In an unusual alliance of the secular and the spiritual, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has proclaimed July 28, 2019, as “Blessed Stanley Rother Day.”

On the same day the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City will, as they do every year, celebrate Blessed Stanley's feast day, remembering the date in 1981 when he was martyred in Guatemala. Blessed Stanley's feast day is also observed in the Diocese of Tulsa and the Diocese of Little Rock.

In a press release on the Archdiocese of Oklahoma's website, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley said,

“We are grateful for Gov. Stitt’s recognition of this heroic and humble Oklahoma priest who gave his life in service to his people. Blessed Stanley is a model for us all, and a man who stayed true to his Oklahoma roots with hard work and dedication to his faith.” 

 

Who Is Blessed Stanley Rother?

As a youth growing up in Okarche, Oklahoma, Stanley Rother helped to grow winter wheat, oats, barley, and alfalfa and raised 30 head of Angus cattle on his parents' 560-acre farm. During his school years at Holy Trinity School, he was active in the Future Farmers of America.

But Rother was not destined to be a farmer; instead, he felt the call to the priesthood. He began studies at St. John Seminary, then at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas – but after almost six years of study, he still struggled with Latin and seminary officials asked him to withdraw. Undeterred, Rother enrolled at St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, finally graduating in 1963.

Rother was ordained to the priesthood May 25, 1963, and served in several Oklahoma parishes: St. William in Durant, Saint Francis Xavier and the Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa, and Corpus Christi parish in Oklahoma City. After five years serving as a priest in the Oklahoma City archdiocese, Father Rother learned that a priest was needed to serve the Tz’utujil people in Central America, and he asked to be assigned there. With five other priests, three religious sisters and three laypersons, Father Rother left the comforts of the United States to live and work at a Guatemalan mission in Santiago Atitlán.

In order to better serve the people of Guatemala, Father Rother learned to speak Spanish and the unwritten native Tz’utujil language. He and his fellow missionaries adopted a four-point plan which included agricultural development, health care, the liturgy and a catechetical program. Father Rother helped to build the first medical facility serving the Tz’utujil people.

 

Unrest and Civil War in Guatemala

Guatemala at the time of Father Rother's ministry was facing great political turmoil. In the Guatemalan Civil War which lasted from 1960 through 1996, an estimated 200,000 people were killed or “disappeared” by government forces. By fall of 1980, army trucks had moved toward the parish farm, eventually encamping on farmland. According to Father Rother's own report in a letter dated Nov. 4, 1980, “The people are literally scared to death. As a result, hundreds of people come to the Church to sleep for the night.”

Despite understanding the risks which accompanied his pastoral service, Father Rother refused to consider leaving. “At the first signs of danger,” he wrote on Nov. 16, 1980, “the shepherd can't run and leave the sheep (to) fend for themselves.” Less than two months later, Father Rother saw his catechist Diego Quic kidnapped and forced into a waiting car. “They had his mouth covered,” Rother wrote,

“...but I can still hear his muffled screams for help. As I got back in the rectory I got a cramp in my back from the anger I felt that this friend was being taken off to be tortured for a day or two and then brutally murdered for wanting a better life and more justice for his pueblo.”

As the war intensified, Father Rother witnessed a number of his parishioners, as well as his parish deacon, killed by government troops. With an imminent death threat over his head, he was finally persuaded to leave Guatemala. With his assistant Padre Pedro Bocel, he hid in Guatemala City for two weeks while special clearance was arranged; then on Jan. 28, 1981, protected by American Embassy personnel, he left Guatemala and returned to Oklahoma City. Determined to return as soon as possible to his people, he carried with him only a slim briefcase. But after three months visiting family and friends, Father Rother heard that his name was off the “death list” – and against the advice of his family and then-Bishop Eusebius Beltran, he returned to Guatemala.

Six months later, shortly after midnight on the evening of July 28, 1981, three masked men climbed the rectory wall and entered the rectory, searching for Father Rother. The armed assassins forced Francisco Bocel, the 18-year-old brother of Father Rother's assistant, Padre Bocel, to lead them to where Father Rother was sleeping. A scuffle ensued, and Father Rother was shot twice – in the temple and the left cheekbone.

 

Who Killed Father Rother?

The United States Embassy claimed the body of Father Rother and arranged for its return to the United States. His heart remained in his diocese, where it was buried in the church sanctuary.

Three men were accused and convicted of the murder of Father Rother. However, a Guatemalan appeals court overturned the conviction – calling the Mayan-speaking suspects “scapegoats.” After the ouster of Guatemalan President Lucas Garcia in March 1982, more than 14,000 Oklahomans signed a petition urging President Reagan and his administration to pressure the Guatemalan government to reverse the conviction on the grounds that the men were not guilty and calling their imprisonment “a miscarriage of justice.” Then-U.S. Senator David Boren of Oklahoma helped to expedite the review by the Guatemalan appellate court, while calling the death “a great tragedy.” Gertrude Rother, mother of the murdered priest, called for the release of the innocent men and told the Oklahoman, “Justice has not been done yet.”

In America, the State Department denounced “such senseless and wasteful violence.” However, no arrests have been made.. One unconfirmed report from England's Granada Television claimed that two who were “directly” connected with Father Rother's murder had themselves been killed by the guerilla organization Organization of People in Arms (ORPA).

 

Beatification

In 1996, Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala and received a list of 78 candidates, including Father Rother, for formal recognition as martyrs. All of them were officially approved, moving Father Rother ahead for consideration as beatified, a step along the way to official sainthood. On Sept. 17, 2017, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, visited Oklahoma City and celebrated the Rite of Beatification for Blessed Stanley Rother. He is now one step away from canonization, the official recognition as a saint, worthy of veneration by the worldwide Church.

In Oklahoma, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is near completion of a design for a 2,000-seat shrine, museum and campus honoring their beloved Blessed Stanley Rother. His remains will eventually be buried at the shrine in Oklahoma City; there will also be a devotional chapel, classrooms for religious education, and ministry facilities. The Blessed Stanley Rother Museum and Pilgrim Center will display artifacts from his life, as well as videos and personal testimony from those who knew him.