Today, 28 July 2018 , is the First Feast Day of Blessed Stanley Francis Rother (1935-1981) Martyr, Priest, Missionary. Blessed Stanley was born on 27 March 1935 in Okarche, Oklahoma. He was martyred by gunshot at approximately 2am on 28 July 1981 in his rectory in Santiago Atitlán, Sololá, Guatemala.
Stanley Francis Rother was one of 4 children of Franz Rother (8 August 1911 – 2 July 2000) and Gertrude Smith (23 May 1913 – 24 October 1987), who had a farm close to that town in Oklahoma; sister Betty Mae, who became Sister Marita and two brothers, Tom & Jim. Stanley was strong and adept at farm tasks. Then after completing his high school studies at the Holy Trinity school he declared his calling to the priesthood to his parents. His parents were pleased with their son’s decision though his father asked him: “Why didn’t you take Latin instead of working so hard as a Future Farmer of America?” To prepare for this, he was sent to the Saint John Seminary and then to Assumption Seminary in San Antonio in Texas. His talents gained working on the farm left him with other duties at the seminary and his studies suffered and he struggled with Latin. He served as a sacristan, groundskeeper, bookbinder, plumber and gardener. After almost six years the seminary staff advised him to withdraw.
After consultation with his local bishop Bishop Victor Reed he then attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg in Maryland from which he graduated in 1963. Bishop Reed ordained him to the priesthood on 25 May 1963. Rother then served as an associate pastor in various parishes around Oklahoma and in 1968 – at his own request – he was assigned to the mission of the archdiocese to the Tz’utujil people located in Santiago Atitlán in the rural highlands of southwest Guatemala.
So that he could be in closer touch with his congregation, he set out to work to learn Spanish and the Tz’utujil language which was an unwritten and indigenous language that the missionary Ramón Carlín once recorded. He served in Santiago Atitlán from 1968 until his death. Rother lived with a native family for a while to get a better grasp of practical conversation and worked with the locals to show them how to read and write. He supported a radio station located on the mission property which transmitted daily lessons in both language and mathematics. In 1973 he noted with pride in a letter: “I am now preaching in Tz’utuhil.” During that time, in addition to his pastoral duties he translated the New Testament into Tz’utujil and began the regular celebration of the Mass in Tz’utujil. In the late 1960s Rother founded in Panabaj a small hospital, dubbed as the “Hospitalito”, Father Carlín served as a collaborator in this project.
By 1975, Rother had become the de facto leader of the Oklahoma-sponsored mission effort in Guatemala as other religious and lay supporters rotated out of the program. He was a highly recognisable figure in the community, owing to his light complexion as well as his habit of smoking tobacco in a pipe. Since there was not a Tz’utujil name equivalent to “Stanley,” the people of Father Rother’s mission affectionately called him “Padre Apla’s,” translated as “Father Francis,” in reference to his middle name.
Rother put his farming skills to good use in Guatemala, on one occasion operating a bulldozer from 7:00 am to 4:30 pm to clear land on local farms, stopping just for Mass. His door was open to all people. There was one old man who appeared each day for lunch and others came for advice on personal or financial affairs. Some even turned up to have their teeth extracted. On one occasion he accompanied a boy to Guatemala City to be treated for lip cancer, from which the boy was eventually cured.
Within the last year of his life Rother saw the radio station smashed and its director murdered. His catechists and parishioners would disappear and later be found dead, with their bodies showing signs of having been beaten and tortured. In December 1980 he had addressed a letter to the faithful in Oklahoma and wrote about the violent situation: “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.”
At the beginning of 1981 he was warned that his name was on a death list (he was number eight on the list) and that he should leave Guatemala at once to remain alive. One parishioner warned him in January: “Father, you’re in extreme danger. You must get out immediately.” Rother was reluctant but he nonetheless returned to Oklahoma in January, though he later asked the archbishop for permission to return: “My people need me. I can’t stay away from them any longer.” Another reason for returning was that he wanted to celebrate Easter with them. His brother Tom said to him, upon hearing that Stanley wanted to return to Guatemala: “Why do you want to go back? They’re waiting on you and they’re gonna kill you.” Rother said: “Well, a shepherd cannot run from his flock.” “Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for His people,” said Fr Stanley, “that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.” Rother went back to Santiago Atitlán in April and knew that he was being watched.
On the morning of 28 July just after midnight, gunmen broke into the rectory of his church and shot him twice in the head after a brief struggle. The killers forced the teenager Francisco Bocel (who was in the church at the time) to lead them to the bedroom of the “red-bearded Oklahoma-born missionary.” The men threatened to kill Bocel if he did not show them Rother and so Bocel led them downstairs and knocked on a door near the staircase saying: “Father. They are looking for you.” Rother opened the door and a struggle ensued as Bocel ran upstairs hearing Rother yell: “Kill me here!” One shot pierced his jaw and the fatal shot struck the left temple; there were bruises on both hands. His father Franz – upon hearing the news of his son’s death – rang his eldest daughter Marita in Kansas and told her: “They got him.” She hung up the phone and wept.
Father Rother was one of 10 priests murdered in Guatemala that year. His remains were flown back to Oklahoma and were buried in his hometown on 3 August 1981, in Holy Trinity Cemetery. At the request of his former Tz’utujil parishioners, his heart was removed and buried under the altar of the church where he had served.
Three men were arrested on charges of murder within weeks of Rother’s murder, another man and a women were sought for questioning at that stage as well. The three men arrested admitted to having entered the church in a robbery attempt and also admitted to having shot Rother dead when the priest attempted to stop them. Despite the confessions, many people familiar with the circumstances of the murder considered the three accused persons as innocent and the prosecutions to be a cover-up of paramilitary involvement in the murder. Convictions for all three men were later overturned by a Guatemalan appellate court, under pressure from U.S. authorities. No other suspects have been prosecuted for the murder.
On 1 December 2016 his Beatification received approval from Pope Francis after the Pope confirmed that Rother had been killed “in odium fidei” (in hatred of the faith). On 13 March, 2017 the date for his Beatification was announcedand was Beatified on 23 September 2017 at the Cox Convention Centre, with Cardinal Angelo Amato presiding over the Beatification – as the Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints on the Holy Father’s behalf at a Mass attended by approximately 20,000 people.