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Town Sees a Ray of Hope in the Loss of Priest

Times Staff Writer

This town needs more than a miracle. It needs a saint.

It’s a dirty little place about an hour off the main highway in El Salvador. There’s gang graffiti on the whitewashed walls, potholes in the crumbling street and hopelessness in the air.

Except here, in the neon pink church that fills the center of town. Inside, just off the nave, is a tiny chapel filled with flowers, a friar’s robe stiff with blood and a sense of expectation.

“People come here from all over,” said Jilma Contreras, at 76 the town’s historian. “They come to be cured of many sicknesses, even cancer.”

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The robe belonged to Father Cosme Spessotto, one of two priests known to have been killed at prayer during the bloody civil war in El Salvador that ended a decade ago.

He was shot point blank while preparing to say evening Mass in June 1980. His death came just three months after a similar, though far more infamous slaying, that of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the nation’s highest-ranking Roman Catholic Church official, as he celebrated Mass in the capital, San Salvador.

The killings of the two priests in the early days of the war were a prophecy of just how vicious the conflict would become. By the time peace accords were signed in 1992, more than 75,000 people had been killed.

Now, some two decades later, the killings have turned from a moment of horror into a point of hope. Church officials hope to make Romero and Spessotto El Salvador’s first saints.

Of the more than a dozen Catholic priests and nuns killed during the war, the two men are the first for whom the long process of sainthood has begun, starting with beatification.

“We are moving ahead one by one,” said Msgr. Rafael Urrutia, the bishop leading the move to canonize the men. “It’s a titanic undertaking.”

In this town, the quest to canonize Spessotto -- known best as Father Cosme -- has rallied a community that in many ways is still struggling to recover from the war and its scars.

San Juan Nonualco sits in the shadow of the dormant San Vicente volcano, in the heart of a region that once belonged to one of the country’s few indigenous groups.

The country’s first indigenous rebellion began here last century, when locals rose up to overthrow land-owning elites. The rebellion was quickly crushed.

The social unrest and sense of injustice continued, however, and San Juan Nonualco became a stronghold for leftist rebels during the civil war. The region became the scene of some of the first massacres of the war, committed by Salvadoran army troops against suspected guerrilla sympathizers.

It was a region that Spessotto knew like the Lord’s Prayer.

A Franciscan monk, he came to El Salvador from Italy in 1950. At the time, he spoke no Spanish and had never before been a parish priest. After a few years at a nearby town, he arrived in San Juan Nonualco on a hot autumn day in October 1953.

Even now, his arrival is remembered with precision.

“He arrived on a motorcycle, a Vespa scooter,” said Contreras as she recounted the priest’s story in her home a block from the church. “He was covered with dust, because in those days, the roads weren’t paved.”

Spessotto quickly inserted himself in the community. He made a point of going from house to house in the first few days, to meet everyone he could.

Upon learning that hundreds of couples were living together unmarried, he organized mass weddings where he united dozens of couples at a time.

He raised money to build health clinics, a second school and the present-day church, which replaced an existing structure of sticks and mud.

When the war came, Spessotto was determined not to take sides. The conflict was a Cold War battlefield pitting leftist rebels backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union against government troops backed by the United States.

When the guerrillas took over a nearby church, holding priests hostage, Spessotto negotiated their release, then castigated the rebels. And when the army was accused of committing a massacre in a nearby village, Spessotto met personally with the local commander for an accounting of the act.

“The father was worried about so much slaughter going on both sides,” said Domingo Del Lago, the current local parish priest who as a young man knew Spessotto. “He was threatened every day, though he was simply a pastor committed to doing good.”

On June 14, 1980, he had just finished saying a Mass for a local university student who had been killed in the war. He then knelt at a small altar in front of the church to begin preparing for evening Mass.

A second priest in the church’s apse heard a noise, then three shots. When he rushed outside, Spessotto was lying in a pool of blood. The acrid smell of gunpowder filled the air. There was a bullet pock in one of the church’s columns. It is there today, a reminder of the violence.

“Pardon, pardon,” were Spessotto’s last words, according to Father Filiberto Del Bosco, who administered him last rites.

Spessotto’s killers were never caught, and it is still a mystery whether guerrillas or right-wing assassins were responsible for his death.

“Whether the left killed him or the right killed him, the man is a martyr,” Urrutia said. “He was opposed because of the work he was doing.”

Today, Spessotto’s bloodstained robe and black beret and the cotton balls used to stem the bleeding are kept in a glass case to the side of the altar. He is buried within the church.

Homemade plaques line the walls, dozens of them, a testament to Spessotto’s healing powers. A woman who visited from Los Angeles said her granddaughter was hospitalized. After she prayed to Spessotto, the girl recovered.

A man named Arturo Romeo recounted how he had been in prison when a riot broke out. Two prisoners came looking to kill him, he said, but he hid behind a small cabinet and prayed to Spessotto, who made him invisible to his would-be assassins.

“People come here from as far away as the United States, most from Los Angeles but also from Virginia and New York,” Del Lago said. “It seems fantastic, but it’s true.”

Then there are the living testimonials. Berta Medina, 80, was diagnosed with breast cancer 30 years ago, she said. A local doctor said she had between six months and six years to live.

Spessotto held a special healing Mass for her, to which she credits her existence.

“He put his hands on my head and said a beautiful, beautiful prayer,” Medina said. “He gave me my life.”

The Catholic Church has submitted a list of the testimonies of Spessotto’s miracles, a requirement for sainthood.

Marcelina Beltran visited the tomb one recent Sunday. She began crying when she recounted how Spessotto visited her in a dream and cured her of a lung disease.

“I never miss coming here on Sunday,” she said, weeping. “I have prayed to him every day since his death.”


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