Sally O’Neill recalls her encounters with Archbishop Romero and how Trócaire helped fund his work for justice and his famous radio broadcasting.
Sally O’Neill was the former Head of Region for Latin America for Trócaire. Within weeks of joining Trócaire in 1978, three bitter civil wars broke out in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Sally led delegations of politicians and bishops to Central America, so they could see the suffering, translating for Archbishop Oscar Romero six weeks before he was murdered.
She oversaw humanitarian aid to more than two million refugees in the Central American region in the following years. Her distinguished 37 year service to Trócaire included Ethiopia during the famine in the mid-eighties and played a central role in Trócaire’s response to the famine in Somalia in the early 1990s, establishing its programme in Gedo, which still operates today.
Sally was appointed by the President of Ireland as a member of the High Level Panel for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad in 2012 and awarded the Hugh O´Flaherty Humanitarian Award in 2011.
This outspoken champion for the poor guides Trócaire today’
By Éamonn Meehan
Since Trócaire’s foundation in 1973, human rights in Central America has been at the core of our work. Highlighting the repression of those trying to make a living off the land and the brutality which often claims the lives ordinary people has been the cornerstone of what we do.
In the 1970s Trócaire was funding many different projects in El Salvador. Grants were given to its Commission for Justice and Peace to help its small staff investigate injustices; a grant was given to set up a Socorro Juridicio, a legal aid office for the Archdiocese of San Salvador; funds were provided to relations trying to trace missing family members and to the Association of Women who found themselves alone as main breadwinners with no means to feed their families.
In 1977 Monsignor Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. While the General of the country was determined to uphold the privileges of a select few, the Archbishop quickly became known as a champion of human rights.
In a report he issued on 5 March 1977, he noted that the recent election in El Salvador had been followed “by a wave of violence which included the killing of peasants and the torture of political dissidents.” He added, “The Church cannot do anything less than raise its voice when injustice has overpowered society. It cannot remain quiet when human rights are trampled.”
In 1979 we began funding the El Salvador Human Rights Commission, which had been founded by the Archbishop, in response to the unlawful killing of 8,000 people.
Archbishop Romero consistently denounced the terrorisation of the people, advocating for social and economic reforms. He used archdiocesan radio to inform the largely illiterate population of their rights. Following the bombing of the station’s radio transmitter, Bishop Eamon Casey, our founding Chairman, received a letter from Monsignor Romero dated 1 March 1980 asking for funding to restore the broadcasting unit.
“Not having the radio,” he wrote, “deprives us of a means so important here.” He also said to Bishop Casey: “I would like once more to thank your kindness and preoccupation for our country and our Church and the kindness of the Irish Bishop’s Conference and Trócaire’s.” Trócaire made a grant of £10,950 for the transmitter’s replacement.
Two weeks after writing this letter, Archbishop Romero was brutally murdered while saying mass in San Salvador. His murder was a reprisal for his unflinching defence of human rights. Bishop Casey attended his funeral and narrowly escaped injury when members of a death squad opened fire on the huge crowds that had gathered outside the Cathedral. Bishop Casey tried to bring people to safety inside the Cathedral, spending almost two hours with the sick and injured.
In a statement issued following the assassination, the late Brian McKeown, Trócaire’s Director, said: “Archbishop Romero has emerged as one of the most courageous and leading churchmen in all of Latin America. He will remain an inspiration for all those involved in the struggle for human dignity and social justice.”
Bishop Casey said he was appalled by the killing: “In every sense, he is a true, present day martyr of the Church. He was a champion of the powerless and the poor.”
The bloody civil war that followed Archbishop Romero’s killing claimed at least 75,000 lives. Many villages were wiped out. Trócaire funded humanitarian work, helping families with shelter, food and clothing. Before the Salvadoran Peace Accords were signed in 1992, more than 180 of Trócaire’s close partners had lost their lives.
Today, Trócaire aims to continue the vision of this outspoken champion of the poor – for people to live in dignity, to feed themselves and their families and to speak the truth without fear.
Archbishop Romero was a dear friend to Trócaire. The news of his beatification has been greeted with enormous joy by our staff around the world, particularly in El Salvador. His leadership, conviction, compassion and solidarity guide Trócaire’s values and our work today.
Éamonn Meehan is the Executive Director of Trócaire.
This article was originally published in the Irish Catholic on 21st May 2015.