The Story of Stanley Rother, Oklahoma’s Martyr

by Elizabeth Dowds

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)
-Quoted by Stanley Rother in a 1980 Christmas letter.

On July 28 in the Guatemalan village of Santiago Atitlán, members of a paramilitary death squad burst into the room of Father Stanley Rother and murdered him.

The story of how a farm boy from Oklahoma became the target of a paramilitary death squad begins 78 years ago today. As a dust storm raged through the small town of Okarche, northwest of Oklahoma City, Father Stanley Francis Rother was born. Rother came from a hardworking farm family, and involved though he was in high school sports and the Future Farmers of America, he had a clear interest in the priesthood from an early age. The combination of his religious convictions and his experience working on a small Oklahoma farm would later translate into his life’s work as priest in Santiago Atitlán, home to some 30,000 indigenous Tz’utujil Maya.

Rother first served the Catholic Church in Oklahoma, moving from parish to parish throughout the state. In 1968 he took the opportunity to move to Guatemala as a missionary. It was around this time that Pope John XXIII exhorted the Catholic Church in North America to send 10% of its priests to Latin America, where some 300 million Catholics resided and where priests were in short supply. Santiago Atitlán had been a Catholic community since the days of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, but there hadn’t been a priest in residence for over 100 years. Knowing there was a need, Stanley Rother stepped into this role. Rother’s upbringing as a “common old boy,” as his father fondly remembered him, helped him adapt to life in Guatemala.

Santiago Atitlán in the early 1960s was among the poorest places in Central America. Men earned .25 to .70 cents a day for hard agricultural labor. More than half of all children died before the age of 6. The most common causes of death were: malnutrition, diarrhea, measles, and flu. Most adults had active cases of tuberculosis, and intestinal worms from polluted drinking water effected nearly everyone. Responding to Pope John XXIII’s request, Catholic missionaries from Oklahoma arrived in 1964. They helped to establish a credit union, weaver’s cooperative, a health clinic, a Tz’utujil-language radio station, and a school. By 1974 all of the dozen missionaries returned to Oklahoma with exception of Father Rother.

Rother stayed to continue the development of these programs and to build stronger social organizations within the indigenous community. The radio station broadcasted educational and literacy programs, and cooperatives offered economic opportunities to artisans and agricultural workers. Father Rother worked hard physically to aid in these projects, often running a bulldozer from sunup to sundown in addition to fulfilling his duties as a priest.
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Having struggled with Latin in seminary, it was a surprise to many that Rother quickly became fluent in Tz’utujil and Spanish. He preached in the indigenous language. The elders of the tribe embraced him and bestowed him with a brightly colored woven stole, which he wore on special occasions. Not having a corollary name for Stanley, the people in Santiago Atitlán called him A’plas, their translation of Francisco.  Rother’s rectory was open at all hours, and parishioners would seek advice, medical treatment, meals, and company. For ten years, he worked steadily with other community members to advance the interests and well-being of the people of Santiago Atitlán. Their progress was discernible. The mission—and others like it in Guatemala— soon caught the attention of the reactionary right wing government in the capital. Seeing any indigenous organization as communist, the government believed Catholic missionaries and priests were in collusion with left-wing revolutionary guerrillas. The government and pro-government paramilitaries, some financed by the CIA, weaved a path of destruction through the mountains and villages.

It is in May of 1979 that Father Rother first mentions the political unrest in Central America. In a letter home, he wrote:

“The political situation here is really sad… Nicaragua is by far the worst off right now, El Salvador is getting close to overt violence and Guatemala is 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 & then shot. I haven’t received threats as such, but if anything happens that is the way it is supposed to be. I don’t intend to run from danger, but at the same time I don’t intend to unnecessarily put myself into danger. I want to live like anyone else.”

The right-wing military government of Lucas Garcia, fraudulently elected in 1978, vowed to win the ongoing internal war against various left wing groups. These groups relied primarily on the support of the poor and indigenous. The following years were marked by the intimidating presence of the military in small villages. Kidnapping, disappearances, torture, and murder became common place. As these events unfolded, the United States delivered $10.5 million dollars worth of helicopters and $3.2 million worth of military trucks and jeeps to the army, and sent hundreds of CIA “advisors” to assist the government. The Catholic Church and the indigenous organizations it had spearheaded were common targets. North of Santiago Atitlán, the entire diocese of Quiché was dissolved after the priests, catechists, and parishioners were murdered.

In another letter Rother 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.”

The military arrived in Santiago Atitlán in July 1980. Patrolling groups of three to four soldiers with submachine guns terrorized the townspeople, many of whom had never seen guns. These armed soldiers pressed the people for information about their community leaders. The radio station, Voice of Atitlán, which was broadcast in the Tzu’tujil language, was targeted in late 1980. Its director was murdered and much of the equipment stolen. Several people in the community disappeared. During this time, Father Rother often reclaimed the corpses of his friends from creek beds to give them proper burials.

In letters home, he thanked those in America who had sent money to support the widows and children of men who had vanished or been murdered. The town was under siege at this point. “People are literally scared to death,” Rother wrote home in September 1980. Hundreds of people slept in the large church every night, taking turns keeping watch. “We have an uneasy peace here in town at present, waiting for the next ax to fall.” Rother wrote, “We have lost ten so far… the convent and rectory are gradually being made more secure and are getting to look like a maximum security prison.” Yet his writing made it clear he would stay. “What can we do, but our work, keep our heads down, preach the gospel of love and non-violence, etc.”  But when he wrote home to his parents, Rother downplayed the danger he was in and tried to soothe their worries about the violence in Guatemala. “We are fine here—stories always seem to get exaggerated. Take care of yourselves and don’t overdo in the heat.”

By July 1981, 8 priests had been killed or kidnapped since May 1980. After 16 people in the town were massacred in early January, Rother learned that he too was on a death list. Rother returned to the United States for his safety. But being away from Santiago Atitlan was agonizing. Rother’s father remembers that while at home in Okarche, Stanley would stare out the west window and say, “I’m going back. I can’t leave my people like that.”

Rother understood the risk of returning, but he’d made it clear that he’d invested his entire life in Santiago Atitlán. These were his people and he deeply felt they needed him more than ever no matter the cost.

After his murder at the hands of the Guatemalan right wing government, thousands gathered in the main square to mourn the death of Padre A’plas, their elder, defender, and spiritual leader. When his body was to be taken back to Okarche for burial, they pleaded to keep his heart, which was removed during the autopsy and buried in Santiago Atitlán. The bloody conflict in Guatemala officially ended in 1990, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of civilians, mostly the indigenous poor.

In 2007, the Catholic Church in Oklahoma began the process of elevating Father Rother to the sainthood for his martyrdom. At present, the documents they sent to the Vatican are being reviewed. It will probably take another year. If he is beatified and eventually canonized, he would be the first male saint born in the U.S. At a Mass said for him in September 1981 in Santiago Atitlán, Archbishop Angelico Melotto memorialized him in this way: “Brothers and sisters, it is ours to live in an era of true martyrs. Those who suffer martyrdom in these times will be remembered in history as Martyrs of Human Promotion, because all Human beings are made in the image of God and are our brothers in Christ.”

To be confirmed as a saint by the Catholic Church, a person has to be responsible for at least two “documented” miracles. The church is investigating these claims now. Regardless of his status within the church, Stanley Rother will be remembered as a kind-hearted man who sought to help those in poverty and who gave his life in service to the oppressed. In an interview, his father remembered, “He was just that kind of person, you know? He wanted give…he wanted to help the poor. He always was that way. He didn’t care about the finer things in life, and all that, you know. He was just a common old boy.”

3 Comments
  1. I’d like more information on this: what are the documented miracles being reviewed for his canonization? Will there be a follow-up article?

    • I don’t know a out his miracles, but I am praying hard to him for all the missing girls taken by the terrorists.

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