More About Cardinal Rosa Chavez

COAR, the Community of Oscar A. Romero, is the oldest extant organization in the world to carry the name of Oscar Romero with the approval of the Archdiocese of San Salvador. Oscar Romero will be canonized in the fall of 2018.

On April 28th, COAR will honor Romero’s long-time friend and colleague Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez of El Salvador. The road that has led to COAR’s survival and success, the recognition of Cardinal Rosa Chavez’s work, and the canonization of Oscar Romero this fall, will all come together in a night of celebration.  Please join us – and please enjoy this story of how we got here . . .

How did it all start? COAR was founded in 1980 when Fr. Ken Myers, a priest from Cleveland serving in El Salvador, took a few sick, traumatized, and abandoned children from a crowded refugee camp to his parish in Zaragoza, El Salvador. Soon hundreds of children poured into the parish. The townsfolk mobilized kitchen and health services and the school swelled. Fr. Ken received the gift of a near-by coffee farm and began moving the children into small home-like cottages that were steadily built on the property. A clinic soon followed. The parish school migrated to new buildings. A large chapel, named St. Joseph (click to see lovely photos and read more about our Chapel repair project), to represent the father that so many children were missing, was built overlooking the 80-acre property.

 

Why 1980? The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland had sent priests, nuns, and lay volunteers to work in parishes in coordination with the bishops of El Salvador since 1964. In the late 1970’s the political unrest that had been percolating for decades over issues of land use, poverty, and inequality, erupted in guerilla movements, government coups, and counter coups. Entering a state of emergency in 1977, the government used the army to suppress guerilla movements in the countryside. While both sides of the conflict engaged in violence, especially in the early years of the conflict, the overwhelming use of violence and deaths were at the hands of the army and government death squads. As massacres in the countryside increased, the refugee camps filled.  When the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar A. Romero, was murdered on March 24, 1980, the camps were overwhelmed. That summer is when Fr. Ken realized that the neediest children were overlooked and he began his work.  August 15, 1980 is considered COAR’s Foundation Day

What to name the orphanage? After a government coup in El Salvador in 1977 and the revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, all politics in Central America was bound up in the anxieties of the Cold War and Communism. Fr. Ken wanted to send a clear signal that his work was allied with the Church and not any political movement.  Fr. Ken first named the community the Pope John Paul II Center. However, within the year he renamed it the Community of Oscar A. Romero, COAR. He wanted Romero to be an example to the children of faith and courage in the midst of the conflict. The tragedy of the war had reached him personally, too, when, on December 2, 1980, his fellow Cleveland missionaries, Sr. Dorothy Kazel, OSU, and Miss Jean Donovan were brutally tortured and murdered by the army. They had all been admirers of Romero. They listened to his radio-broadcast sermons. They looked to him as an example of how to navigate the conflict and serve the poor. They had relied on his wisdom and courage for years.

Why COAR, the Community of Oscar A. Romero? Romero had been installed as the Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital city, in 1977, in hopes that his quiet and scholarly reputation would preclude the Church being drawn into political conflict. However, as he watched the brutal murders and repression of priests, nuns, catechists, and civilians, many of whom he knew personally and who were innocent of political subversion, he changed. He became the voice of the voiceless, a shepherd who could protect the people who could not avoid the violence all around them. He spoke out, by radio, in newspapers, by any means possible, against all perpetrators of violence and repression. He used his authority as Bishop to defend and speak out though he knew it put him in danger. He was murdered by an army marksman, while saying mass, on March 24, 1980. For that martyrdom he was proclaimed blessed by Pope Francis in 2015.  He will be canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church in the fall of 2018.  His legacy as an advocate for social justice is still felt in his example to oppressed people everywhere, in books and academic studies, and in movies and dramatizations.

Cardinal Jose Gregorio Rosa Chavez was ordained a priest in El Salvador in 1970. Romero became his friend and mentor as they worked together to respond to the war.  Romero was viewed with suspicion by many of his fellow priests and bishops, but not by Rosa Chavez. After Romero’s death Rosa Chavez was ordained an Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador in 1982. He worked tirelessly to continue Romero’s legacy of service, being a voice for the voiceless and powerless. He was instrumental in the peace process that brought the war to a close in 1992. Through the 1990’s, as the country recovered, he continued to advocate for social justice for the poor.  He was Romero’s historian, a resource for scholars and social justice advocates, and defender Romero’s legacy of Gospel justice independent of political agendas.

In the 2000’s, as it became clear that economic recovery would remain weak and criminal gangs were growing, he worked to mitigate their violence. Members of the Cleveland Mission Team found a constant friend and pastoral example in Rosa Chavez. He was a friend to COAR’s founder, Fr. Ken, until Fr. Ken’s death in 2002. Rosa Chavez visited COAR many times, saying mass and providing spiritual support to the sisters, staff, and children of COAR. After being created Cardinal in 2017, he was invited to Long Island to help minister among Salvadorans including a visit to a prison holding Salvadoran gang members. His host was then Auxiliary Bishop Nelson Perez. Two months later Bishop Perez was installed as Bishop of Cleveland, where he will again act as host to Cardinal Rosa Chavez.

The work of COAR, Cardinal Rosa Chavez, Bishop Perez, the Cleveland Latin American Mission Team, and the legacy of Blessed Romero all continue to joyfully strive towards peace for the poor and voiceless – the peace that Pope Paul VI (1897-1978), also to be canonized this fall, so elegantly summarized:

If you want peace, work for justice.