Orellana family has front-row seats for canonization of St. Romero
Three members of the Orellana family, who came to Spokane from El Salvador in 1985 and lived in sanctuary at St. Ann's Catholic Church, sat in the front row for the Oct. 24 ceremony at the Vatican in Rome canonizing the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero as a saint.
They were Transito, her daughter Ana and son Tanis. For the interview, another daughter, Milagros, translated for Transito, who has 10 children and 30 grandchildren.
"In 1977, I first met the bishop of El Salvador when he visited Ateos, the village where we went to church," Transito said. "My husband, Tanis, was a catechist working with Archbishop Romero there and in the city of Ciudad Arce. Our village, Canton Serro do Plata Province of San Salvador, was between them."
Tanis and his brother, Jose, had a coffee farm. Tanis was a volunteer village pastor because there were too few priests. He led liturgies, Bible studies and music.He and Transito were members of the Third Order of St. Francis. Their children sang in the choir.
Transito helped support the family by selling food. She also took food to hungry people and medicine to sick people.
"Archbishop Romero worked on behalf of the poor. He suffered with them and taught them to live by the gospel," she said. "After he died, soldiers killed and injured many people. Many, like us, had to leave the country."
"I never imagined he would one day be a saint," she said. "Then, we just saw the need and felt responsible to help people."
Sr. Ana entered religious life when she was 15 with the Mother of the Orphans. Because she spent 24 years in Italy, she knew Archbishop Romero only a short time. In 2003, she joined her family in Spokane and became a Sister of Providence in 2005.
Since then, she served a year in El Salvador, three years in Yakima and seven years in Portland before moving to Spokane in 2016.
Tanis, who was eight years old when his family left El Salvador, did not understand then what was happening politically and did not know Archbishop Romero.
He remembers, however, that his father asked him each evening to go to a spot where he had buried a box with a Bible and a Walkman radio, and return it there later.
They would listen to a radio station called, "We Shall Overcome." That was forbidden. In the Bible, his father had a bookmark with a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Tanis asked who that was, his father said it was "someone who speaks up for people."
In May 2015, Sr. Ana and Transito were at Archbishop Romero's beatification in El Salvador.
At the moment of his beatification, they were among many who saw a rainbow circle in the sky.
"We felt his presence and the presence of the martyrs, and felt empowered to live with God and help people have dignity," said Sr. Ana. "I have a strong passion to follow the way of Archbishop Romero and raise the voices of the poor.
"It was healing to see my father's name on the wall of martyrs," she said. "Our family members had gone twice to El Salvador to find his body, so it was important to know the Vatican considered him a martyr."
Tanis, who went to El Salvador in 2014 and 2016, also found it affirming to see his father's name on the Wall of Martyrs. While visiting, he learned about classmates who died, were recruited into the military or fled.
St. Ann's, which continues their commitment as a sanctuary church, helped provide Transito a ticket to go to the canonization in Rome.
For the canonization, they were to meet someone with tickets. They arrived at 5 a.m., but could not find the person. They stood in line, and when the doors to the plaza opened, they ran and sat in the front row.
After the Mass, the Pope greeted the people in the front row, and they were in pictures with the Pope.
"For me, it's important that Archbishop Romero is a saint because of what he did," said Transito. "El Salvadorans already recognized him as holy. He changed many lives by fighting, not with guns, but with the Word of the Lord. He took risks to preach, as did my husband. Many priests we knew also died."
Sr. Ana said the canonization was a sign that the church in Rome heard the voice of the people of El Salvador.
"In the ceremony, he was recognized, not only as a saint for El Salvador but also as a saint for the universal church," said Sr. Ana, who estimated that about 7,000 were there from El Salvador, among 12,000 from other countries.
"In Rome, I had worked a year with Pope John Paul II. My mother visited in 1999 and met him," Sr. Ana said.
John Paul II was also canonized a saint on the same day as St. Romero.
The Orellanas, who were in Rome seven days, visited many of sights, including the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi in Assisi.
Tanis said he went to the canonization to feel more attached to Archbishop Romero, beyond stories his family told.
"I wanted to connect and thank him for what he did and what he taught us," Tanis said. "I now feel connected to him."
Being there also reconfirmed the importance of social justice to him.
"It's important to share faith with my children. Faith should help us distinguish between right and wrong, and speak against injustice," he said.
"I tell my six children about my experiences as a child in a war zone. I identify with people I see in similar circumstances on TV news. Sometimes I have flashbacks, including images of fleeing from El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico.
"I remember telling my younger brother to lay on top of a soccer ball and roll around to reduce hunger pangs. It's a miracle our mother was able to bring us here," Tanis added.
"When I was first here, I was afraid of anyone in a uniform, because I had seen soldiers grab people from their houses and throw them on a truck," said Tanis. "I have experienced PTSD."
What helps him heal is the faith his mother has passed on, the faith he now shares with young people and his children, teaching them to be compassionate, understanding and sympathetic to people, and to challenge injustice.
He does that by singing with his children at St. Ann's and St. Joseph's parishes. He also writes letters to Congress, engages in dialogue with people of differing political or religious stands, registers young people to vote, and introduces his children to the many cultures in Spokane.
"How can we not be involved if injustice affects the lives of our brothers and sisters. We can't just hide in a room and pray," Tanis said. "Many problems can be prevented if people serve others. If young people feel useless, they can volunteer."
When his family lived in the basement of St. Ann's parish house, they would invite homeless people in the neighborhood to share their food.
We believe what St. Francis taught, "It is by giving that we receive."
Tanis, who graduated from Rogers High School and completed studies at Spokane Community College, worked six years until the 2008 downturn as a loan officer and now works at Pull and Save Auto Parts.
While Transito's participation in St. Ann's in Spokane is limited by her English, she continues to help people in Spokane and in El Salvador, raising funds after church Sundays by selling pupusas (rice flour dough stuffed with pork, cheese, beans and chopped vegetables) and tamales.
One of Milagros' three daughters helps her raise funds to start a medical clinic on land that Tanis had.
The Salvadoran government has sold much of the land to corporations, because it is rich in gold and diamonds, said Sr. Ana, adding that "companies are glad that people emigrate, so they can take more land."
"Many still suffer and flee from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Parents do not want their boys taken to be soldiers or gangsters," said Milagros.
"I see the caravan spiritually," said Transito. "They are like the people of Israel fleeing in the exodus because of poverty and persecution.
The Orellanas know about fleeing out of fear of being killed.
"We feel safe here," said Milagros. "We are all citizens. Some of us have depression or PTSD, but it's reassuring now to know Archbishop Romero is a saint."
Sr. Ana said St. Romero "called us to do as he did, to raise our voices for the poor and take risks. We feel his presence. He is living with us and with all who suffer. Where there is injustice, St. Romero is present.
"Our family celebrates Thanksgiving, not one day a year but every day," she said, expressing gratitude to the many people in this community who helped her family come, and provided food and education until they were strong.
"This land is not yours or mine. It's everyone's. Why build a wall? All people need a chance to live in dignity," she said.
"People are not 'the other.' We need to open our hearts and be responsible to take care of each other," Tanis said.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree,January, 2019