Former nun, now 90, tells story of her part in ending Nicaragua crisis

| Kathy Berken for The Catholic Spirit | October 3, 2011 | 0 Comments

The most amazing thing about Alicia Meyer is not that she got an iPad for her 90th birthday or that she was formerly a nun (St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Mary Arthur). The most amazing thing is that Meyer fearlessly helped end a military/political hostage takeover in Nicaragua in the 1960s.

The rebels had been fighting the National Guardsmen in a bloody rebellion against the Samoza regime. The rebels took refuge in Meyer’s hotel, taking her and others hostage. While heavy mortar artillery fire ravaged Managua in January 1967, the pre-Sandinistas were demanding a delay in elections and ransom in return for the 89 Americans and 38 Nicaraguans.

“We hid under mattresses while artillery shells zoomed right over us,” she said. Even though the Nicaraguan rebels wanted Americans to be killed, she was not scared. “I was too busy trying to survive to be afraid.”

Meyer joined the Los Angeles province of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1939, after she graduated from high school. She took the name Sister Mary Arthur, and studied nursing administration. Always the volunteer, she offered to go to Peru in 1962 to work for the Pan American Health Organization as director of a nursing school. For the next 18 years, she worked in Central America in public health administration and education. “It was an interesting life,” she said.

Interesting, indeed. Sister Mary Arthur just happened to be in Managua for a seminar that fateful week. After she and a friend, Sister Pat Dieman, CSJ, had arrived at the hotel, they thought they heard firecrackers. But, it was no celebration; it was gunfire and cannon rockets. No Americans were killed, but Meyer said she remembered walking over dead and wounded Nicaraguans when the rebels moved them to a different part of the hotel.

“They were pointing their guns at us and I just wondered where I would be shot first,” she said. “The bishop came to speak to the rebels that night and then we all slept together for safety in the same room, amidst the cannon fire and gunshots.”

In the morning, they were allowed to go downstairs, Meyer continued.

“We were all seated on cots and somebody from the American embassy came and asked for volunteers, so as the first to volunteer, I went down. They wanted to know who was my next of kin,” she said, adding that it wasn’t exactly what she wanted to hear.

Soon, a rebel fighter came into their room with a knapsack of grenades.

“The building was shaking. The gunfire started up again,” Meyer said. One of the hostages yelled, “If you don’t do something, we will all be killed.” So, a reporter among the hostages asked volunteers to go talk to the fighters.

“Always the volunteer,” she said with a smile. “You guessed it, I raised my hand. They wanted a man to go with us, so that short burly newsman also came with Pat and me.”

The doors to the hotel were blocked, so they had to push through them to get outside, where they saw soldiers and a tank. Meyer’s entourage waved a white bed sheet as a peace sign.

“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, I heard people shouting.” A soldier told them to walk to the corner, where the snipers were not likely to get them.

The trio had one message: “We wanted the American embassy to ask for amnesty for all of us.”

“We asked the jeep driver to take us to the embassy. Deputy Ambassador Robert White spoke to us and we delivered our message.” Within hours, the hostages were released. “After that, there was a lot of cheering,” Meyer recalled.

The Los Angeles Times ran the story two days later. It said, in part: “A bloody uprising against the Somoza machine ended Monday night [1/22/67] after antigovernment forces released 89 American citizens who were held as hostages in a hotel converted into a small fortress by the rebels.”

Meyer rejoined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1994 as a consociate and moved into Bethany Convent in 2005. She plans to move into the new Carondelet Village when construction is complete.

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