Blessed Stanley Rother: Diocesan Priest and Martyr

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

Father Rother with his family at his first Mass.

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.

No Comments

  1. Kathleen Magiera on October 2, 2017 at 5:20 am

    Thank you for the story of Father Stanley Rother. It was truly inspiring!

    During these turbulent, political times, we must stand with the poor and forgotten. Father Stanley keeps that struggle in front of us. It is so precious that his heart was left in Guatemala.


  2. john hopkins on October 2, 2017 at 6:00 am

    Good morning, Sr. Melannie…
    Father Rother’s story reminds me of Oscar Romero’s. Both men such beautiful servants of God!

  3. Char on October 2, 2017 at 10:12 am

    What a Courageous Servant of God! Gracias for sharing this! Blessings

  4. Joe Johnson on October 2, 2017 at 10:58 am

    My golf friend, Joan, has a license plate that says, OKIE SWEDE. Got to tell her this story about Father Rother. Thanks for blowing me away with his story.

  5. Marie Barth on October 2, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    What a beautiful song chosen to accompany your piece on this holy priest.
    Thank you and God bless all your readers.

  6. Patty on October 2, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    Thank you, Sister. The good in the world far out weigh the bad.

  7. Rose Anne on October 2, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    Thankyou for such a wonderful story of this courageous priest. This is one of my favorite songs.❤️

  8. Josita on October 2, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    Thanks, Melannie, I just recently heard of Fr. Stanley and am grateful for his story. What courage and faith!
    I, too live this song.

  9. Rosemarie Moore on October 2, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    Thank you for sharing his life. He is my daughter in law Jeannie Peterson Moore’s second cousin once removed. Her patents and sister were there for the beautiful service. We are asking Father to intercede for Jeannie to be heal of cancer that she has been fighting for two years. God is so good.

  10. Tom on October 2, 2017 at 9:36 pm

    Father Rother’s change of heart from seeking safety from the death threats to choosing to return to his people reminds me of this Sunday’s parable, wherein Jesus places value on what we ultimately do, rather than on what goes through our minds and hearts in the process. Thank God for Father Rother’s courage to remain faithful to his role as a good shepherd.

  11. Joyce Thomas on October 2, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    Thank you for sharing the amazing story about Father Rother. The song “We Remember” is so special and for me, it reminded me that it was our song on the CHERP weekend at our parish that I attended.

  12. AmY @ Love and Be Loved on October 3, 2017 at 8:35 am

    The story reminds me that while God does indeed send angels to do his work, God sends flesh-and-blood people to do his work. We are all called to be Jesus to others. When father works to fix tractors and tend crops that’s when the people feel most loved. I think this is very telling. People need God to come to them where they are. And so we, as the hands and feet of Christ, need to meet people where they are.

  13. sheila Bosron on October 4, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    We have many dedicated missionaries steadfast in their love of the people in an increasingly dangerous and violent world with never retire but serve lovingly until it’s physically impossible. My brother is a missionary inSouth Sudan Michael’s life has many similarities to Blessed Fr Rother and fr Michael translated the prayer book and catechism into the local African language. he has started many schools and built many churches. please pray for Jesus’ continued protection of Fr Michael and all our religious and lay missionaries.

  14. Debra Tomaselli on October 10, 2017 at 7:06 pm

    Your post makes me feel the gentle loving presence of this blessed man. What courage to have left and then chosen to return 3 months later. What love. What faith. What strength. May God bless his soul, and may his example be an inspiration to all of us and help us, too, to keep our priorities in order.

  15. Tapestry on October 20, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    If he was a diocesan priest how did he end up in Guatemala?
    It doesn’t read like he was a missionary priest.

  16. Peggy on November 6, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful story of courageous service. My family is asking his intercession for healing of a young man who has shown courage in his struggle with cancer. Blessings!

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