Retired Bishop Eduardo Alas Alfaro, a Salvadoran prelate and contemporary of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who makes several appearances in the published diary of the Salvadoran saint, died in his native Chalatenango Feb. 27, the 32nd anniversary of his ordination as bishop. He was 89.
Bishop Alas, who died of natural causes, was the first prelate of the Diocese of Chalatenango, in northern El Salvador, one of the areas most battered during the country's 12-year civil war.
"He served here during a terrible time, in a time of war, assisting victims of the armed conflict and then reconstruction," Bishop Oswaldo Escobar Aguilar of Chalatenango, the third and current head of the diocese, said in a Feb. 27 telephone interview with Catholic News Service.
During the war, Bishop Alas was known for delivering food and other necessities to parishioners out of a truck, even as he risked his life and safety to do so.
"His famous Toyota jeep served as an ambulance, a taxi, a tow-truck to lift buses," says an undated story in the newspaper Orientacion of the Archdiocese of San Salvador. "He was the motorist in each occasion, and some stopped taking the bus altogether on the way to Chalatenango because, if they were with him, the hospital would serve them faster."
He used the truck to rescue injured soldiers, to deliver to safety those who had deserted their posts during the war, including some who had been targeted for assassination, said Bishop Escobar.
Bishop Alas served in the department of Chalatenango as a priest in a time when Catholic priests, men and women religious, and lay catechists were regularly disappeared or assassinated by death squads in an area known for being sympathetic to guerillas fighting a right-wing government. Catholics killed in the Chalatenango area included four U.S. churchwomen -- two Maryknoll missionaries who served in the diocese who were assassinated along with another U.S. nun and lay missionary in 1980.
Bishop Alas, born in 1930 in San Rafael, concentrated on catechesis and religious instruction from the moment he was ordained in 1960. He makes several appearances in the diary of St. Oscar Romero, including an instance in which he assists the future saint in an act of reparation Jan. 4, 1979, after the Eucharist was taken from a church in an area where he served.
"He was devoted to the Eucharist" and was a man of great prayer, which accounted for the love he manifested toward others, Bishop Escobar said.
St. Romero says in his diary that it was "impressive" to hear men, women and youth express deep solidarity with the church and with their pastor and that then-Father Alas spoke to him about the growth he experienced serving the people of God in the rural environs of Chalatenango. The future saint said that after that meeting, he, too, felt he had experienced a spiritual growth and was more convinced of his "wish to serve the people of God, whom the Lord has entrusted with me."
"St. Oscar Romero valued greatly our beloved Father Eduardo Alas, who nine years later would become the first bishop of Chalatenango," wrote Bishop Escobar in a 2019 series of columns in Orientacion. "The heartfelt expressions of our saint toward Bishop Eduardo are abundant and highlight his human and pastoral spirit."
The admiration was mutual. In a May 2015 article written around the time of the beatification of Archbishop Romero, Bishop Alas was asked by the online newspaper Diario1.com whether he'd know another person like the future saint.
"Yes, I know another person," he answered. "Jesus of Nazareth. Monsenor Romero was a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. A serious disciple, really. Of course, I am not saying they are the same person, but Monsenor Romero was a copy, a replica."
Bishop Alas was one of eight boys in his family to attend the seminary, but only he and another brother were ordained. He was elevated to bishop of the nascent Diocese of Chalatenango Feb. 27, 1988, by then Pope John Paul II, who called him "the bishop of the mountain," Bishop Escobar said. Bishop Alas resigned in 2007 because of his health.
Illness, of one form or another, marked his life, and because of it, his road to the priesthood was not an easy one. He tried to join the Salesian order in his early teens but he was often sick and did not show much aptitude for books, the article in Orientacion says, adding that he was told by the order's superior: "My son, you can't continue studying, go back to your town and go back to planting corn." He then tried to join a Somascan community, but they only gave him manual work and he ended up leaving. He finally entered the seminary San Jose de la Montana, but as a cook's assistant, before finally another priest recommended him as a student for the seminary, the article says.
Bishop Alas' legacy is his simplicity, his tenderness, and he will be remembered as a bishop who "sacrificed himself for his sheep," a bishop who was "poor among the poor," said Bishop Escobar. He was not one who looked for economic interests or prestige, but he loved to say, "when it comes to love, no one beats me," Bishop Escobar recalled.
The diocese plans a burial Mass Feb. 29, and he will be interred at the cathedral of Chalatenango on the same day.
"There is the sense here that a saint has died," Bishop Escobar said.