Bishop Nelson Perez and Father Stephen Vellenga, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Painesville and director of the propagation of the faith and Diocese of Cleveland Mission Office, spent the third day of their visit to the diocesan mission in El Salvador at several locations, including the COAR Children’s Village, the apartment that St. Oscar Romero had lived in, the chapel where he was killed while celebrating Mass and his tomb. He also visited with San Salvador Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar.
Father Vellenga, who was a staff member at the diocesan mission in El Salvador from 1978 to 1995, accompanied the bishop on his four-day mission visit. They were hosted by Father Paul Schindler, a longtime member of the El Salvador mission team, and Father John Ostrowski, who has served about 10 years at the diocesan mission.
On Day 3 – Dec. 18 – the bishop went to the Community of Oscar A. Romero, also known as COAR, in Zaragoza, El Salvador, where he visited the COAR Children’s Village. It was founded in 1980 by Father Ken Myers, a diocesan priest and member of the Cleveland Latin American Mission team, also known as CLAM.
COAR Children’s Village was established as a safe, permanent home for children – many of whom were orphans – who were displaced by the civil war that raged 1979-1992 in El Salvador. It was named after Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, an outspoken critic of the war. The archbishop was murdered as he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980 in a hospital chapel. He was canonized on Oct. 14 in Rome.
At the COAR Children’s Village, Bishop Perez met with Martha Calderon, the director, and several teenagers who live there. He spoke to each teen and staff member.
“What are your personal hopes and dreams?” the bishop asked them and then he listened to their responses. One boy turned the tables by asking the bishop and those who accompanied him what their hopes and dreams are. Traveling with Bishop Perez were Fathers Vellenga, Schindler and Ostrowski.
A boy named Ignacio presented the bishop with a gift – a painting made by his sister who had asked him to give it as a gift to someone “at the right time.”
The COAR Peace Mission continues to receive support from many in the Diocese of Cleveland. An office that coordinates local support for the mission is housed at the Center for Pastoral Leadership in Wickliffe. Mary Stevenson is the executive director. There also is an eight-member board of directors that includes a diocesan priest and an Ursuline sister — both whom previously served in El Salvador — and lay people who share a passionate commitment to peace, justice and the welfare of children in developing countries. Visit coarpeacemission.org for more information on COAR.
Also on the Day 3 agenda was a visit to the small apartment where St. Oscar Romero lived. It is on the grounds of a cancer treatment hospital in San Salvador. The bishop and his companions saw a display that included the blood-stained Mass vestments Archbishop Romero was wearing when he was killed. Bishop Perez and Fathers Vellenga, Schindler and Ostrowski celebrated Mass at the altar where the archbishop was killed. A drawing on a Plexiglas panel on the floor of the chapel indicates exactly where Archbishop Romero fell behind the altar after he was shot and killed.
Bishop Perez and the group also visited St. Oscar Romero’s tomb in the crypt of the Cathedral of San Salvador. His tomb is covered by a bronze sculpture depicting a shroud that reveals the archbishop’s body being suspended by the four evangelists. A red marble ball on the upper left side of the sculpture represents the bullet that killed him. The saint’s body lies below the sculpture, encased in red granite.
Father Schindler, who was working at the diocesan mission in El Salvador in 1980, knew St. Oscar Romero.
Day 3 ended with the bishop and his party visiting Archbishop Escobar. They enjoyed dinner and the archbishop presented Bishop Perez with a framed portrait of St. Oscar Romero and a medallion commemorating his canonization.
The bishop planned to spend his last full day in El Salvador visiting the La Libertad area, where Father Schindler works.