St. John's parishioners Diego Zelayandia and David Abac after one of the novena services held this week prior to the Mass celebrating the canonization of St. Oscar Anulfo Romero. Courtesy photo: Diego Zelayandia

Riverhead’s St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church Latino community will pull out all the stops this Sunday for a special procession and Mass to celebrate the life of the first Salvadoran saint, Archbishop Oscar Anulfo Romero, who was canonized by Pope Francis last Sunday at the Vatican.

A procession of the faithful is slated to start at 6 p.m. and arrive at the church around 6:30 p.m. Participants will be dressed in traditional dress and many will be carrying Romero’s image.

A special Mass will be celebrated at 7 p.m. by Vincentian Father Marvin Navas, a native of El Salvador, who will be joined by other accompanying priests. Four different choirs have been preparing hymns about Romero and will perform at the Mass jointly, North Fork Spanish Apostolate executive director Sister Margaret Smyth said.

The event will end with a celebration. There will be Central American foods, like tamales and tortillas, and songs and dances will be performed.

Groups from other local Catholic churches are expected to attend the event, as well as Long Island’s El Salvador’s General Consul, Smyth said.

Catholic Latinos from all over the East End have been preparing for weeks for the celebration in Riverhead — a momentous occasion for faithful Latinos, Smyth said.

The faithful have been gathering for novena services at homes all week, like this one in Riverhead last night, in preparation for a Mass celebrating the canonization of St. Oscar Anulfo Romero. Courtesy photo: Diego Zelayandia

A special “Novena” (special prayers and singing of hymns for a nine-day period) has been held every every evening since last Friday at different houses throughout Riverhead and T-shirts and posters with Romero’s image have been ordered.

A screening of a documentary film about Romero’s life was shown last week at St John’s. Since then, Riverhead’s Latino churchgoers have held discussions about Romero’s legacy and its significance today.

“We are honoring the life of Monsignor Romero and what he stood for,” Smyth said. “He stood for the poor, the disenfranchised, the vulnerable and he called all of us to listen to the gospel and live a better life.”

A longtime advocate of the poor and marginalized and an ardent advocate of human rights, Romero spoke against the violence, corruption and repression of the right-wing government of El Salvador on his weekly sermons during the 1970s.

The violence would eventually lead to one of the most bloody civil wars in Central America during the 80s and 90s, killings tens of thousands.

Riverhead resident Diego Zelayandia, 50, a native of El Salvador who immigrated 30 years ago due to that violence and is now a faithful parishioner at St. John’s, grew up listening to Romero on the radio.

“I remember being in school, and looking through my windows and seeing the burned bodies of people who had dared to talk against the government,” Zelayandia said. “Saint Romero was the only one giving us hope, speaking for us, telling the truth to the world of what was happening.”

“He was the voice, ears and eyes of an entire people,” he said.

On March 24, 1980 Archbishop Romero was celebrating Mass at the chapel of Divina Providencia Cancer Hospital when a gunman shot him in the heart, stunning a country and making him an instant martyr to Catholics and agnostics alike.

Zelayandia said that it was a day that will forever be etched in his memory, a precursor of the violence and suffering that was to come.

Smith said Latinos living on Long Island today identify with Romero and his fight for justice.

Although circumstances may have changed, many of the same issues are still affecting their lives due to the violence and corruption that still persists in Central America.

Many, like Zelayandia, flee north leaving everything behind trying to escape from that, she said.

“We need more Romeros in our lives today to be able to speak up about justice, about how we treat the poor and the vulnerable,” she said.

In a pastoral letter for the canonization of Archbishop Romero, Diocese of Rockville Center John O. Barres urged Long Island Catholics to study Romero’s teachings on social justice, and called on them to “embrace the personal conversions of the Sacrament of Penance to see the global challenges of migration through the lens of the Kingdom of God.”

“We begin to better understand our own role in welcoming strangers as we follow Jesus’ call and build a genuine culture of life and civilization of love,” he said.

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria