On January 22, Father Cosme Spessotto, will be beatified by the Roman Catholic church in San Salvador along with the martyred Rutilio Grande. Father Cosme, a Franciscan missionary priest from Italy. was killed on June 14, 1980 while preparing to say mass in the church where he served in the town of San Juan Nonualco.
I must confess that before the news that Spessotto would be beatified along with Grande this weekend, I knew nothing about this religious man who was one of the victims of El Salvador's conflict years. His murder at the altar of his church came less than three months after the assassination of archbishop Oscar Romero, at a time when the death squads of El Salvador were running rampant.
From Spessotto's Wikipedia biography:
Spessotto did not speak any Spanish when he arrived in El Salvador and so had to learn the language in order to speak and connect with the locals. After three years, he was assigned to serve as the pastor of the Church of St. John the Baptist in the town of San Juan Nonualco. His entrance into his first parish on 8 October 1953 was recalled as the priest being on a Vespa and being covered in dust due to the unpaved roads. He spent his first week visiting home after home in order to meet the locals. Spessotto aimed to connect to the local communities while in El Salvador and worked to rebuild a church that an earthquake had leveled in the 1930s. He learned on one occasion that there were hundreds of couples living together but were not married and in response he organized mass weddings where he married several couples at once. On another occasion guerillas took control of a church and took several priests hostage which ended when Spessotto negotiated their release. He also raised funds for the construction of a school and health clinics.
Spessotto also helped in the construction of a modern and functional church and construction for that church commenced on 2 June 1960. He introduced the cultivation of wine grapes into the region.
By the last 1970s, Spessotto had begun to denounce the abuses on the part of the junta then ruling that nation. He grew all more vocal in his denunciations after armed gunmen had assassinated the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande. Yet this was not without complications for he had received his own death threats due to his strong denunciations and opposition to the El Salvadorian military forces. He nonetheless continued to care to the needs of the ill of his parish while aiding the poor of the area.
On 14 June 1980 Spessotto had celebrated Mass that afternoon for a slain student in his parish church of St. John the Baptist in San Juan Nonualco, where he had served as pastor for many years. He was shot at point-blank range around 7:00pm. He was murdered at the altar while preparing to preside at the celebration of an evening Mass. As he lay dying, he forgave his murderers. His final words – according to Father Filiberto del Bosco – were "pardon ... pardon" as the priest gave him the Anointing of the Sick.
In an article in the National Catholic Reporter today:
Salvadorans who knew him speak of how a few struggled to understand his Spanish at the beginning, but he made up for it with the language of Christ, using tenderness, inviting the poorest among them in for food, a cup of coffee, and listening to their problems.
From a 2002 Los Angeles Times profile of Spessotto:
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.”
There is a longer story about Spessotto's time in El Salvador and the circumstances surrounding his assassination in this article today in La Prensa Grafica. (in Spanish).