Father Stanley Rother (1935–1981) went to the mission of Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala with the desire to serve. The priest, who was ordained in the then-Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa in 1963, helped build a hospital, a school, and a Catholic radio station for the indigenous Mayan people. He helped translate the New Testament into the native Tz’utujil language and celebrated Mass in that native tongue. Known as Padre A’Plas (Francis, his middle name), Fr. Stanley was beloved by the Mayan people he served.
In spite of these good works, Fr. Stanley discovered that his name appeared on a death list in 1981.
Guatemala was in the midst of a brutal civil war, which most affected indigenous Mayan communities. From 1960–1996, over 200,000 people were killed in the violence, 83% of whom were Mayan. Missions like Santiago Atitlán became a battleground. Fr. Stanley witnessed the violence first-hand. “Helping these people,” Rother warned, “could very easily be considered as subversive by the local government.”
The threats of violence did not stop him from ministering to his flock. The young man who had struggled in seminary refused to abandon the Mayans, who looked up to him and depended on him. He knew his life was in danger. He knew that simple acts of kindness—even teaching people to read and write—could easily result in abduction, torture, and death.
When the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City learned that Fr. Stanley’s name was on a death list, they ordered him home. He protested; he couldn’t just leave his flock during a time when they could be kidnapped and murdered at will. “This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm,” he wrote. “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”
Despite his desire not to abandon the people of Santiago Atitlán, Fr. Stanley was obedient and returned to Oklahoma City in January of 1981. His heart, however, never left Guatemala, and after receiving permission to celebrate Easter with his flock, Fr. Stanley returned to Guatemala in April. On July 28, 1981, assassins entered the parish rectory and killed Fr. Stanley.
Like Christ, this farm boy from Okarche, Oklahoma laid down his life for the people he loved. Pope Francis declared Fr. Stanley a martyr in 2016, thus opening up the path toward his eventual canonization. He is the first martyr born in the United States.
Rother was beatified September 23, 2017, in Oklahoma.
Image courtesy the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City Archives.
Little Lessons from the Saints: Father Stanley Rother