Yesterday, September 23, Ven. Fr. Stanley Rother was beatified at a Mass in Oklahoma City, OK. He is the first American-born Catholic to be declared a martyr and beatified.
Stanley Francis Rother was born on March 27, 1935 in Okarche, OK. His parents, Franz and Gertrude, raised Stanley and his four siblings, two boys and two girls, on their farm near Okarche.
After graduating from Holy Trinity school, Stanley informed his parents of his desire to be a priest, and they supported him. However, Stanley didn’t have an easy go of it in seminary. At Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, TX, Stanley assumed many duties, and this caused his studies to suffer. The seminary staff eventually recommended that he withdraw.
Rather than abandon what he felt was his call to the priesthood, Stanley consulted his bishop, Victor Reed, who sent him to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD. The seminary director informed Bishop Reed that Stanley had made good progress at Mount St. Mary’s and recommended him to the priesthood. Stanley Rother was ordained a Catholic priest for the Diocese of Oklahoma City-Tulsa by Bishop Reed May 25, 1963.
Fr. Rother served at several parishes, including St. William’s in Durant, OK, St. Francis Xavier in Tulsa, Holy Family in Tulsa, and Corpus Christi in Oklahoma City. While serving at Corpus Christi, he learned that a priest was needed for service in Guatemala. He applied and was appointed to the diocesan mission in Santiago Atitlan in southwest Guatemala to serve the native Tz’utujil in 1968. He would remain in Guatemala until his martyrdom in 1981.
In Guatemala, Fr. Rother first resided with a local native family in order to become more familiar with the people he served and to better learn Spanish and Tz’utujil. He worked alongside Fr. Ramon Carlin to establish a small hospital for the people in Panabaj. He supported a radio station on the mission property which transmitted daily lessons in language and math. By 1973, Fr. Rother had enough grasp of the Tz’utujil language that he was celebrating Mass in Tz’utujil, preaching in Tz’utujil, and even translated the New Testament into Tz’utujil.
Fr. Rother became a beloved figure among the Tz’utujil people of Guatemala, staying at the mission while other volunteers came and went. He was called “Padre A’Plas,” which is translated as “Fr. Francis,” since there was no equivalent for “Stanley” in the Tz’utujil language. He was known for smoking his pipe, hard work, and being always available to the people, who looked to him for spiritual leadership and came to him for advice, both personal and financial, as well as medical attention.
Violence came to the Santiago Atitlan mission in the early 1980s, when the mission radio station was destroyed and the director murdered. Fr. Rother’s catechists would disappear and later turn up dead. In December of 1980, Fr. Rother wrote his supporters back in Oklahoma, “This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”
Fr. Rother was warned by his friends in Guatemala that his name was on a death list and they encouraged him to return to the United States. Fr. Rother did return in January of 1980, but he desired to go back to the mission to celebrate Easter with his people. He asked the archbishop for permission to return, again insisting, “My people need me. I can’t stay away from them any longer.” When his brother Tom asked why he wanted to go back, he again explained that a shepherd cannot abandon his flock. Fr. Rother returned to the mission Santiago Atitlan in April of 1981.
In the early morning hours of July 28, gunmen entered the church and demanded that Francisco Bocel, a teenage boy who was in the church, tell them where the “red-headed Oklahoma-born missionary” was. At threat of his own life, Bocel led them to Fr. Rother’s room, where he knocked on the door. Fr. Rother opened the door and a brief struggle ensued. The gunmen shot Fr. Rother twice in the head, killing him.
Three men were arrested, charged and convicted of Fr. Rother’s murder, claiming that they had gone to the church and rectory for a robbery. The locals believed that the three men admitted to the crime as a cover-up for the responsibility of the paramilitary for the murder. The convictions of the three were later overturned by a Guatemalan appellate court. No one else has been held responsible.
Fr. Rother’s body was returned to Oklahoma, and he was buried in Holy Trinity Cemetery on August 3, 1981. His Tz’utuljil parishioners requested that his heart be returned to Guatemala, and it is buried underneath the altar of the mission church. Fr. Rother was one of ten priests murdered in Guatemala in 1981.
The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City began their investigation for the cause of Fr. Stanley Rother’s canonization in 2007 and on November 25, 2009 Fr. Rother was declared Servant of God by Pope Benedict XVI, formally opening his cause. On December 1, 2016, Pope Francis declared that Fr. Rother had been killed in odium fidei, that is “in hatred of the faith,” thus formally declaring him a martyr of the Church and setting the stage for his beatification.
Fr. Stanley Rother was beatified at a Mass at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City on September 23, 2017. In attendance were Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Most Rev. Paul Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, and about 15,000 others. Also in attendance were Fr. Rothers’ surviving siblings, Tom Rother and Sister Marita Rother.
In his homily, Cardinal Amato said of Blessed Stanley Rother, “In a time of great turbulence in Guatemala, Fr. Rother lived as a disciple. Everyone admired his ability to serve and work together. He didn’t hate, but loved. He didn’t destroy, but built up. This is Blessed Stanley Rother’s invitation to us.”
Blessed Stanley Rother’s feast day is July 28.
who gave your priest Blessed Stanley
the heart of a pastor and the fidelity of a martyr,
grant, through his intercession,
that the humble flock may reach
where the brave Shepherd has gone before.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
From the Collect Prayer for the Mass on the Feast of Bl. Stanley Rother.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.