Yanira Chacon remembers running for her life with other mourners at Archbishop Oscar Romero's funeral on Palm Sunday in 1980 when soldiers opened fire on the crowd of 250,000 outside the cathedral in San Salvador, killing at least 30 people.
Decades after that terrifying day in El Salvador's capital, the Uniondale resident is deeply gratified the assassinated archbishop is drawing closer to being declared a saint -- largely a result of the influence of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church's first pontiff from Latin America.
Tuesday is the 35th anniversary of Romero's assassination in the year that marked the start of his native country's bloody, 12-year civil war. The archbishop, 62, was gunned down by a sniper from a right-wing "death squad" while celebrating Mass in the chapel of a San Salvador cancer hospital.More coverageReligion on Long Island: Stories, photos, videos
"I am so happy that someone from our country is going to be a saint," said Chacon, an outreach worker at St. Brigid's parish in Westbury. "In many of our hearts he is already a saint."
After years of Vatican delays, Romero will be beatified, or officially declared "blessed," in San Salvador on May 23. Church experts have little doubt the next step -- sainthood -- will follow, though no one knows exactly when.
"He's definitely going to become a saint, but the wheels of the church grind slowly," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst for The National Catholic Reporter and the author of several books on the Vatican.
Pope: He was a martyr
Romero was known as the "voice of the voiceless" for his social justice advocacy and condemnation of atrocities. He had earned the enmity of El Salvador's right-wing government and military for denouncing state-sponsored repression against the nation's poor before the civil war.
His path to sainthood has been long delayed by the Vatican, partly because of pressure from church conservatives in Latin America who feared his perceived association with what is called "liberation theology," experts said. That movement asserts that Jesus' teachings direct followers to fight for social and economic justice.
In February, Pope Francis declared Romero was a martyr killed out of hatred for his Catholic faith. Reese noted that the pope's belief that the archbishop was killed for his preaching, not his politics, accelerated Romero's cause.
The conflict in El Salvador left 75,000 people dead, many of them poverty-stricken villagers, teachers, community organizers and even priests and nuns -- including Sisters Ita Ford of Brooklyn and Maura Clark of Queens of the Maryknoll Sisters, based in Westchester County. They and two other American churchwomen were raped and killed by death squads in December 1980, according to a UN Truth Commission that investigated abuses that occurred in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992.
'Symbol for justice'
Romero lived in the cancer hospital where he was killed. His simple room next to the chapel is preserved as a museum, complete with his bed, shoes and typewriter.
Chacon visited it in January and said she was deeply moved. "He continues to be a symbol for justice for the people of El Salvador and us here . . . ," she said in Spanish.
Long Island is home to an estimated 100,000 Salvadorans, many of whom fled the civil war, according to community leaders. It is one of the largest concentrations of Salvadorans in the United States.
The Rev. William Brisotti, of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch, on Sunday will celebrate a Mass in honor of Romero. He said he still consults the archbishop's homilies while writing his own sermons.
Brisotti visited El Salvador often during the war, seeking to assist those displaced by the conflict. During one trip, he said, he slept for a week at the foot of Romero's tomb in the Holy Savior Cathedral, then occupied by wounded rebels.
"I think he was a great gift," Brisotti said. "The people saw him as a prophet, and he was."
Saturday night, the archbishop's life and ministry were the focus of an event at Queen of the Most Holy Rosary parish in Roosevelt, said the Rev. Miguel Angel Rivera, a Salvadoran priest who served in the parish in Ciudad Barrios in El Salvador where Romero was born.
Jennifer Salmeron, 23, of Wyandanch, whose mother, Edith, was taught religion class in El Salvador by Romero, said she believes his sainthood is "a long time coming. I think he's a great person to look up to, knowing that what he preached could have cost him his life -- and did."