Penny Lernoux
Journalist (1940 – 1989)

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Penny Lernoux

In the 1970s Christians around the world became aware of two related stories in Latin America. One was about the spread of terror under brutal military dictatorships. The other concerned the transformation of the Latin American Church, traditionally an ally of the rich, now emerging as a prophetic champion of human rights and the cause of the poor. These stories converged in the repression and martyrdom of countless Christians.  

Penny Lernoux, an American journalist based in Latin America, was among those who helped to tell these stories. She had drifted away from the Catholicism of her childhood. But her encounter in the early 1970s with priests, nuns, and missioners living in solidarity with the poor had renewed her faith and determined the form of her vocation as a journalist.  

While other journalists pursued a Cold War narrative of the battle against communism, Lernoux told the story of Latin America from the standpoint of the poor. Her writings became a critical link between the churches and peoples of North and South America. She herself became a witness, a voice for the voiceless, and a hero to many who depended on her courage in reporting the truth.  

Lernoux died on October 8, 1989, soon after receiving a diagnosis of cancer. Walking this final path, she said, was a new chance to experience the helplessness of the poor and “the ultimate powerlessness of Christ.” She was buried in the cemetery of the Maryknoll Sisters.  

“I who always wanted to be the champion of the poor am just as helpless—that I, too, must hold out my begging bowl; that I must learn—am learning—the ultimate powerlessness of Christ. It is a cleansing experience. So many things seem less important, or not at all . . .”  

—Penny Lernoux in a final statement 

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.