Making the Case for Martyrdom

by Mason Beecroft


Stanley Rother was an unlikely martyr.

He was born in a small farmhouse outside Okarche, a small town in western Oklahoma. After high school he decided to pursue the priesthood, but flunked out of seminary and was only allowed to transfer to another because of the influence of his bishop. He briefly served a number of parishes in Oklahoma as an assistant pastor before spending 13 years at a remote Catholic church of Oklahoma missionaries in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

But in the darkness of the early morning on July 28, 1981, three men assassinated Father Rother in his rectory. His influential ministry had made him a target for right-wing death squads. He had only recently returned to the mission, ignoring the death threats because of his profound love for the people he had served faithfully for so many years.

In a December 1980 letter to the Catholic people of Oklahoma, Father Rother wrote: “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.”

The faithful ministry of Father Stanley Rother, even to the point of death, compelled the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to establish a committee for the cause of his sainthood in 2007. In the past two years, there has been significant advancement for his cause.

In 2012, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican named an official Relator for the Cause of Father Stanley Rother. The Relator worked with a collaborator to prepare a recently completed position paper (positio) on martyrdom, which is a formal presentation of the evidence that demonstrates Father Rother died as a martyr for the faith.

In a letter dated April 1, 2012, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley detailed the next step in the process after the positio had been given to the congregation for the Causes of Saints and to the Holy Father:

It is the Pope who makes the ultimate judgment regarding martyrdom. If the Holy Father affirms that Father Rother died as a martyr, then permission will be granted for his beatification immediately… If Fr. Rother is judged to have died as a martyr, a miracle obtained through his intercession will not be required for his beatification. However a miracle obtained after his beatification will be necessary in order for him to be canonized as a saint.

Father Rother’s humble origins, unremarkable upbringing, and generally quiet manner may have made him an unlikely candidate for beatification and sainthood, but his case—marked by profound faith, service to the Church, and an assassination—is a strong one.

Stanley Rother was born on March 27, 1935, to Franz and Gertrude Smith Rother at their farmhouse just west of Okarche, Oklahoma. Two days later, he was baptized at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche by Monsignor Zenon Steber. Stanley, his two sisters, and two brothers were raised in an extremely devout home.

“Religion was so much a part of our home and our lives that we didn’t need to talk about it,” said Sister Marita of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, Stanley’s older sister. “God was central to our lives.”

Rother attended Holy Trinity Catholic School in Okarche for both elementary and secondary education. Upon his graduation in 1953, he decided to pursue the priesthood and attended Saint John’s Seminary in San Antonio for two years before moving to Assumption Seminary in the same city. Academics, however, were not a strong suit for Stanley; he was asked to leave Assumption Seminary because of poor grades. A hard worker, he spent much of his time dedicated to his duties as sacristan, groundskeeper, bookbinder, plumber, and gardener, which left little time for studies. Still, he wanted to pursue the priesthood.

Stanley then went with his father and Father Edmund Von Elm, the pastor at Okarche, to see Bishop Victor Reed. Bishop Reed arranged for Stanley to go to Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Bishop Reed ordained Stanley into the priesthood on May 25, 1963.

He spent the first five years of his ministry at several parishes in Oklahoma without much notice. He served at Saint William in Durant, Saint Francis Xavier in Tulsa, Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa, and Corpus Christi in Oklahoma City. When he was made aware of the need for a priest at the Oklahoma mission with the Tzutuhil Indians in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, he immediately volunteered. Bishop Reed assigned him to the mission in 1968.

The Catholic Church in Oklahoma had been sending priests, religious lay workers, and financial support to the some 30,000 residents of Santiago Atitlán since 1964. Initially, three priests and four laypeople established the mission, which they called Micatokla. Father Ramon Carlin was one of the first priests assigned there and became a mentor to Father Rother upon his arrival.

At the time, Santiago Atitlán was one of the most impoverished areas in Central America. The people suffered greatly from low wages and hard labor, malnutrition, disease, polluted water, and high rates of childhood mortality. The Catholic Mission of Oklahoma initiated programs to both combat the poverty and provide spiritual support through the sacramental ministry of the Church.

Growing up on a farm, Father Rother offered both knowledge and mechanical skills to the people. In addition to fulfilling his duties as a priest, he would work a bulldozer to clear land, help build a medical facility, and work on the church building, pull teeth and give shots, work on crops of wheat, corn, black beans, avocado, and peaches. In every way, Father Rother labored to care for the people physically and spiritually.

Father Rother worked hard to learn Spanish and the Tzutuhil language, which had only recently been put into written form by a Father Carlin. When Father Carlin passed away, Father Rother diligently continued to work with the Tzutuhil language, eventually translating gospels and prayers into the language. He taught the people how to read and write, even broadcasting daily lessons in language and math through the small radio station located on the mission.

“Father Rother grew like I’ve never seen anyone grow in the priesthood,” said Jude Pansini, a coworker with him in Guatemala. “He went from being an ordinary person like the rest of us to someone very special. Most of all, he knew the law of Christ. He was a transformed wheat farmer.”

The political situation in Guatemala grew increasingly volatile in the late 1970s. A CIA-led coup in 1954 initiated a decades-long struggle between the government and “communist” elements. In 1978, Fernando Romeo Lucas García was elected president. Receiving more than $10 million of military equipment from the United States and logistical support from CIA advisors on the ground, the Guatemalan government began to prosecute a war on “leftist,” or “communist,” groups. There were four militias that were battling against the right-wing government. These militias consisted mainly of poor Guatemalans who were discontent with the poverty and disparity in wealth. The U.S.-backed government considered the Catholic Church to be a part of the revolution and a threat. As such, they targeted Catholic priests and lay leaders for intimidation and assassination.

Father Rother, commenting on the situation, wrote:

The country is in rebellion and the government is taking it out on the Church. The low wages that are paid, the very few that are excessively rich, the bad distribution of land—these are some of the reasons for widespread discontent. The Church seems to be the only force that is trying to do something about the situation, and therefore the government is after us.

In a letter dated May 21, 1980, Father Rother further described the situation:

The political situation here is really sad… Nicaragua is by far the worse off right now, El Salvador is getting close to overt violence and Guatemala is systematically doing away with all liberal or even moderates in government, the labor leaders and apparently there are lots of kidnappings that never get in the papers. There are something like 15 bodies that show up every day in the country and show signs of torture and then shot.

The political situation in Guatemala and Father Rother’s position in an impoverished region has made his cause for beatification somewhat controversial for some Catholics. He was accused of being sympathetic with “communists,” and thus, siding with the “enemy.” While some Catholics chose to criticize him on a political level, it is apparent from his writings and actions that his concern was for the poor people of the region and his duty to care for them as their spiritual father.

In 1980, Rother was warned that he was on a right-wing list for assassination and that his life was in danger. The government troops were regularly in the village, questioning and intimidating people. Some 20 villagers disappeared during this time. His colleagues and friends encouraged him to get out of Guatemala before anything happened to him. Reluctantly, he returned to Okarche in January of 1981. He was not, however, pleased with his decision.

While hundreds of catechists and nine priests had been killed in the government purge, Father Rother found himself safely on the family farm in Okarche. He was despondent and distant, often staring out the window for long periods.

“Looking back now, I wish I had never seen him then in that way. He was so distant… He just sat in the house and looked out,” said Sister Marita.

Father Rother was compelled to return to Santiago Atitlán. It had been his home for 13 years and he deeply loved the people. They were his people. He was their priest. Since there wasn’t a Tzutuhil name for Stanley, they affectionately called him “Padre A’Plas,” or “Father Francis.”

Father Rother asked Archbishop Salatka of Oklahoma City for permission to return to Guatemala. “My people need me,” he said. “I can’t stay away from them any longer.”

Father Rother returned to Santiago Atitlán in April 1981. Government troops had surrounded the city, claiming they were there to protect the people from the guerrilla forces in the mountains. Government informers were in the city and the people were closely monitored, especially Father Rother.

In the early morning hours of July 28, 1981, three assassins began searching for Father Rother at the rectory. Rother had taken to sleeping in a downstairs room rather than his upstairs bedroom. Francisco Bocel, the teenaged brother of Father Bocel, who worked with Father Rother, was forced to lead the soldiers to his room.

They knocked on the door where Father Rother was sleeping. Francisco told Father Rother that they were there looking for him. Rather than trying to escape, Rother opened the door. A struggle ensued, and Francisco reported hearing Father Rother shout, “Kill me here!” Two shots rang out, followed by silence. Father Rother was shot twice in the head, but not before throwing several punches. Autopsy reports indicated that his knuckles were badly bruised.

The people’s love for Father Rother was evident. When news of his death spread to the Indians in Santiago Atitlán, they gathered by the hundreds in the square that faced the church and prayed silently all day. It was reported that more than a thousand were there for the duration of the day.

Raymond Bailey, a U.S. embassy staff member from Guatemala City, said, “It was like their God had died. It was a sight I’ll remember the rest of my life.”

The first burial Mass for Father Rother was held at the mission on July 29, 1981. The crowd was so large that benches had to be removed from the church. More than 2,500 people filled the church and thousands more stood outside. They requested to keep his heart and bury it at the church. Once they received ecclesiastical permission, the heart of the murdered priest, carefully wrapped in bloody gauze, was interred in the floor of the church sanctuary.

The second Mass was in Guatemala City the following day, and then his body was returned to Oklahoma City, where Archbishop Salatka, family, and friends received it.

Archbishop Salatka, the celebrant and homilist for Father Rother’s October 3 funeral Mass in Oklahoma City, said, “He went forth from his own country to share the love of Christ.”

Father Rother was laid to rest outside his home parish, Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche. His tombstone bears his Tzutuhil name, Padre A’Plas.

This past August, Archbishop Coakley submitted a letter to Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, formally requesting the Congregation to consider the Servant of God, Father Stanley Rother, for beatification and canonization. At the same time, Archbishop Coakley delivered the positio, the formal document that summarizes the facts and testimony concerning the life and death of Father Rother.

Two weeks later, Cardinal Amato responded that the Cause of the Servant of God, Father Stanley Rother, would be addressed by the Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in early 2015. The members of the Theological Commission will study the Cause extensively over the next several months before submitting their findings to the cardinals and archbishops who comprise the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. They will then make their own determination and submit their recommendation to the Pope. Should the Holy Father determine that Father Rother is a martyr, then he will issue a proclamation to that end, allowing for his beatification.

A version of this essay was originally published by the Eastern Oklahoma Catholic. Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, December 1, 2014.