At a mass celebrating his life, Carmelite priest Father David Blanchard was called a person of vision and a genius with a passion to serve his parish in El Salvador. He died on February 27, 2022, at age 71.
David called himself an anthropologist-priest. In sixth grade he developed an interest in missionary work after reading about a Carmelite priest serving in Peru and began religious training in junior seminary (high school). He majored in anthropology and philosophy at the University of Massachusetts followed by a PhD in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago (1982). At Chicago he found inspiration in the classroom (courses with Victor Turner and Paul Ricoeur, mentorship by Ray Fogelson and Sol Tax) and beyond, including long conversations with fellow graduate students at Jimmy’s (The Woodlawn Bar). During one such meet-up, Ira Jacknis (1952–2021) dubbed David “a typical Tureño” (Victor Turner follower). David noted, “Until that early stage of my Chicago upbringing, I did not have the self-awareness of an anthropologist type. I learned a lot about who I am sitting at Jimmy’s bar talking with Ira.”
Another was fellow graduate student Ignacio Martín-Baró, a social psychologist and one of six Jesuit priests and two lay people murdered on the campus of UCA El Salvador in 1989. In an email David recounted how “at Jimmy’s . . . Martín Baró said to me, ‘You really should come to El Salvador and witness what the poor are doing for themselves to create justice. El Salvador really needs anthropologists in this struggle for freedom.’ This concept of a country needing anthropologists stuck in my head.”
During his doctoral research on the recreation of Iroquois culture in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, David embraced Sol Tax’s call for action anthropology and published Seven Generations: A History of the Kanienkehaka with the Kahnawake Survival School. He returned to Chicago to finish his thesis, but not on campus. Father Tracy O’Sullivan, then pastor in the predominantly African American neighborhood south of the university, recalled a late night in January 1981 when a white man (David) appeared at his door proposing he move in, write his dissertation, and help with community-based projects.
After receiving his doctorate David taught at Washington Theological Union (WTU), which allowed him to “combine [his] interests in mission anthropology and the theology of cross-cultural conversation.” Around the time he was ordained (1987), David traveled with a group of Carmelites to Calle Real, a Salvadoran community of civil war refugees. San Salvador’s Archbishop Rivera y Damas challenged the visitors to return and work, a challenge that David accepted. The archbishop specifically asked David “to establish [his]residence at the entrance to the refugee camp to protect [the residents] against an invasion by the armed forces or death squads.” He lived in and served that community the rest of his life.
David noted that “my intention when I came here to El Salvador for the first time was to do an ethnography.” He ended up doing much more. He wrote as an anthropologist, theologian, parish priest, and historian. He published The Harvest of Justice: The Church of El Salvador Ten Years After Romero under the pseudonym Daniel Santiago (1993).
Until the 1992 peace accords David returned to WTU yearly for a semester. That changed when the archbishop asked him to become priest of Our Lady of Lourdes in Calle Real, now a parish of 40,000 people in three towns. During the years of David’s service, the community, church, and affiliated programs built some 1,200 houses, two schools, five clinics, a cultural center, and a museum. They fostered women’s leadership, anti-discrimination policies, business initiatives, and police engagement in community-based programs. David also helped secure grants totaling millions of dollars and created the New Horizons for the Poor Foundation and Initiative for Peace (the latter working with gang issues).
Shortly before he died, David discussed his plans to retire as parish priest at the end of 2022 but continue another 10 years with his foundation work. We had gotten in contact for the first time in over 40 years when I wrote him about the death of our mutual friend, Ira Jacknis. Commenting on obituaries, David was saddened by ones that only consider “research, projects, studies carried out, etc.” Where were references to families, friends, religious or social associations, and conversations? In the few months David and I exchanged emails I learned about the deep connections between his anthropology and religious life, connections that shed light on his substantial efforts fostering and being in community.
Cite as: Hendrickson, Carol. 2022. “David Scott Blanchard.” Anthropology News website, June 8, 2022.