Vatican Recognizes Oklahoma Missionary Priest as Martyr

Killed in Guatemala in 1981, Father Stanley Rother Now Recognized as First U.S.-Born Martyr

Father Stanley Rother was dedicated to serving the people of Guatemala, as shown in this archival Mass photo.
Father Stanley Rother was dedicated to serving the people of Guatemala, as shown in this archival Mass photo. (photo: Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Daniel Mueggenborg had been thinking about the priesthood for several years — and then he went off to college.

“Being in a secular university as a college freshman, certainly there were a lot of different ways to convince God he didn’t want me,” he quipped.

But during the spring semester, his aunt and uncle were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and asked if Mueggenborg would be an altar server. So back home to Okarche, Oklahoma, he went.

On a spring day in 1981, Mueggenborg found himself standing in the sacristy of his home parish, Holy Trinity. And then his life was transformed.

“I distinctly remember the moment when I became aware something had changed about that sacristy,” said Mueggenborg. He turned and saw that the priest who was to celebrate the Mass had entered and was standing behind him.

“I didn’t know his name, didn’t know what his assignment was, only knew he had a presence — a sense of peace, a sense of love. I was drawn to that,” said Mueggenborg.

“It was during that Mass I began to reconsider priesthood as a possibility.”

Later, Mueggenborg asked his parents about the priest and learned that he was Father Stanley Rother, the son of friends of theirs (and another Okarche boy). They told Mueggenborg that Father Rother had been working in a mission in Guatemala, with the approval of his bishop, but had returned home.

It was a short stay, as it turned out. Father Rother returned to Guatemala, and on July 28, 1981 — not long after that anniversary Mass in Okarche — he was killed inside his rectory.

On Dec. 2, 2016, the Vatican announced that it recognized the martyrdom of Father Stanley Rother, clearing the way for his beatification.

When Mueggenborg, now pastor of the Parish of Christ the King in Tulsa, Oklahoma, learned the news, he said, “I was filled with a sense of gratitude to God, but also a sense of elation that [Father Rother’s] sacrifice has been recognized and honored — particularly for the people of Guatemala, the people of the United States and the priests of the United States.

“He is an authentic example of what it means to lay down your life for your sheep.”


A Martyr Confirmed

Msgr. Mueggenborg has not been alone in this belief. Shortly after Father Rother’s death, then-Bishop Eusebius Beltran of Tulsa (now the retired archbishop of Oklahoma City) discussed the possibility of Father Rother’s canonization with the archbishop of Oklahoma City and the bishop of Solala (the Guatemalan diocese where Father Rother had been serving). Archbishop Beltran had known Father Rother since becoming bishop of Tulsa, as that diocese and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City were co-sponsoring the priest’s mission in Guatemala.

The archbishop opened the cause for canonization in 2007, after obtaining the approval of the Conference of Bishops of Guatemala and the Holy See to do so. (Protocol dictated that the diocese in which he died should have opened the cause.)

Father Rother was just 46 years old when he was shot to death in his rectory in the early morning hours — one of 10 priests killed in Guatemala in 1981. He had known since January that the death squads were targeting him, but nevertheless decided to return to Guatemala after a few months in the U.S.

On June 23, 2015, a theological commission of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints recognized the martyrdom of Father Rother. Now, Pope Francis has authorized the congregation to promulgate the decree recognizing the martyrdom of Father Rother.

And now the wait begins for the announcement of Father Rother’s beatification, wrote Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley in his Dec. 11 Sooner Catholic column — and then the real work begins.

“In order for [Father Rother] to be canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church, a miracle must be attributed to his intercession. Such miracles are usually medical miracles, that is, healings that cannot be explained by medical science,” the archbishop wrote.

“Up to this time we have been praying for Father Rother’s beatification; now while continuing to pray for his canonization, we can seek his intercession and assistance to obtain heavenly favors for ourselves and for our loved ones.”

Of course, many people already pray to Father Rother for his intercession. Among them is Msgr. Mueggenborg, who speaks about his encounter with the future Blessed as “humbling.”

“I have not hesitated in the last 35 years to pray for his intercession,” said Msgr. Mueggenborg.

“It really is all about him — the influence of his character and the intensity of his spirit, alive and present in his person.” 


Ordinary and Extraordinary

There was nothing in Father Rother’s childhood to indicate he might be on the road to canonization, said Sister Marita Rother — Father Rother’s younger sister — with a chuckle. “I guess we were as normal — whatever normal is — as any other family,” she said, recalling a deal that she and her older brother struck together. Born just 14 months apart, they were often in the same class. So they agreed that if one of them got in trouble, the other wouldn’t tell their parents about it.

But that very ordinariness is what makes Father Rother special, said Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, author of the priest’s biography, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run. “I am … thrilled that this [future] Blessed comes from an ordinary town in farm-country Oklahoma,” she said.

“Indeed, the fact that everything about Father Stanley was ‘ordinary’ makes him a special gift to the universal Church — to all of us trying to live out the call to become holy men and women within our very ordinary lives.”

And Father Rother was all too human: In fact, he faltered so greatly in his Latin studies that he was sent home from the seminary.

But his bishop told the would-be priest to come see him when he returned home from the seminary. After their meeting, the bishop sent Father Rother to a different seminary, Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland, where he completed his priestly formation. He was ordained in 1963.

Years later, in Guatemala, the priest who had flunked Latin not only learned Spanish, but also became fluent in the language of the Tzutuhil people of his parish — eventually completing a translation of the New Testament in their dialect. “I think there was a special grace there, that he learned the language of the people. Those were his ties for the duration of his life,” said Sister Marita.

For those who knew the man in life, the news of his recognition as a martyr means, above all, that he will now have the opportunity to inspire an ever-widening circle of people to live and love as he did.

“The story of Father Stanley Rother is beautiful and moving, not only because of how he died, but because he loved ‘to the extreme limit,’ a phrase used by Pope Francis to describe the love lived out by martyrs,” said Scaperlanda.

“Father Stanley’s love made God’s presence real, tangible, to the people in his life — by living, loving and giving himself completely!”

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.


Prayer for the Canonization Of Father Stanley Rother

Heavenly Father, source of all holiness, in every generation you raise up men and women heroic in love and service.

You have blessed your Church with the life of Stanley Rother, priest, missionary and martyr.

Through his prayer, his preaching, his presence and his pastoral love, you revealed your love and your presence with us as Shepherd.

If it be your will, may he be proclaimed by the universal Church as martyr and saint,
living now in your presence and interceding for us all.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.