Blessed Stanley Rother: The Shepherd Who Stayed With His Sheep

“If I get a direct threat or am told to leave, I will go. But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here then so be it…”

(photo: Archdiocese of Oklahoma City)

Father Stanley Rother arrived at the Oklahoma City-sponsored mission in Santiago Atitlán in 1968. Guatemala’s civil war had already started but was still far from the highlands of the mission.

Besides Father Carlin, there were other priests, three nuns, a nurse and two papal volunteers at work there. Father Carlin had started a weaver’s cooperative, a farm, a radio station for educational purposes, a credit union, and a small clinic. He was also working with locals to create a written form of Tz’utujil. 

Most evenings after dinner, the conversation turned into a discussion on how to approach mission work — should they try to impose modern norms or should they immerse themselves to learn the local culture to work for change over the long term?

Father Rother usually excused himself and went to his room to listen to music, his way of relaxing after a long day. The discussion didn’t interest him. He simply didn’t think in those terms. His approach to mission work was to simply do what he thought needed to be done to help the people in front of him. 

Father Carlin first sent Father Stan for an intensive Spanish course. His progress was lackluster. The other missionaries decided Stan was pleasant to be around but doubted he would be able to contribute more to the mission than saying Mass. Father Carlin, however, saw that his rural, blue-collar mentality and practical skills would take him far. Undaunted by Stan’s apparent difficulties with languages, he exposed the new missionary to the local language and also assigned him a parish.

Father Stan, now called Father Francisco as his more Spanish-sounding middle name was easier to pronounce, quickly started to pick up the local language, and would be the only missionary to master it. In 1973, Father Rother wrote home that he was preaching in the local language. His parishioners had dubbed him Father A’plas, Francisco in the native tongue.

By 1978, the civil war escalated and the Church had been declared the government’s main opponent. Wearied by work and worry, he went back to the United States for a few weeks to rest and pray at his alma mater in Maryland where his old classmate Father Harry Flynn was now rector. Later archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Father Flynn never forgot their conversations. Father Stan described the injustices against the indigenous peoples and how he had spoken out, but in the process he knew that he had placed himself in harm’s way.

Back in Guatemala, his next report to the diocese described the exploitation of the poor by the agro-export industry. Father Stan never involved himself in political debates, though. He was unassuming, non-confrontational, low-profile and practical. But neither as pastor nor preacher could he ignore grave injustice. By now, he didn’t have to speak out. Simply being a pastor to the poor put him in opposition to the regime.

In May, he wrote back to Oklahoma in a hand-delivered letter:

The reality is we are in danger… All classes and group meetings have been canceled, We are working in smaller groups, My associate and myself are seen less in the street and almost never leave the rectory at night. The tactic of the government has been to kidnap those they think are leaders, torture them and kill them… If I get a direct threat or am told to leave, I will go. But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here then so be it… I don’t want to desert these people and this is what will be said, even after all these years.”

In October 1980, kidnappings started in Santiago Atitlán and in January Father Stan learned there was a plan to kidnap him. He snuck out of the country with his associate, a young Guatemalan priest. He spent three months back home in Oklahoma, helping on the family farm. He suffered greatly inside as he knew that he could not abandon his people. He was well aware of the risk but decided to go back anyway, arriving in time to celebrate Easter. The situation seemed to have calmed down and life at mission went on cautiously. 

Just after midnight on July 28, 1981, two men broke into the church and forced one of the parishioners to take them to Father Stan. “Father, they’ve come for you,” he yelled as they got close to the door. Father Stan was ready. He opened the door and put up a fight. “Kill me here,” he shouted and fought as hard as he could. The attackers finally pinned him a corner and shot him twice in the head. 

He was declared a martyr in 2016, resulting in his beatification in Oklahoma City on Sept. 23, 2017, at a Mass attended by more than 20,000 people. He will be declared a saint when his cause for canonization identifies a medical miracle worked through his singular intercession that is confirmed by the Vatican.