On January 22, four Salvadorans murdered by death squads during the period of social unrest in the country several decades ago are to be officially recognized by the Church as “blessed” martyrs. Among them is a Franciscan friar, Fr. Cosme Spessotto, OFM.
The other three martyrs are better known from the 1989 film “Romero”: Fr. Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and friend of St Óscar Romero; sacristan Manuel Solórzano; and teenage bell-ringer Nelson Lemus. The three were ambushed and brutally gunned down in their car by security forces in 1977. Friar Cosme’s story is less familiar to the wider public.
Friar Cosme was born Sante Spessotto in January 1923 to a humble farming couple, Vittorio Spessotto and Josefina Zamuner, in the village of Mansuè, province of Treviso, Italy. He experienced a call to the priesthood at an early age, enrolling at the Franciscan minor seminary in Lonigo in 1938. The following year he entered the novitiate, receiving the religious name Cosma (“Cosmas”).
His long years of training were marked by disruptions due to World War II, but he was ordained in 1948. He volunteered to serve in the foreign missions, but his original hopes of going to China could not be realized and so he was sent to Central America instead.
Cosme—the Spanish form of his name—arrived in El Salvador in 1950; in 1953 he arrived in the town of San Juan Nonualco, named after the indigenous people of the region, the Nonualcos, whose past had included state-sponsored extermination. This would be his home for the next 27 years.
Like St. Francis, Cosme first devoted much energy to rebuilding the town church, which had been destroyed in an earthquake years before; over the next years he showed himself to be a dedicated, hardworking, and self-effacing pastor, concerned with all dimensions of his peoples’ lives.
As Bishop Oswaldo Escobar of Chalatenango observed recently, here Cosme “lived simply among the people, riding the dusty roads, carrying the Gospel throughout the region in a Vespa and teaching the local Salvadorans to cultivate grapes for wine production. . . A few struggled to understand his Spanish at the beginning, but he made up for it with the language of Christ, using tenderness, inviting the poorest among them in for food, a cup of coffee, and listening to their problems.”
Fr. Cosme Spessotto holds a vine of grapes in 1976. He had introduced grapes from Italy into his parish so that local farmers could diversify their crops.
By the late 1970s, Cosme grew more vocal in his criticism of the abuses of the military junta then ruling the nation. Especially after the assassination of Rutilio Grande and his companions, he fearlessly kept to his path of defending the welfare of his people.
Bishop Escobar continued: “When war drums began beating in El Salvador in the 1970s, [Cosme] stopped the military from taking over a church in the region and ordered them to free priests they had detained . . . He pastored to parents who had sons and daughters disappear and spoke in defense of catechists who never returned. . . When Father Rutilio was martyred, Cosme spoke against his killing and stepped up his denunciations of what the military was doing to civilians.”
Yet Fray Cosme now began receiving his own death threats. In May 1980 he was admitted to the hospital due to liver complications but was instead diagnosed with leukemia. He had received warnings not to return to San Juan Nonualco, but he resumed his ministry to the sick and poor of his parish. On 14 June 1980 Fray Cosme was shot at point-blank range at the altar while preparing to preside at the celebration of a 7:00 pm Mass. As he lay dying, Cosme forgave his murderers. His final words were “pardon, pardon.”
The Franciscan parish church in San Juan Nonualco, El Salvador (photo: Amadeo Ruiz, Wikimedia)
As death threats against him increased, Cosme penned an undated letter, forgiving his murderers in case he was harmed and thanking his parishioners for their love, ending his message with: “I hope to keep helping you from heaven.” He summed up his own attitude toward his possible death in these words:
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.