Franciscan Spirit Blog

Father Stanley Rother: First American Martyr

Many men and women have served the peoples of the United States and have been declared saints by the Catholic Church.

People like Saints John Neumann, Francis Xavier Cabrini, Junipero Serra (who was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015), Marianne Cope, and Damien de Veuster of Moloka’i to name just a few.

And then there are the two female saints who were citizens of the United States by birth—Saints Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia and Elizabeth Ann Seton of New York.

But no men born in the United States have been declared saints—yet. Two very definite possibilities loom on the horizon as Venerable Stanley Rother (the first American to be declared a martyr for the faith) and Venerable Solanus Casey, OFMCap, will be declared Blessed on September 23 and November 18 of this year, respectively.

Such a declaration is a step toward being named a saint. Many feel that it is only a matter of time until these two men are canonized.


A Son of the Prairie

Less than 85 years ago, in a farming community in Okarche, Oklahoma, the eldest of five children was born to Franz and Gertrude (Smith) Rother. Nothing was particularly notable about young Stanley Francis.

He had what we might call a normal childhood, growing up and working on the farm with his parents and siblings—eventually there would be one girl and three other boys added to the family—and attending Holy Trinity Catholic Church and school.

While his home was certainly Catholic, no specific mention was made of a vocation until after high school when Stanley announced he would like to study for the priesthood. He pursued the appropriate studies in San Antonio, Texas, at Assumption Seminary, but was asked by the faculty to discontinue due to poor grades. 

He couldn’t master Latin, which was considered essential in the pre-Vatican II Church. Thinking that that decision was the end of his dream of becoming a priest, Stanley agreed to meet with his local bishop, Victor Reed. The bishop saw potential in Stanley, which inspired him to put in a good word for him at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD.

That was a fortuitous and providential move as Stanley graduated from Mount Saint Mary’s in 1963 and was ordained to the priesthood in his home diocese of Oklahoma City/Tulsa by his benefactor, Bishop Reed.

He served the diocese as an associate pastor in various parishes for the next five years, all the while gaining a reputation for being a good spiritual leader, down to earth, and loving to work on the land and fix machinery—you couldn’t take the farmer out of himbut no one expected to because it was Oklahoma where farming is a major way of life.

And nothing pointed to the possibility of Father Rother being someday declared a martyr for the faith. That whole chapter of his life began when he volunteered for the Guatemalan missions.


A Guatemalan Missionary

In 1968, while serving at Corpus Christi parish in Oklahoma City, Father Rother opted to volunteer for the diocesan mission to the Tz’utujil people located in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. The mission was the local diocese’s response to a request by Pope John XXIII that ever diocese and religious community send missionaries to Central America.

Father Rother was more than willing to go and his bishop accepted his request along with that of eleven others. This was the same bishop who had followed his heart and made it possible for Stanley to be ordained.


Caught in a Civil War

In her book, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma, María Ruiz Scaperlanda lovingly relates the life and work of Father Rother from his childhood through the events of his martyrdom and funeral in 1981 at the young age of 46.

It is clear from Scaperlanda’s work, as well as from other articles and reports, that Father Rother was a dedicated missionary priest who fell in love with the parish at Santiago Atitlán. Never outgrowing his love for manual labor and using his talents and expertise as a farmer, Father Rother helped his people grow in many ways.

Always the spiritual leader first, he was not afraid to get his hands dirty and often did so in the advancement of the native culture and local practices. To his credit, he had a long list of accomplishments ranging from a radio station and a hospital to advanced farming techniques, all much appreciated by the local people.

But the government of Guatemala did not see things that way. The government officials viewed the advancement and education of the indigenous peoples a threat.

It was to the government’s advantage that the poor remain poor and that the uneducated remain uneducated—and Father Rother was, in their minds, working against them. They began to see him as a danger to the status quo. And their hostility was intense and deadly.

It’s hard to imagine what went through Father Rother’s heart and mind as he began to realize that both he and his parishioners were in grave danger. People began to “disappear.”

Opposition became well organized and, in some cases, deadly. Denunciations of what the Church was doing became vocal and public. But Father stood strongly on the side of his people and justice.


The Martyrdom of a Beloved Pastor

Shortly before his death, Father Rother returned to Oklahoma to see his family, the bishop, and his friends. Many, if not all, warned him not to return to Guatemala as they realized his life was in danger.

He, too, was aware of his situation, but as Scaperlanda so deliberately makes clear, his attitude was that a good shepherd does not run and desert his flock. He stands with them to the end. 

And so, he did. He returned to his beloved flock to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with them. And shortly thereafter, at 1:30 a.m. on July 28, 1981 three thugs broke into his rectory and, after beating him, shot him twice in the head.

Before the shock of what had happened had a chance to sink in, the people of Santiago Atitlán, recognizing Father Rother’s love for them and their love for him, collected his blood and enshrined it along with his heart in their local church.

Father Rother’s body was eventually buried in Okarche, OK, but his heart—physically and metaphorically—remains with his beloved Tz’utujil people.


A Growing Legacy

What can one say about this simple and unassuming priest? This farm boy from Oklahoma who went to the missions to serve God and the people of Guatemala?

Well, I’m sure that he would be embarrassed by all the attention he is receiving as his beatification takes place. He did not live his life as a man or as a priest to gain attention and praise.

He only wanted to serve his Lord and his beloved parish, which, of course, is exactly why he is being beatified—he did both well, very well. Pictures of Father Rother witness to his size—at 5ꞌ11” he towered over the members of his parish—and to his light complexion—noticeable among his dark-skinned parishioners.

He was known to have a quick temper which flared occasionally, but as an old missionary priest told me when I was young, the people will forgive and overlook your weaknesses if they see you as loving and gentle toward the young and the elderly, the vulnerable in your flock.

And so, the Tz’utujil people accepted this pipe-smoking, bearded priest and, not having a native word for Stanley, capitalized on his middle name and affectionately called him Padre A’Plas, which means Father Francis.

In our present world of division and hate—in our country as well as in our Church—the witness of the Church’s beatification of Father Stanley Rother stands as a clear countercultural statement.

A man of peace, dedication, integrity, and courage, Father Rother epitomizes what Jesus calls each of us to in the Gospels. In many ways, his life was ordinary—that of many missionaries dedicated to and in love with their adopted peoples and cultures.

But not every missionary is faced with the kind of life and death decisions that Father Rother faced. In these, he joins the likes of Bishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador and the four-martyred church-women of that same country (Sister Dorothy Kazel, OSU, Sister Ita Ford, MM, Sister Maura Clarke, MM, and Jean Donovan).

We need such witnesses of courage and faith in our country and in our Church today.

By declaring Father Rother a martyr for the faith on December 2, 2016, Pope Francis has not only honored a man, but the entire people of Oklahoma and this country. It’s impossible to say what the outcome of this acknowledgement and beatification will be.

But for now, we can celebrate a farm boy from Oklahoma who did his homeland and the Church proud.

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