The ongoing pandemic prevented the COAR Peace Mission from hosting its annual benefit this year, so the group switched gears and had a prayer service and benefit.
The livestreamed event took place March 24 at St. Dominic Church in Shaker Heights. Presiding were Bishop Edward Malesic and Father Robert Sanson, a retired priest of the Diocese of Cleveland and emeritus member of the COAR Peace Mission board. Daphne Held, COAR Peace Mission board member, chaired the event.
She explained that COAR is the Community of St. Oscar A. Romero, which was founded in El Salvador as a war orphanage in the chaos after St. Oscar Romero’s death on March 24, 1980. It was developed by the Cleveland Latin American Mission Team – also known as CLAM – that had been serving in El Salvador since 1964.
In his opening remarks, Bishop Malesic said he is just beginning to appreciate the Cleveland connection to El Salvador and St. Romero. “We come together in solidarity with our brother and sisters in El Salvador and the people all over the world who find inspiration in St. Romero’s life and his words. We also honor all of you who have been involved in ministering in El Salvador, many who have gone in person, and formed deep bonds with the Salvadoran people,” he said. “We join now in prayer under the inspiration of St. Romero, martyr for justice, for peace and for non-violence, martyr of our faith.”
Father Sanson, who has close ties to COAR and Father Paul Schindler, a diocesan priest and longtime missionary in El Salvador, offered a reflection on St. Romero.
“We remember that on this day, March 24, 1980, he gave his life for the people of El Salvador. He was shot through the heart while celebrating Mass,” Father Sanson said, adding that St. Romero’s heart had been transformed over many years.
He said he did not believe in death without resurrection, Father Sanson said, adding St. Romero said, “If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”
St. Romero’s motto was “Think with the Church,” which was on the red stole worn at the prayer service by Father Sanson – the same stole that was used at his beatification. “He was always a faithful servant of the Church, but the difficult will of God came to him through personal pain and the trauma of injustices, especially to the poor,” Father Sanson said. He noted St. Romero’s heart was transformed through a series of events, including the assassination of a close friend, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, whose cause for sainthood is under consideration. Also contributing to his transformation was serving as the bishop of a poor, rural diocese in El Salvador. He lived among the very poor campesinos or peasants. “He heard the cry of the poor and it broke his heart,” Father Sanson said.
After Father Grande’s murder, then-Bishop Romero prayed for hours over his body and the bodies of two companions who were killed with him. “The next day, he was a changed man,” Father Sanson said, and it marked the beginning of three years of what he called prophetic ministry. “His sermons at the cathedral on the truth of what was happening were broadcast on diocesan radio throughout the nation. One of his regular listeners was Miss Jean Donovan, a lay missionary from Cleveland. She would talk about Romero with fellow missionary Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun. The two of them worked with refugees at the end of their short lives, in accordance with the wishes of Romero. Romero and the women would bring children to the new orphanage,” he said. After St. Romero’s assassination, the orphanage was named in his honor – the first institution in the world to be named after him. COAR now is a children’s village for abandoned, abused and vulnerable children in El Salvador and it sponsored the prayer service.
Just nine months after St. Romero’s death, Donovan, Sister Kazel and two Maryknoll missionary sisters also were murdered in El Salvador.
“In our Cleveland martyrs, Jean and Dorothy, we have ‘blood ties’ with our people in El Salvador. Our missionaries could have come home to safety, yet they stayed. After their murders, some parishioners in La Libertad told me, ‘Before, you were missionaries. Now you are one with us.’”
Father Sanson said the best legacy to St. Romero is “not only to walk with the people of El Salvador, but also by transforming our own hearts after the heart of Christ.”
He also briefly addressed the children of COAR, many of whom were watching the livestreamed prayer service.
The event also included Deacon Mark Janezic of St. Rita Parish in Solon reading quotes from St. Romero, intercessions read by Brian Boswell of St. Dominic’s, readings by Kathy Rinehart of Church of the Resurrection in Solon, and Amy Fogerty from St. Dominic’s.
Jodie Bowers, St. Dominic; Veronica and Mike Leahy, Children of Light Foundation; and Chris Janezic, COAR Peace Mission board member, brought a Salvadoran cross, flowers and a basket of prayer service petitions to the altar. There also was a traditional Salvadoran presentation of gift symbolizing gratitude, solidarity and hope for the future. The gifts included a radio and St. Romero’s homilies; photos of the martyrs – including the four churchwomen and Father Grande – as well as Father Ken Myers, COAR founder; books, a backpack and laptop symbolizing education; bricks and a shovel symbolizing dignified spaces; rice, beans and corn – common Salvadoran foods; and Romero-inspired art created by the children of COAR.
The service ended with a joint blessing by Bishop Malesic and Father Sanson and singing of a hymn with the COAR children.
Among the attendees at the prayer service were representatives from parishes with a connection to the diocesan mission in El Salvador, including St. Dominic, Church of the Resurrection, St. Rita, St. Joseph Parish in Strongsville, Church of the Holy Angels in Chagrin Falls and Holy Rosary Parish in Cleveland. Also supporting the event were the Center for Pastoral Leadership and the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland. Mary Stevenson is executive director of the COAR Peace Mission.
Click here for more information on COAR, to view the prayer service or to make a secure online donation.