The Vatican announced on Dec. 2 that Pope Francis had recognized the martyrdom of Father Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma priest serving the poor in Guatemala who was murdered there in 1981.
The missionary’s biographer, author María Ruiz Scaperlanda, said she was glad that the story of the first U.S. born martyr could now inspire not only Catholics in Guatemala and Oklahoma, but throughout the universal Church.
The priest, she said, is not just a model of holiness for the Tz’utujil Indians whom he served in Santiago Atitlán – the remote lakeside village surrounded by volcanoes where he served – or just for the people of Okarche, Oklahoma, where he grew up on a farm, but for all Catholics.
“Perhaps the character trait that I find most inspiring is the fact that he was ‘ordinary.’ He wasn’t a superstar. He wasn’t the best and brightest. He didn’t win any awards or become famous because of some important project.”
He even failed his first year of theology at the seminary and had to start over at a different seminary!” Scaperlanda said in an interview with Crux.
“Stanley Rother was an ordinary person, like all of us, who desired to love God with his whole heart, mind, and body,” she said. “I think one of his gifts to the Church of God, the Church universal, is precisely this – that he was ordinary – and that he lived out the same call to holiness in every-day life that we are called to do.”
Scaperlanda’s biography of the missionary priest, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma, was published by Our Sunday Visitor in 2015, and drew its name from part of a Christmas message that the missionary priest wrote to the Catholics of Oklahoma that was printed in the diocesan newspapers about six months before his death.
“The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” the priest wrote. “Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”
After a brutal wave of violence during Guatemala’s bloody civil war had swept through his peaceful mountain village, resulting in the kidnapping and murders of catechists in his parish, and the massacre of Indian workers, Rother learned that his name was on a death list.
But as he fled the country with a native-born priest whose life was also in danger, he promised the Tz’utujil Indians whom he served that he would be back in time for Holy Week.
In her book, Scaperlanda wrote about how for Rother, leaving Guatemala and returning home to Oklahoma then was like his own experience of the Garden of Gethsemane.
After sharing his experiences with church officials and spending time with family and friends, the priest returned to the grotto near where he had studied for the priesthood, at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, to pray, because his heart was restless.
He had to go back home to his people in Guatemala, where he had served for almost 13 years.
Rother did indeed return back to the village in Guatemala in time for Holy Week. Scaperlanda’s book opens with the terrifying account of three masked assailants breaking into the priest’s rectory in the middle of the night on July 28, 1981.
Gunshots rang out upstairs, and his body was discovered by Carmelite nuns who had worked with him serving the poor. A volunteer nurse arrived at the scene and pronounced her friend dead.
For Scarperlanda, researching the priest’s life and telling his story proved to be an inspiring personal journey.
She had never met him, but the writer – who in 2016 received the St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association, that group’s highest honor – had worked with the commission that collected information for his sainthood cause, and she was later asked by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to write his biography.
In researching the book, Scaperlanda interviewed many people, including the priest’s two living siblings – Sister Marita Rother, a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Wichita, Kansas, and his youngest brother Tom, whose family lives and works at the farm where they grew up.
She also drew on his letters, journals and diaries where he wrote about life on the Guatemala mission. And then, on the 30th anniversary of his death, Scaperlanda traveled to Santiago Atitlán, where the natives had called the priest “Padre Francisco” because his first name, Stanley, was difficult to say in their language.
“His spirit lives on in that community,” she said, noting that many children there have been named Francisco in his honor.
“The local school and various community services are named Apla’s – his name in Tz’utujil Mayan. The utility room where he was shot and died is now a small chapel within the rectory courtyard where people come to ask for his intercession, as they did when he was their pastor. That room is truly holy ground.”
Her book shows how the priest’s background prepared him to be at home serving the people in that far-away village.
“The fact that Stanley Rother was raised in a small farming close-knit community made it possible for him to become part of the small farming close-knit community of Santiago Atitlán. And so the hands-on German farmer who could fix anything became the hands-on pastor who plowed the fields side by side with his Tz’utujil Maya community,” Scaperlanda said.
Many people whom she interviewed compared Rother to St. John Vianney. Like the patron saint of parish priests, Rother struggled with his seminary studies and was sent to a remote place, where he totally dedicated his life to serving his people.
“Rother’s struggles in the seminary revolved around the fact that he could not master Latin. Not only because of Latin class, but because textbooks were in Latin!” Scaperlanda said.
But she said that early struggle with mastering a foreign language proved to be ironic for the missionary priest as he arrived in a new country, where the people in that village spoke two languages that he did not know.
“Fast forward to years later, as Father Stanley arrives in Guatemala and he is challenged to learn not only Spanish, but also the difficult and unique Mayan dialect of the Tz’utujil!” Scaperlanda said, adding that the priest learned enough Spanish to get by, but he became fluent in Tz’utujil.
“I believe that God blessed Father Stanley’s desire to be fully present to the poorest of the poor in his mission work by giving him the grace to communicate with them in their native language,” she said.
Scaperlanda noted that the priest continued a project begun by his predecessors at the mission and carried out by two native men, who translated Tz’utujil into a written language so people could pray and participate in Mass in their native language.
For the missionary priest, being present to his people meant visiting their dirt-floored homes after Mass and joining them for meals.
And when the violence sweeping Guatemala even invaded his peaceful village, the priest was also present to his people when he prayed over the bodies of Indian workers massacred by government soldiers and presided at their Funeral Masses.
Later, Rother himself was murdered. Scaperlanda said his killers were never apprehended or brought to justice, and in her opinion, he was executed because he had stayed with the poor Indians there, just as had promised.
Her book details how he had avoided political entanglements, but had spoken out against the wave of violence and disappearances sweeping through the country and the people whom he had come to love.
Rother lived and died for the people at his Guatemala mission, Scaperlanda said. “How he died is how he lived, fully and completely being present” to his people, she said.
After his murder, when it was time for his body to be laid out at the church, the Carmelite sisters dressed him in his vestments for Mass, including the colorful native shawl that he had received and proudly worn.
At the church, a crying elderly Indian woman could be heard saying, “They killed our priest. He was my priest.”
When Rother’s body was returned home for burial, a jar of his blood remained at the centuries-old church in the Guatemalan village where he had served, where the priest is venerated more than three decades later. Now the Church recognizes that as the blood of a martyr.
The Rother family also agreed to one more request, that the priest’s heart remain at the church in Guatemala, where it too is still venerated. In death as it was during his life, Rother’s heart remains with his people there.