Rev. Dean Brackley, 65, Dies; Served in El Salvador
By PAUL VITELLO
The Rev. Dean Brackley belonged to an order of priests, the Jesuits, sometimes referred to as “God’s Marines,” because of a 16th-century founder’s military background and because of their long tradition of intellectual rigor as teachers and missionaries.
Father Brackley, who died on Oct. 16 in El Salvador, imbued that nickname with some literal meaning in 1990, when he left a teaching job at Fordham University to take up residence in the San Salvador university dormitory where six Jesuit priests and two women had recently been killed by government military forces.
He admitted to being scared. But the job description for replacements of the slain priests, all of them faculty members at the Universidad Centroamericana, seemed to have his name on it: “They wanted a Jesuit. They wanted someone who had a Ph.D. in theology. They wanted someone who spoke Spanish,” he told a friend. “I started looking around and realized there weren’t that many of us.” He said he would return in four or five years.
Father Brackley remained in the job for the rest of his life. A spokesman for the university said the cause of death was pancreatic cancer. He was 65.
His decision to go to El Salvador was not the first time Father Brackley had taken the road less traveled. In 1980, after completing his doctorate in theology at the University of Chicago, he had several teaching offers from colleges around the country, said the Rev. Neil Connolly, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Manhattan and a longtime friend.
Instead, Father Brackley took a job with a church-sponsored community organization in New York called South Bronx People for Change, where he worked with drug addicts, helped tenants organize and acted as a go-between in tensions between residents and the police.
He had been there almost 10 years — and begun riding his bicycle to Fordham University to teach ethics and theology classes — when the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter were killed on Nov. 16, 1989.
Inquiries determined that the killings were carried out during an extended battle between left-wing insurgents and government forces, part of the country’s decade-long civil war. American-trained government soldiers, who considered the Jesuits leftist sympathizers, dragged the six priests from their beds in the university dorm, ordered them to lie on the ground outside, shot them in the head and then killed the women as potential witnesses. Nine soldiers were charged, but only two were convicted in connection with the executions; both were released in a general amnesty in 1993.
When Father Brackley told friends that he was asking the Jesuit order to send him as a replacement, Father Connolly remembers flinching.
“We didn’t exactly ask him not to go,” he said. “We just said, ‘Gee, Dean, you could do an awful lot of good right here. Why not stay?’ ”
“Father Brackley said ‘he felt called to continue the work’ of those slain,” Father Connelly said, though he told a New York Newsday columnist in 1990 that in some ways he was torn: “My body began to factor it in before my head — I found my knees shaking, without really knowing why.”
He was joined by five other Jesuit priest volunteers at the campus residence in El Salvador, including one other American, the Rev. Charles J. Beirne, an academic administrator who later became president of LeMoyne College in Syracuse. Father Beirne died last year.
Joseph Dean Brackley Jr. was born on Aug. 9, 1946, in Wynantskill, in upstate New York, the oldest of four children of J. Dean and Inez Brackley. He was ordained in 1976. He is survived by his mother; two brothers, Douglas, of Glen Burnie, Md., and Richard, of Mechanicsville, Va.; and a sister, Jane Davis of Brentwood, Tenn.
Father Brackley wrote frequently for the Jesuit weekly magazine America and wrote two books about Catholic theology and priestly discernment while teaching at the university in San Salvador and ministering to a rural parish about 50 miles away.
In the months immediately after the massacre, government soldiers were frequently stationed at the campus, ostensibly as guards. Their presence created an atmosphere of apprehension more than safety, Father Brackley told friends. But as it turned out, the killings had marked a turning point in the war, attracting worldwide attention and Congressional investigations. A peace accord was signed in 1992.
Throughout the 1990s, Father Brackley was the unofficial Jesuit greeter for waves of official and unofficial delegations of visitors to the killing site. Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, was then a staff investigator for Representative Joe Moakley of South Boston, who was chairman of one of the House investigating committees.
“It was a very dangerous time, emotions on all sides were very high, and Dean brought this peacefulness to the situation. He would greet the delegations and tell them the history of the war and the story of what happened at the UCA,” he said, referring to the university.
Every tour concluded with a viewing of the eight rose bushes planted in memory of the victims, and an introduction to the man who tended them, the father and husband of the two women killed.