In this March 23, 1980, file photo, a nun plants...

In this March 23, 1980, file photo, a nun plants a kiss on the forehead of slain Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador at the Hospital of Divine Providence. Credit: AP

Fear ran so deep in El Salvador when Flor Buruca was growing up that her mother wouldn't let the family listen to radio broadcasts of Archbishop Oscar Romero's Sunday homilies because she thought the military would persecute them.

Now, 35 years after Romero's assassination by a right-wing death squad, Buruca, a nun with the Dominican Sisters of Amityville, is returning to her homeland.

She will witness a momentous event: the beatification of Romero, bringing him one step from sainthood.

Thousands of people are expected to attend the outdoor event Saturday in the nation's capital, San Salvador.

Pope Francis, the Catholic Church's first pontiff from Latin America, supported Romero's cause as a martyr of the faith. Sainthood is expected to follow, though no one knows exactly when, church experts say.

"I am very happy," Buruca, 49, said in Spanish. "He has always been a saint -- someone to admire for his courage and his love of the poor."

Buruca is among a small delegation of Long Islanders who traveled Thursday to El Salvador for the beatification. Nassau and Suffolk are home to an estimated 100,000 Salvadorans, one of the largest concentrations in the United States, according to community leaders.

Many of them fled El Salvador's bloody 1980-1992 civil war that left three American nuns and one lay-women, six Jesuit priests, and thousands of teachers, community organizers, church volunteers and others dead -- most at the hands of death squads and the U.S.-backed military, according to a United Nations commission. Roughly 75,000 people were killed.

Romero, known as the "voice of the voiceless," gained the enmity of the government and the military by denouncing state-sponsored human rights abuses, calling on soldiers to disobey orders to attack civilians, and urging then-President Jimmy Carter to cut off aid.

Buruca was a teenager when Romero, 62, was gunned down by a sniper on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in a small chapel at the cancer hospital where he lived. She knew Romero was an important figure, but the repression and lack of open information was so fierce she knew relatively little about him, she said.

It wasn't until she fled to Long Island in 1988 that she learned the full depth of his life by studying his homilies, reading books and articles, and watching the 1989 film "Romero" starring Raul Julia.

"I learned more [about Romero] here than in my own country," she said.

But she knew of the atrocities firsthand. She saw the bodies of victims hanging from trees or placed sitting up on park benches. She heard the fighting between the military and left-wing guerrillas in the distance outside her city, La Union.

"It was a very horrible conflict," Buruca said. "Many people suffered."

Buruca also came to know Sister Dorothy Kazel, one of the American nuns who were tortured, raped and killed by a death squad in December 1980. Romero and Kazel, who worked in La Union, inspired Buruca to become a nun, she said.

Today, she works in the pastoral care department at Nassau University Medical Center, ministering to patients and their families.

Joining Buruca on the trip to El Salvador was another Dominican Sister, Alice Fairchild, who has worked with Central American refugees on Long Island for years.

Witnessing the Romero ceremony "means so much," said Fairchild, who is based in Roslyn Heights. "I was just thrilled when I heard he was being beatified."

Also attending will be Deacon Francisco Cales, head of the Hispanic Apostolate for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Cales was studying in a seminary in neighboring Guatemala in the 1970s when Romero rose to prominence for defending the poor.

Romero, Cales said, "lived for the people of God."

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