1964-1980: The CLAM Team, the Civil War, and Archbishop St. Romero
Casas Cleveland & Chalatenango & Romero
1964 – 1977: In 1964, the Diocese of Cleveland answered the call of Pope John XXIII to help in areas underserved and in need of parish ministries. The Cleveland Latin American Mission (CLAM) Team began working in the eastern part of the country in 1964 and gradually worked their way to the center, to the Pacific port city of La Libertad, in the parish of Inmaculada Concepción. In those days, the parishes extended over very large areas with outlying communities, “cantones”, served once or twice a month by a visiting priest for Mass, baptisms, weddings, or anointing of the sick. The nuns and lay volunteers taught the Bible and basic catechism of the Catholic Church. This often meant they taught basic literacy and leadership skills so that catechists that they trained could continue learning and teaching in their own communities.
1974 – 1979: The parish in Zaragoza, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, was one of the cantons of Inmaculada Concepción. It was located halfway between and just off the highway that connects the large capital city, San Salvador, and the beach town of El Puerto de la Libertad. Starting in about 1974 Fr. Ken Myers and fellow missionaries Srs. Dorothy Kazel and Martha Owen, OSU, repaired and renovated the parish buildings. Also beginning in about 1974 all of the CLAM Team members, in every part of the country, found themselves ministering to people directly victimized by the growing political unrest or displaced by military and guerilla movements and terrorizing tactics. Their letters and memoirs recount many incidents of helping the wounded, found walking on the road or huddled in hiding, and answering midnight calls for help. They comforted the dying and those whose loved ones had simply disappeared. While they were always careful, as North Americans and Church workers they knew that they were relatively protected in their movements and activities compared to their Salvadoran neighbors. They put this in service to their neighbors. A common tactic was to dump the bodies of murder (and torture) victims in the town square in order to identify anyone who claimed the body. Then those people would be targeted. The CLAM Team brought the bodies into the parish thereby shielding the deceased’s loved ones from reprisals. They sought release of those being detained for unjust reasons and the underage youth who were forcibly recruited into the army. Their heroism was boundless. (Quite frankly, I call them, “the greatest stories never told.”—Mary Stevenson, Executive Director of COAR Peace Mission.)
With a disputed election in 1977 unrest in the country escalated dramatically, particularly with army sweeps through rural villages. Families fled their towns. Children were often separated from their families. Monseñor Romero asked churches and seminaries to set-up refugee camps. He asked members of the CLAM Team and Maryknoll to work in the camps. That is how Fr. Ken came to be particularly moved by the plight of the orphaned and separated children in the refugee camps. Fr. Ken realized that the parish resources in Zaragoza, , the warm and welcoming parishioners and the buildings they had just renovated, would be well suited to house refugees, removing them from crowded and unhealthy conditions and providing extra space and care to children. He worked in two of the largest camps: the seminary of San Jose de la Montaña and Domus Mariae run by the Congregation of the Somascos. In the latter he met a 12-year-old boy who was recovering from wounds sustained during the Sumpul River massacre (where his mother had also been killed.) Fr. Ken asked him if he wanted to live in a safe place at his parish. Jose said yes and COAR was born.
1979-1980: The Sumpul River massacre happened on May 14, 1980, in the northern Department of Chalatenango, on the river dividing El Salvador and Honduras. By 1980 the guerilla groups demanding change in El Salvador were coalescing into a single group, the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). After St. Romero’s murder on March 24th attacks and counter-offensives dramatically intensified. Fighting was most concentrated in the east and north of the country, though no region was spared. Chalatenango suffered and continued to bleed refugees until the cease fire in 1990.
On May 13th the army launched a broad offensive against the FMLN. By the next day hundreds of civilians were trapped by the river, prevented from crossing by the Honduran military. Between 300 to 600 civilians were killed. This was one of many incidents of violence, large and small, erupting across Chalatenago. For this reason Monsenor Romero asked two newly-arrived Maryknoll Sisters to work in that area. They had experience in the civil wars in Chile and Nicaragua. They especially took on the task of ferrying refugees to the larger, safer camps near the capital. Jose, mentioned above, is described as “the first orphan of COAR” but he was soon joined by the flood of refugee families, and especially the children separated from their parents, who were forced to flee from Chalatenango. As they settled into Zaragoza and COAR, Fr. Ken wanted them to feel a sense of home. After the war many of the orphaned children were reunited with relatives and returned to Chalatenango. However, many of the refugees made Zaragoza their permanent home. A bit of Chalatenango will always be part of Zaragoza.
1977 – 1980: St. Romero is the heart and soul of COAR. He was an inspiration to all who served with him while he was Archbishop of San Salvador, 1977-1980. Letters and memoirs of those serving in El Salvador in those years describe listening to his Sunday homilies, broadcast by radio across the country, as a time of profound attention and near silence in every town and hamlet. Everyone, but especially the poor and vulnerable, refugees and peasants trapped between combatants in the countryside or terrorized by military excesses, took comfort and courage. He set up an Archdiocesan Human Rights office to investigate violations of human rights, gather evidence and testimonies. This gave him a clearer insight into what was happening around the country and guided his denunciations and pleas to end the violence. He was criticized and condemned by many politicians and even Catholic Church officials. But many more, his people, clung to his inspiration and courage.
Fr. Ken’s decision to name COAR after St. Romero was bold. In 1981 those who openly identified with St. Romero were suspect by the government and the army. Yet, Fr. Ken did not yield. That was also an example for the children: to take courage and inspiration from St. Romero.
Since his death, March 24, 1980, his actions, his words, his scholarship, his example of compassion, courage, and faithfulness in the face of unspeakable suffering have grown throughout the world. He is studied in great universities, in small parishes, in prayer groups, and on youth retreats. The COAR children see his image on their uniforms, our entrance gate, in photos and statues dotted about the campus. They celebrate his birth (August 15th, also our Foundation Day) and his death (March 24th) with parades, art contests, Mass, and all manner of creative celebrations. He is taught in our religion and catechism classes. The children know that every staff member takes St. Romero’s example seriously. We are proud to be named after him and strive to live up to his example.