had betrayed the popular revolution that toppled Anastasio Somoza in 1979. A fragile cease-fire ended on Nov. 1, 1988, and fighting has been sporadic since then.

Asked about the government claim that the Contras were responsible for the ambush, Estrada replied, ″We have no indication. ... It doesn’t matter who has done it, we condemn the fact.″

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