IMAGE: CNS photo/Joe Tuckman
By Jo Tuckman
SANTA TECLA, El Salvador (CNS) — Leonor Chacon remembers every
emotion she felt March 24, 1980, as if it were yesterday.
It started, she recalls, with the happiness that always
accompanied the expectation that Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador would
be coming to eat with her family in the small city of Santa Tecla, just west of
the Salvadoran capital.
Later there was her disappointment when her husband returned home
with the news that the archbishop could not make it because he was committed to
celebrating Mass that evening in the chapel of the cancer hospital next to
where he lived.
And then there was the call informing her he had been shot while celebrating
“I ran to the room where my husband was and we cried together,” recalled
Chacon, now 80. “It was a very great pain.”
Today, El Salvador eagerly awaits the canonization of the
archbishop who began his pastoral life as a conservative priest known for his
charity work and spent his final years accused of being a communist agitator
for defiantly speaking out against the death squads and political repression.
But while Chacon celebrates the attention focused on Blessed Romero’s
message of peace, for her he was also a dear friend, who treated her little
family restaurant and home behind it as a refuge from the horror.
Taking a break from making pastries she sells in glass jars on the
counter of the restaurant, Chacon let the anecdotes flow.
She recalled the way he would ask to be told jokes, as well as
his belly laughs from the sofa when the family would clown about. She smiled fondly
at the memory of the time he spent hours sitting with her father, watching
telenovelas, and at his voracious appetite for her refried beans.
“He used to say that he came here to disconnect and the rest,” she said. “He would say it was like going to the house of Martha and Mary of Bethany.”
Chacon first met Blessed Romero on her wedding day in 1963. Her
fiance, Raul, had told her about the priest who had taken him in to live in his
parish in the nearby town of San Miguel when he became an orphan at the age of
7, so she wrote to ask him if he would marry them. Blessed Romero married them
and stayed for the small banquet the family threw for the newlyweds, then he
whisked them off to a hotel for their wedding night, paying the bill himself.
From then on, Blessed Romero began regularly dropping by for lunch
on his way to and from the capital, developing individual relationships with
many of the family members, including her sister, Elvira, who became his
Chacon said he preferred not to talk about politics when he
visited and would brush off concerns for his safety, as he did the last time
she saw him, March 8, 1980. He dismissed the idea that he should be traveling
with someone, saying he did not want to put anybody else in danger.
Like many in El Salvador, Chacon said the archbishop wrote his own
death sentence in the homily he gave the day before his murder, in which he
ordered soldiers to “stop the repression.”
“He knew they were going to kill him, but he wasn’t afraid,”
she said. “He was smiling a lot the last time he came here.”
Chacon told of the children and old people crying as thousands
filed passed his coffin as it lay for five days in the San Salvador basilica. She also
described how that grief then turned to fear on the very day of his funeral in
the cathedral, when snipers fired on the mourners. Dozens died, many in the
stampede to escape. Listening to the funeral on the radio in her home, she said
the transmission cut out soon after the gunfire and screams began.
A few months later, rumors circulated that anybody found with
photographs of the archbishop would be killed. Her husband, who died in 2002,
wanted to burn their photos, but she refused. Instead she wrapped them in cloth
and put them at the bottom of a chest.
Now she has hung those same photographs proudly on the wall in a
kind of shrine she proudly shows to anybody who visits.
“He used to say that there are more people who love me than hate
me, and it’s still true” she said. “The people who come here get all
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