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Providence sisters had ties to Monsignor Romero, beatified this May

Sr. Vilma Franco, SP, holds picture of Monsignor Oscar Romero.

Among more than 250,000 people from around the world who attended the beatification ceremony for Archbishop Óscar Romero May 23, in the Plaza of the Savior of the World in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, were two Sisters of Providence with ties to Spokane. They were honoring family members lost in the 1979 to 1992 civil war.

Romero was assassinated as he said Mass March 24, 1980, after he called Salvadoran soldiers to disobey if they were ordered to attack innocent civilians. The Salvadoran civil war claimed 75,000 lives.

Sr. Maria Vilma Franco, SP, and Sr. Ana Dolores Orellana-Gamero, SP, shared their stories of life in and leaving El Salvador, and of their participation in the beatification.

Sr Vilma wanted to go to El Salvador when she heard Monsignor Romero was on the road to sainthood.  In 2006, she moved to Spokane from El Salvador, where she lost her father and six brothers.  Her mother, a brother and a sister survived.

Born during the war, she said she was six years old when her father was killed March 24, 1985.

After he was killed, her family moved to Chalatenango, where she grew up and gave catechism.  She started to teach kindergarten.  In 1992, she moved to Usulutan, a town founded in 1993, and started teaching first grade, an adult Bible class and catechism with children as part of a Christian base community, which promoted principles of Vatican II. 

Sr. Frances Stacey, SP, with whom she served as a catechist, invited her to be a sister.  At first she said no, but then felt a call to teach the poor to change their lives. Romero inspired her vocation. As a catechist, she worked for justice for the poor.

In 2004, she entered the novitiate and went to Chile.  In 2006, she came to Spokane and made her first vows.  She learned English at Spokane Community College and Gonzaga University, and volunteered at St. Ann’s Children’s and Family Center.  She made her final vows in 2012. 

In Spokane, she studied early childhood education at Spokane Falls Community College and worked with the St. Aloysius School’s daycare.  She appreciates that St. Aloysius parish has a sister church in the Bajo Lempa area of El Salvador.

“To be a Providence Sister is to give my life, to be Providence wherever I am, to live in God and give my life in commitment to people,” said Sr. Vilma, who went to the beatification because Archbishop Romero stood for justice for the poor and gave his life for them, as her father did. 

As many in the crowd at the beatification, she saw a rainbow.

“It was like at Jesus’ baptism when God said, ‘This is my son.’  It was a sign Monsignor Romero is alive and continues to work for the poor.  It strengthened my heart to continue to work for justice.  It was a gift to see the symbol.  It gave me hope that his work continues.”

Sr. Vilma, who visits El Salvador when she can, stayed an extra week to care for her mother. 

When she first moved to Spokane, she was upset with the United States because it had supported the government,” she admitted. “I was upset with whoever killed my father.”

The civil war was fueled by U.S. aid to the Salvadoran military and government, which crushed dissent.  The war destroyed the infrastructure.  Peace did not bring social justice.

Now Sr. Vilma, who recently moved to Seattle to be in discernment for her next ministry, is a U.S. citizen. 

Sr. Ana, a Eucharistic minister at Providence Elder and Providence Medical Center in Portland, was living in Italy when her uncle, a local priest, told her that her father had died of a heart attack. It wasn’t for another year that she learned he had been killed.

José Villalobos, or Tanis, had been a catechist with Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Congo, a city north of San Salvador, serving with a guitar in one hand and a Bible in the other.  Growing up, she and her sisters Luisa and Ester, now in Spokane, learned to play guitar, sing and teach the Bible.

Sr. Ana left home at the age of 11 to go to school in Serro Plata.  She wanted to be a nun, so she needed to read and write.  She moved to Italy in 1979 and spent 24 years with the Mothers of the Orphans Sisters.

Sr. Ana was inspired by letters her father wrote her in Italy. In one, he wrote: “Being a nun is not just about prayer, it is about action. You must be authentic with the poor people.”

Tanis, who received death threats after Romero’s assassination, would say, “The Gospel invites us to imitate Christ in all senses of the word.”

Military death squads captured, tortured and killed him on March 16, 1983. His body was never found.

“My father came to me in dreams for a year after his death,” Sr. Ana said. “Each night he woke me and asked me to pray for my mother, sisters and brothers because they were not safe.”

When Sr. Ana came to Spokane to visit her family for the first time in 1987, she heard of his persecution.  She said her mother, Transito, like Moses, brought her family through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States.  They arrived in 1984 to live in sanctuary at St. Ann’s Church in Spokane.

In Italy, Sr. Ana worked with elderly people and orphans in Milano, served a year as a secretary to the Pope at the Vatican, assisted Bosnian war refugees, did social services for women and men, and helped people dying of cancer. 

She was tired and sick when she visited her family in Spokane in 2000, so she stayed there.  She later transferred her vows to the Sisters of Providence in 2005 in Portland.  Her sister, Luisa, is a Sister of Providence associate.

For many years, she and her family were burdened because they were unable to find her father’s body.

Because Monsignor Romero was their friend and they were devastated when he was killed, her family visited El Salvador for the 25th anniversary of his death. 

Sr. Ana prayed at his tomb, asking to find her father’s body.  A man approached her and invited her to share her family’s story with a group of students from the Jesuit University of Central America.  She showed them her father’s biography, written by Luisa.  The students were collecting stories for a book about martyrs.  They interviewed Transito.

After the book was published, it was sent to the Pope.  In April, the names of people whose stories were in the book were included on a list of martyrs on a monument in the National Park in San Salvador.

“That started my family’s healing,” Sr. Ana said.  “My father’s name is now on the list of companions of Monsignor Romero.

“My father was a good father.  He worked to spread the Good News.  Now I understand why he was persecuted.  Jesus was a good man and was killed, too.  We cannot find the body, but we can find the soul of my father, so we do not need his body,” she said.

“His recognition is like a resurrection,” she said.  “We now feel joy.  His work is not lost.  The church recognized that my father was holy.  Now I do his job of working with the poor, and I am not angry with anyone.”

At the beatification of Romero, Luisa, Transito and Sr. Ana, as others, saw a circular rainbow in the sky with an image of Romero’s face in a star in the center of the rainbow.

“We felt his spirit,” Sr. Ana said.

Both Sr. Vilma and Sr. Ana minister with the spirit of Romero. Their journey to the beatification was part of their journey of faith, justice, reconciliation and hope, said Jennifer Roseman, director of communications for Sisters of Providence in Spokane.

For information, call 474-2395 or email jennifer.roseman@providence.org.

This article includes information from interviews with Sr. Ana and Sr. Vilma, and with permission from a feature for Global Sisters Report by Jocelyn Sideco, a retreat leader and high school teacher in Oakland, Calif.





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