The latest American to be beatified (a step in the process of becoming a saint) hails from a small town in western Oklahoma. His name is Father Stanley Rother. Not only is he the first recognized American martyr, he is also the first beatified American-born male.
Father Rother was born on March 27, 1935 in the small German farming community of Okarche, OK. He arrived in the middle of Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl years and the Great Depression. Little Stanley had two brothers and two sisters. His only living sibling is his sister Marita, a member of the Adorers of the Precious Blood. (In the 1990’s, I gave some talks in Oklahoma. The sister who picked me up at the airport was Sister Marita. That’s when I first heard her brother’s inspiring story.)
As a youth, Stanley was quiet and unassuming. He was very active in 4-H and seemed destined to be a farmer. But upon graduating from high school, Stanley surprised his family by announcing he wanted to become a priest. He entered St. John’s seminary in San Antonia where things did not go well for him. He struggled with academics—especially Latin—and was asked to leave.
Back home, Stanley appealed to his bishop to help him get into Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD. The bishop agreed and Stanley was accepted. There Stanley worked very hard and was eventually ordained in 1963 for the then-Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. He served in parishes in the area for five years. But everything changed when he volunteered for Oklahoma’s mission in Guatemala.
Father Rother arrived in Guatemala in 1968. He was sent to Santiago Atitlan to serve the Tz’utujil people, an agricultural community proud of their
ancient Mayan culture. Immediately Father fell in love with the beautiful land and the beautiful people. By now, he had learned Spanish, but he wanted to speak directly to his people in their native language. The young seminarian who got D’s in Latin, mastered the complicated Tz’utujil language so well, he even helped to transcribe this oral language into written form.
During his 13 years of service at the mission, Father Rother helped develop a farmers’ co-op, a nutrition center, a medical clinic, a school, and the first Catholic radio station in the area. But what endeared him most to the people was his gentle presence among them and his willingness to fix tractors and engage in everyday farm work.
Since 1960 Guatemala was engaged in a bloody civil war that lasted 36 years. Eventually this war reached even Atitlan. Because the Catholic Church spoke out against the injustices to the poor, church leaders were targeted. Father Rother’s own catechists began to disappear. But he continued to defend the dignity of his people against a government that was bent on silencing the Church. This only made his situation more dangerous for him. In January 1981, Father Stanley received several death threats. He decided to leave Guatemala, but, shortly afterward, he had a change of heart saying, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.” In April, he returned to the mission and resumed his priestly ministry there.
Only July 28, at 1:30 in the morning, three men (non-indigenous) snuck into the rectory, beat Father Rother and shot him twice in the head. His death was deeply mourned by the people he served as well as his family and friends back home. His body was sent back to Oklahoma for burial, but, at the request of his parishioners, his heart was entombed under an altar in his beloved Santiago Atitlan.
Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, a fellow graduate of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, said this of his friend: “The life and witness of Father Rother is a gift to the Church of America, especially in the way he lived his priesthood: selflessly, generously, heroically… after the manner of Christ.”
Is there anything in Father’s story that stands out for you?
Does he remind you of other individuals who gave their life for their faith?
Father Rother is the first beatified American male? Can you name the three American-born saints? They are all women. The answer is at the end.
The song I chose is “We Remember,” written by Marty Haugen. The song’s opening line refers to Jesus, of course, but it could just as well be said in Father Rother’s honor by the Tz’utujil people he served so generously: “We remember how you loved us to your death.”
I invite you to share your thoughts with us below. My readers tell me how much they enjoy reading the comments!
ANSWER: The three American-born Saints are: Elizabeth Anne Seton, Katharine Drexel, and Kateri Tekawitha.