Red Dirt Martyr: Stanley Rother (1928-1981)

Baptized in Okarche’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church in the depths of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, Stanley Rother grew up a tall, strong, rawboned son of the red dirt Oklahoma prairie. He knew from an early age he wanted to serve God as a minister of His gospel.


Following graduation from Okarche’s Holy Trinity High School, Rother struggled before failing academically at seminary. Only the intervention of Oklahoma Bishop Victor Reed secured him another seminary opportunity, where he succeeded. From 1963-1968, he served these Oklahoma parishes as associate pastor: Saint William (Durant), Saint Francis Xavier and the Holy Family Cathedral (Tulsa), and Corpus Christi (Oklahoma City).


He then volunteered for an open priesthood serving the Tz’utujil people at the Oklahoma Catholic mission in rural Guatemala. For more than a decade, his surpassing love and service to the Tz’utujil, into whose language he painstakingly translated the New Testament, even as he performed myriad manual and agricultural tasks for them, became the stuff of legends.


Guatemala, however, like several of its Central American neighbors, has long struggled to escape social, economic, and political turmoil. Rother gradually found himself drawn into the crossfire of a brutal civil war that would claim a staggering 200,000 deaths, proportionate to 4,000,000 deaths in a population the size of America.


Rother biographer Maria Ruiz Scaperlander succinctly summarized his ministry to one of the poorest, most overlooked locales in the Western Hemisphere:


“In addition to serving his people through the formal sacraments, he fed the hungry. He sheltered the needy. He called on the Tz’utujil in hiding. He visited the persecuted in prison. He clothed and took care of the widows and fatherless children.”


By the late 1970s, the death toll was mounting among Rother’s own parishioners. As the struggle between Guatemala’s authoritarian, right-wing government and a gaggle of socialist and Communist-supported rebel groups grew more desperate, priests began to die. Rother’s determined apolitical stance, ministry to the Tz’utujil people—some of whom the government suspected of collaboration with the rebels—the Catholic church’s lonely defiance of the government’s unhinged rampage of violence, and his forthright challenge to the army commander at his Santiago Atitlan parish regarding kidnappings and murders, landed him atop a government hit list.


SHEPHERDS DON’T RUN


The chorus of voices beseeching his return to America to preserve his own life grew so loud that Rother reluctantly flew back to Oklahoma in early 1981. His restless dissatisfaction at separation from his flock mounted over the next few months. The time, however, allowed him to visit many family and good friends.


In what Scaperlanda termed “Stanley Rother’s Garden of Gethsemane,” the Oklahoma priest decided to leave the safety of America and return to roiling Guatemala. American embassy officials, fellow priests, and the Catholic bishop there alike warned him that his days were numbered if he returned to Santiago Atitlan. They urged him not to do so. “My life is for my people, and I am not afraid,” Rother told the bishop. In his final Christmas letter to Oklahoma Catholics, already knowing his life was in mortal peril, he declared: “A shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”


“He wasn’t afraid of a thing,” recalled fellow American-born Guatemalan priest Gregory Schaeffer. “That Oklahoma farm boy in him was strong.”


Early the morning of July 28, 1981, three assassins tried to kidnap Rother at gunpoint from a small utility room where he slept in his rectory. Knowing the killers would torture him to learn private information about other parishioners, Rother determined not to be taken alive. He unleashed a titanic defense with his fists, one on three. One listener heard furniture smashed and bodies thrown into walls. Unable to subdue the lanky Oklahoman, the attackers finally managed to shoot him to death.


In his final homily, a couple of days before his death, Rother said:


“Brothers, we have to keep on and fight for our Catholic Church. Don’t lose your faith when you hear about violence. Some of you will die or be assassinated as it is in Santiago Atitlan, where the catechists (Bible teachers) gave their lives to defend the truth.


“Always meet. Don’t forget your meetings to prepare the Word of God which I and the other priests teach you each week. Brothers, keep on with our pastor, Jesus Christ, and don’t digress from the way and your faith. Support my catechists. My sisters and catechists, we will see each other in heaven. We have to be faithful before God and to the community. Follow in the faith of the saints and the apostles.”


Devout Catholic and former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating recalled that Rother’s “life was fully that of service and sacrifice.” Padre Clemente Peneleu, the first full-blooded Tz’utujil Mayan ever ordained to the Catholic priesthood, dedicated his entire priesthood to God in honor of Rother, who mentored him.


Successive Roman Catholic Archbishops Eusebius Beltran and Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City advanced the cause for Rother’s sainthood. In 2016, Pope Francis confirmed the Oklahoman’s death as a martyr and approved his beatification. He became the first American martyr and the first U.S.-born priest ever beatified by the Catholic church. This occurred at a 2017 Mass in Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center attended by 20,000 people.


In 2022, Blessed Stanley Rother was one step away from canonization, official recognition as a saint worthy of universal veneration within the Catholic Church.

 

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Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Statehood - 2020s

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