There was a black velvet bow draped around the flag of El Salvador and a framed picture of slain Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero on the altar of the Capilla Latina, the small chapel where so often Washington's Salvadoran immigrants had gathered in the past to pray for an end to violence in their terror-stricken nation.

Last night, they gathered again -- about 500 of them -- this time to pray not just for El Salvador, but for the soul of the man who for them had long represented justice and humanity amid the gunshots and cries of terror that have become a part of daily life in that country.

Romero -- the man so often called "the voice of those who cannot speak" -- was the latest victim of the chain of violence in El Salvador, gunned down Monday night as he celebrated a mass.

Many who came last night were from El Salvador and had known the gentle-mannered archbishop personally. "He was always among the poor and I am a poor man," said one Salvadoran brick layer who asked that he not be identified.

Many came directly from work, from jobs as painters, busboys, waiters, janitors, domestics, to the simple, arch-roofed chapel. Many, earlier in the day, had dipped into their family foods budgets and rent money to make hurried calls to El Salvador to check on the well-being of relatives there.

Several of the Salvadorans said they felt that the lagecy of Romero's death would be an increase in confusion in El Salvador and a heightening of the violence between warring rightist and leftist factions for control of the country.

In his homily, The Rev. Sean O'Malley, who ministers to the Latino community here, stressed that "in this time of sorrow," the Salvadoran people "must forgive those who have sinned against us and perpetrated this cruel act." "

As the pungent smell of incense settled over the congregation, O'Malley, his voice welling with emotion, said Romero was one of the "teachers of truth, builder of peace and defenders of human dignity . . .

"For Bishop Romero, these weren't just abstractions, but very difficult tasks. He had to be a teacher of truth in an atmoshpere of lies, slander and propaganda.He tried to be a builder of peace in an atmosphere of violence, vengeance and terrorism.

"He was a defender of human liberty in the presence of massive violations of human rights, of massacres and tortures."

Several of the Salvordorans blamed Romero's assassination on rightist paramilitary groups or extreme leftists who wanted to make the rightists look responsible.

Thus, the prayer service reflected the political overtones of Romero's death, even though the archbishop was described last night as a man whose only political orientation was to teach "thous shalt not kill."

Romero was scheduled to visit Washington last month, O'Malley said. But while hundreds of his countrymen here awaited his arrival, they received word at the last minute that the archbishop could not come because a number of civilians had been killed that day in fighting on the steps of his cathedral in El Salvador.

One Salvadoran who asked not to be named because he does not have proper immigration papers, addressed the congregation following the mass and alluded to the Sermon on the Mount in which Christ proclaims that the poor shall inherit the kingdom of God.

"The assassination of Romero, he said, "is the direct result of the defense he made in favor of the poor . . .

"In this moment . . . the people feel like orphans and they ask the help of the international community to stop the repression and permit a climate of democracy."