Father Stanley Rother, the first United States-born Catholic Priest to be beatified, gave his life for the faith.
Born on March 27, 1935, Rother was raised on a farm in Okarche, Oklahoma, with his parents and three younger siblings. An altar boy and athlete, Rother expressed interest in becoming a Priest during his time at Holy Trinity High School.
Despite his commitment to the priesthood, Rother’s first attempts at ordination proved unsuccessful. During his time at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas, Rother found it difficult to learn Latin and was asked to leave the seminary due to poor grades.
Despite this setback, Rother’s desire to be ordained proved stronger than his first defeat. On the advice of Bishop Victor Reed, Rother traveled to Emmitsburg, Maryland to join the seminary at Mount St. Mary’s University, the second largest seminary in the United States. At the Mount he succeeded with his studies and graduated, becoming ordained on May 25, 1963 at the age of 28.
Now a priest, Rother returned home to Oklahoma to work as an associate pastor. After five years of serving in various parishes, Rother applied for a position in Guatemala, where he was sent to the diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan.
The people Father Rother met when he arrived in Santiago Atitlan belonged to the Tz’utujil, a tribe that is descended from the Mayans. The young American priest quickly established good relations with his new parishioners.
In order to communicate successfully, he learned both Spanish and the language of the Tz’utujil. Going a step further, Rother, who had dropped out of the seminary due to his struggles with Latin, translated the New Testament into Tz’utujil, along with conducting mass in the language.
Rother proved to his congregation that his sole intention was to help them, and he could always be seen tending to the sick and hungry. Living in the same poverty the people of Santiago Atitlan experienced, when he was not spreading the word of God Rother would work alongside them in the fields. The Oklahoma farm boy shared in the back-breaking labor of agriculture and went on to craft an irrigation system that made it easier to water the crops that were later harvested.
As Rother dedicated himself to helping his people, beyond the peaceful highlands of Santiago Atitlan surged a civil war. A guerrilla force fought it out with the government, and the Catholic Church’s goal of educating and teaching the Guatemalan people the principles of Christianity was viewed as dangerous by both sides. Catholics were targeted and killed across Guatemala in the thousands.
As the fighting began to mount in intensity, even remote areas and towns experienced the brutality of war. Catholics near and in Santiago Atitlan began to disappear, and Rother would search the countryside for their remains. At night Rother opened the doors of the church so his parishioners could seek shelter from the violence.
When he was notified that his name was included on a death list, Rother reluctantly left Santiago Atitlan and found safety of the United States. There, however, he was restless and determined to return to Guatemala despite the risks.
Despite the urgings of many to remain in Oklahoma, Rother declared his resolve to not abandon his people. He stated his belief simply: “The Shepherd cannot run.”
Rother made his way back to Santiago Atitlan and resumed his life of service to the people he loved. Rother understood that he was constantly in danger of death, yet he remained in Guatemala, putting the safety of his flock before his own.
In the early morning of July 28, 1981, three men forced their way into the rectory and seized Rother. Rother fought back, and witnesses heard him declare that if he was to die, he would die in the church.
Rother was shot twice in the head and killed. He was 46 years old. The three men fled and were never identified.
The people in Santiago Atitlan and others across Guatemala and the Catholic world mourned the death of Rother. He was remembered as a selfless leader and a friend to all.
Immediately after his death, scores of people, believing that Rother died for the faith, called for his canonization. Pope Francis officially recognized Rother as a martyr for the faith on December 2, 2016. The Rite of Beatification, the last step before one can be canonized as a saint, was held on September 23, 2017 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
At the request of the people of Santiago Atitlan, the heart of Rother is enshrined in Guatemala, the place where he sacrificed his life to spread the word of God and shelter those threatened by violence.
Rother is the first martyr for the faith born in the United States and is the first American priest to be beatified.
He will forever be remembered as a man who willingly gave his life in service to God and others.