SAN SALVADOR — When he was shot to death in 1980 for his defense of the poor and downtrodden, Archbishop Oscar Romero’s loss affected countless people in El Salvador and beyond. Few, however, were touched quite as much as two Carmelite nuns who were in San Salvador’s Policlinico Hospital the night Romero died.
Sister Purificacion Barrerio and Sister Maria Dolores Guerra spoke to Crux hours after Romero’s beatification on Saturday, recounting their experiences that fateful night and the impact Romero still has on them 35 years later.
Barrerio, now 87, was on duty at the hospital on March 24, 1980, taking x-rays of the dying Romero while doctors struggled without success to save his life.
“He arrived almost dead, but still breathing,” she said. “We did everything we could, but we just couldn’t save him.”
Although no one has ever been prosecuted for Romero’s assassination, a 1993 United Nations investigation concluded that it was orchestrated by a right-wing politician with links to El Salvador’s military.
Romero was shot through the heart while celebrating a 5 p.m. Mass in a small chapel. Less than 15 minutes later he was on the back of a pick-up truck, being taken to the hospital.
“They hit him right in the heart, but because the bullet was one of those explosive ones, when I did the x-rays to see the damage it’d done, we found it on the right side of his body,” she said.
Barrerio remembers that within minutes of the news of what had happened circulating, the hospital was full of people wanting updates on Romero’s condition. In the end, he didn’t make it through the night.
Instead, forensic doctors performed an autopsy on the second floor of the hospital, under the watchful eyes of the hospital’s medical personnel. Reflecting the climate in El Salvador at the time, they didn’t trust employees of the same government they all believed had ordered the assassination to do an honest job.
Guerra, now 84, was off-duty but arrived at the hospital as quickly as she could. She said the government doctors weren’t happy about their presence, but found themselves powerless to do anything about it.
“Since it was our hospital, they couldn’t kick us out!” she said.
It’s hard not to take her seriously, given that she also said the sisters who worked in the hospital would threaten their own doctors with “going to hell” if they tried to overcharge seminarians who fell under their care.
She found it hard to control her emotions when recounting her experiences of the first Salvadoran to be declared “blessed,” the final stage before sainthood.
Guerra recalled that Romero visited the hospital whenever he had a seminarian, priest, or a friend who was sick. She said he’d try to arrive close to 6 p.m., knowing that was the hour when the sisters had their evening prayers.
When time allowed, he’d join them not only for prayer, but also for dinner.
She said Romero was a man who suffered a lot because many weren’t happy with him when he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador.
“There were nuns, priests, and parishes that didn’t like him,” the sister said.
Guerra said she always regarded that reaction as unfair, because Romero was a man of prayer who never got in anyone’s way with no aspirations to move up the ladder.
“He was close [to people], approachable, humble,” she said. “He was a man of God.”
Barrerio said she can’t avoid feeling a sense of pride at the fact that she “loved Romero before he became Romero.”
She said she always saw him as a very pious man, the kind of cleric who would always go to the chapel before visiting hospitalized friends.
After his death, she said she frequently went to visit his tomb, often engaging in the kind of informal chat they would share while he was alive. On one particular occasion, she said she went to the tomb to tell him about some problems the hospital was facing.
“I heard him in my heart simply telling me, ‘What else is new?’” she said.
Remarkably, neither Barrerio nor Guerra said they harbor any anger at the United States, even though it’s entirely possible that the gun carried by Romero’s assassin was provided by the American government.
“No, we can’t be upset because not everyone in the US was in favor of the regime,” Guerra said.
“The truth is, things happen because God allows for them to happen,” she said. “A leaf doesn’t fall from a tree unless he allows it.”
Today the sisters run a busy social center in a working-class San Salvador neighborhood that trains poor women in simple crafts such as cooking and sewing so they can earn a living. They say the legacy of Romero is very much at the heart of their lives and work.
“He was a good man, exemplary, who didn’t reject anyone,” Guerra said.
One of Romero’s most-quoted lines before his death was, “If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.” It would be hard to find two better examples of the truth of that claim than these formidable nuns, still committed to making Romero’s vision real.