It’s hard to believe now, when most Canadians think of the Dominican Republic only when they want a winter holiday, but in 1965, the United States invaded its small neighbour to crush a popular rebellion. During the occupation, a Canadian priest was murdered.
The revolt began on April 24 with the fall of a regime installed by a 1963 military coup that had ousted President Juan Bosch just seven months after his election. The goal of the April Revolution was to restore Bosch. On April 28, President Lyndon Johnson sent in his troops to rescue U.S. civilians caught in civil strife. A few days later, with one of those presidential “we-got-there-just-in time” speeches, he announced that a “communist conspiracy” had been uncovered, and sent in more troops.
Padre Arturo was working in Monte Plata, a small city about 60 km northeast of Santo Domingo. In the weeks after the invasion, he worked tirelessly for the release of political prisoners.
In the summer of 1987, I travelled to Monte Plata with two Canadian friends. We asked the bus driver to let us off at “the place where the priest was killed,” and visited the monument, the gravesite (right), and the local church. In the preceding five years, I had heard a lot about Art MacKinnon from other Scarboro priests, several of whom had a lot to do with getting me to the Dominican Republic, first in 1983, and then regularly over the next decade.
Back in 1965, news of MacKinnon’s murder spread quickly. The first wire service reports contained serious mistakes: the priest was killed for “harbouring fugitives” or while “en route home on furlough.”
The first official version had it that Padre Arturo was shot as his jeep zigzagged toward a military roadblock. The wounds and the condition of the vehicle—and the actual location of the roadblock—did not sustain that version.
A later, partial Organization of American States investigation implies a conspiracy based on a model for extrajudicial killings carried out in the era of the former dictator, Rafael Trujillo (in power from 1930 to 1961): two policemen were sent to kill Arturo, and a soldier was sent to kill the policemen. A variant is that one of the policemen used a pistol to execute the priest, and that the soldier arrived on the scene and opened fire on the perpetrators with a machine gun, also hitting Arturo’s body. Another version is that the two policemen were accompanying Arturo in his quest to free political prisoners, and that the soldier killed all three with a machine gun, and then used one of the police pistols to “execute” Arturo.
A more interesting question is: who ordered the killings? A 2007 book by Padre Arturo’s nephew, James MacKinnon (Dead Man in Paradise: Unravelling a Murder from a Time of Revolution, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre), probes conspiracies among the local Monte Plata elite, as well as allegations levelled against senior Dominican military officers and forces of the U.S. occupation.
At the time, the refusal of authorities to investigate the murder fully was decried by Drew Pearson, a leading U.S. syndicated columnist. In his Washington Merry-Go-Round column of Aug. 12, 1965, Pearson attributed the assassination directly to the U.S.-backed military government.
“The blindness of true love”
For MacKinnon’s Scarboro colleagues, the focus has been more on Padre Arturo’s commitment to the Dominican people and on what his example means for other Christians—and for the churches. On the 40th anniversary of the murder, a fellow Scarboro priest, Joe Curcio, wrote about what the young priest may have been thinking in the days and hours before his death:
“It is here where a wisdom beyond the rationality of the intellect filled his heart. His power of reasoning, his convictions, served as platforms, as it were, for the presence and power of the Spirit. With his young parishioners imprisoned, their mothers overwhelmed with fright and sorrow, the weight of injustice crushing his own spirit, love overcame his fears. Like all martyrs, including Jesus, the blindness of true love overwhelms and breaks the heart. The need to give help to those suffering such grave injustices, to bring them safely home, was clearly what his heart called him to do.”
Fr. MacKinnon served in a church that has at times played an ambiguous role in Dominican public life. The church only became critical of the dictator Trujillo in the final two years of his rule. The
Latin American church historian Enrique Dussell (The Church in Latin America, 1492-1992, Orbis: 1992, p.164) asserts that the church in the Dominican Republic was left with “no positive role to play” after the assassination of Trujillo in 1961. Juan Bosch, elected president two years later, was accused by the church of being a communist, and an ambiguous sermon by Santiago Bishop Hugo Eduardo Polanco Brito (president of the bishops’ conference at the time) possibly contributed to his overthrow. “The church remained silent throughout the U.S. occupation that followed, despite the assassination of Fr. Arthur MacKinnon.”
Another Scarboro priest, Harvey Steele, also wrote a book about the murder of Padre Arturo (Why Kill A Priest! Burlington, Ont.: Crown Publications, 1982). He wrote (p.99): “A church that is not persecuted in an unjust society must itself be an unjust church.”
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