Visit the El Desperter Parish Centre: a sacred place
We have just experienced a most moving and dreadful story from a young woman Anita, whose elder brother, Father Octavio Ortiz, was murdered during the civil war while running a retreat for young catechists.
I think back to my own time as teenager when our parish priest used to take us away on similar weekends of prayer and sharing.
Anita explained that her elder brother Fr Octavio was running a similar weekend with a group of young catechists in the El Despertar Parish centre.
Fr Octavio had been the first priest that Romero had ordained, he was aged 30 years old at ordination. He was born the second eldest of 12 children in a farming community. Anita was the youngest child.
Fr Octavio was born poor and moved to the city of San Salvador to work alongside the poor as part of his priestly ministry. He was a member of the base Christian communities. He worked as a priest serving young people and the poor for 4 years prior to his assassination.
During the weekend of 19 January, 1979, Fr Octavio was running a retreat for 12 Young Campesino Catechists at the Centre. They were studying St Lukes Gospel. At the end of the evening Fr Octavio ask the young people to read and reflect on the passage from Luke “What does it mean to set prisoners free and work for the poor and oppressed?”
In the early hours of Sunday, 20 January, 1979, while everyone was asleep, there was the sound of gunfire in what was normally a very quiet area. Fr Octavio ran to the entrance of the retreat house to witness an Army tank flattening the gates of the Parish Centre entrance. The army then opened fire on Fr Octavio who fell to the ground dead, in the path of the tank. The tank driver then drove the tank over Fr Octavio’s head, crushing his skull. The young people were awakened and came out to run for safety. Four of the children were shot dead by the army. The remaining children and staff were all rounded up and taken away by the army.
The soldiers tried to justify their actions by planting left wing leaflets and guns around the dead bodies with the aim of presenting the catechists as subversives. Within hours of the murders, Archbishop Romero came and heard the testimonies of witnesses. He could see that what the army had claimed was a lie.
Anita’s misfortune did not finish with the murder of her brother, Octavio. A second brother of hers was killed for belonging to a student movement. Her father was a catechist, and catechists were now regularly receiving death threats because of their work. In 1981 her parents were warned that the soldiers were going to come to their farm so they fled and lived in caves and wherever they could. The soldiers came and when they did not find her father they burnt down the house, destroyed the crops and stole the livestock.
Anita shared her parents then fled to Honduras. In tears she shared that three of her brothers then joined the Guerrilla’s, including her 14 year old brother. They all were killed in the war.
Anita finished by saying:
“My family has been broken by the war. Why am I still alive? God wants me to do something. Innocent lives have been taken. We must continue the work of the Martyrs. Even though sometimes we feel we are swimming against the waves. But we still have hope.”