Today, July 28, marks the 32nd anniversary of the murder (many of us would say the martyrdom) of Fr. Stanely Rother. I would like to tell you a little about him.
Born and raised in Okarche, OK (about 30 miles northwest of Oklahoma City), Fr. Rother was ordained for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on May 25, 1963. During Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII asked U.S. dioceses (which at that time had good numbers of priests) to send priests and sisters to work in South and Central America. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma opened a mission in Guatemala. Fr. Stanley volunteered and was assigned to the church at Santiago, Atitlán. It is a beautiful spot, with a lake at the foot of an imposing volcano; very picturesque. The church is huge and over 400 years old. The native people in the area are of the Tzu’tujil tribe. Fr. Stanely fell in love with the place and even more with the people.
Raised as a farmer, Fr. Stanely was used to hard work. He endeared himself to the people by working with them in the fields. He taught them better farming techniques. He learned their native language. He translated the New Testament into the local Tzu’tujil language and conducted Mass in their language. He was deeply respected by the people, and the local confraternity (a men’s social and religious society) made him an honorary member. Fr. Stanley proudly wore the insignia of the group, a multi-colored short shawl. He founded a hospital and worked to better the lives of his people. He was truly a wonderful pastor.
But this was a time of great trouble and violence in Guatemala. Communist-inspired guerrillas were fighting against the government, which was run by and for wealthy oligarchs. The government used the military (largely supplied and paid for by the U.S. Government) to brutally crush the insurrection. The peasants were caught in the middle, and the army abused and often massacred the peasants. Death squads kidnapped people whose tortured bodies were later found on roads and public squares. It was all designed to control the populace through terror. Any who worked with the poor to better their condition was seen as a revolutionary and an enemy. And eventually that included all Catholic priests, nuns, catechists and any church worker.
By 1974 all the other priests from Oklahoma had left, but Fr. Stanley stayed on. Eventually he learned that he was on the death squad’s hit list. Reluctantly, he left Guatemala to return to his family farm near Okarche, OK, but he was not happy. He knew how his beloved people were suffering, and he longed to be with them. Finally he told his brother (who argued long and hard with him not to return), “the shepherd cannot run.” He returned to Santiago Atitlán, knowing he was signing his own death warrant.
Every night he slept in a different room of the rectory to make it more difficult for the death squad to take him by surprise. On the night of July 28, 1981, five men dressed in black came to the house for him. They forced a seminarian who was staying there to show them where Fr. Stanley was. The seminarian called out, alerting Fr. Rother. A big and brawny Oklahoman, Fr. Rother put up quite a fight. He knew that if he was taken away he would be horribly tortured. He shouted “you will have to kill me here.” Finally his assailants pinned him to the ground and put a bullet through his head. They left his lifeless body there. Later, the bullet that killed Fr. Rother was dug out of the floor. It was a special military type manufactured only in the U.S. Our tax dollars undoubtedly paid for it.
Because he so loved the people of Santiago Atitlán, his family consented to have his heart buried in the church there. The rest of Fr. Rother’s body is buried in his home parish’s cemetery in Okarchee. I have had the great spiritual privilege of visiting the shrine to him at the church in Santiago, Atitlán in January 2012 and just a few weeks ago visiting the beautiful church and cemetery where he is buried in Okarche, OK.
The Archdiocese of Oklahoma is promoting Fr. Stanley Rother’s canonization as a martyr. Truly he is.
You can learn more about his story and watch a nice video interview with his brother and his sister, a nun, at:
Please pray for the canonization of Fr. Stanley Rother.