The Shepherd Who Wouldn’t Run

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Oklahoma City Archdiocese pursues cause of sainthood for martyred native son Father Stanley Rother

father-rother-oklahoma-cityThirty-five years ago this July 28, three men slipped into the rectory of Santiago Apóstol (St. James the Apostle) parish in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, at 1:30 in the morning. Clearly familiar with the setting, they went to the pastor’s room upstairs, but he wasn’t there.
Across the hall, they found 19-year-old Francisco, brother to an associate pastor. They put a gun to the terrified young man’s head and threatened to kill him if he did not take them to the pastor immediately.

Francisco led the men downstairs, knocked at the door of a utility room, and called out, “Padre, they are looking for you.”

Obviously aware of the threat to the young man, Father Stanley Francis Rother opened the door and let his killers in.

Father Rother, a diocesan priest from Oklahoma, was undoubtedly also aware of the nine Sisters in the convent across the patio and of the other innocents in the rectory that night, and that all were in danger. He knew the men might well torture and, ultimately, kill him, turning him into one of the desaparecidos (the missing). He never called for help.

A gunshot rang out. Then another. Then silence, and finally, the sound of feet running away.

After a long period of silence, Francisco came out from where he was hiding and ran to alert the Carmelite Sisters in the convent, “They killed him! They killed Padre Francisco!”

How a 46-year-old priest from the small German farming community of Okarche, Oklahoma, came to live and die in this remote, ancient village of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, is a story full of wonder and God’s providence.

Father Rother with Tz'utujil men, above, and on facing page with two religious Sisters who volunteered at his mission. (Photos courtesy of Archdiocese of Oklahoma City)

Father Rother with Tz’utujil men. (Photos courtesy of Archdiocese of Oklahoma City)

In the 1960s, when Pope John XXIII requested that North Americans send missionaries to South and Central America, the Church in Oklahoma responded. When the missionaries from the then-Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa arrived in 1964, the indigenous Tz’utujil community of Santiago Atitlán had been without a parish priest for almost a century.

Father Rother joined the Oklahoma missionary team four years later, instantly falling in love with the stunning and volatile land of volcanoes and earthquakes, but above all, with its people—the Tz’utujil Maya, farmers of coffee and maize. It was a match made in heaven for a farming boy from western Oklahoma.

Known as “Apla’s” to his Tz’utujil parishioners, Father Rother helped develop a farmers’ co-op, a nutrition center, a school, a hospital clinic, and the first Catholic radio station, which was used for catechesis.

Although he did not institute the project, Father Rother was a driving force in developing Tz’utujil as a written language, which led to translations of the liturgy and lectionary. The New Testament in Tz’utujil was published after his death.

“The people treasure that he was, and is, one of them,” says Sister María Victoria, who worked at the parish of Santiago Atitlán. “Apla’s shared everything with the Tz’utujil. In spite of his different background, he embraced our culture and the poor and simple people. He ate with the people and rode out in the trucks to work the fields with them.”

But once Guatemala’s civil war found its way to the peaceful villages surrounding beautiful Lake Atitlán, people began to disappear regularly, especially church catechists, whose evangelization efforts were viewed by the government as subversive.

Father Rother’s response was to show his people with his life the way of love and peace. He walked the roads looking for bodies to bring them home for a proper burial, and he fed the widows and orphans of those killed or “disappeared.”

In his final Christmas letter to Oklahoma Catholics published in 1980 in the diocesan newspaper, Father Stanley concluded, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”

But a month later, and six months before his death, Father Stanley and his associate pastor had to leave Guatemala under death threats after witnessing the abduction of a catechist.

He returned to his beloved Tz’utujil in time to celebrate Holy Week in April of 1981, ignoring the pleas of those who urged him to consider his own safety. “I promised the people I would be back for Holy Week and I’m going to be there,” Father Rother said to a priest friend.

Father Rother, Maryknoll Magazine

Father Rother with two religious Sisters who volunteered at his mission. (Photos courtesy of Archdiocese of Oklahoma City)

Stanley Francis Rother was one of 13 priests—and the first U.S. priest—slain during Guatemala’s 36-year guerrilla war, a tragedy that claimed an estimated 140,000 lives between 1960 and 1996. No one has ever been prosecuted for his killing.

In July of 2010, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City concluded the local part of the canonization process, sending Father Rother’s cause to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.

Since then, the congregation has affirmed the “juridic validity” of the case for Servant of God Stanley Rother. And on June 23, 2015, the Theological Commission voted Father Rother’s formal and material martyrdom in odium fidei (in hatred of the faith). Once a panel of cardinals and archbishops approves the Theological Commission’s recommendation, they will officially propose to the Holy Father that Father Rother be honored as a martyr for the faith. It’s up to Pope Francis to make the ultimate judgment regarding martyrdom, granting permission for his immediate beatification. Martyrs—those who died for their faith—can be beatified without evidence of a miracle.

Father Rother would be on his way to becoming the first male saint born in the United States, and the country’s first martyr.

His people in Santiago Atitlán, however, don’t need an official declaration. They already affirm Padre Apla’s as a saint, their saint, and they come to him daily asking for help and intercession—much as they did during the 13 years he served them as their priest. His death, like his life, is one more outward sign of his deep and abiding holy love for them.

“Stan had a great love for the people of Santiago Atitlán,” says Maryknoll Sister Bernice Kita, who worked near Father Rother and knew him well. “He chose, in the face of death threats, to remain with them. I’m sure he was afraid, but he overcame fear to do what he had to do.”
“He was a courageous missionary, who, in spite of the violence that surrounded him, didn’t leave his flock,” says Sister Ambrosia, of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, the first community of religious women in Guatemala founded specifically for indigenous vocations.

“Padre Apla’s represents Jesus, who gave his life for all of us,” Sister Ambrosia says. “All of Guatemala already knows that he is a saint.”


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About the author

María Ruiz Scaperlanda

María Ruiz Scaperlanda, a journalist and retreat facilitator, is author of The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma (Our Sunday Visitor). She lives in Norman, Okla.