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BROTHER STANLEY ROTHER — FIRST AMERICAN MARTYR

Brother Stanley Rother standing in a crowd

Stanley Francis Rother, his parents, and siblings Betty Mae, who became Sister Marita, and two brothers, Tom & Jim, grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. Stanley was very skilled and adept at farming. After completing high school, he had a calling to the priesthood. He attended Saint John Seminary and then to Assumption Seminary in San Antonio in Texas. He then attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg in Maryland where he graduated in 1963. Bishop Victor Reed ordained him to the priesthood in 1963. Father Rother then served as an associate pastor in various parishes around Oklahoma. In 1968, at his request, was assigned to the mission of the Archdiocese to the Tz’utujil located in Santiago Atitlán, a remote village of 20,000 Tzutujil Mayans on the shores of Lake Atitlán in southwest Guatemala.

Civil war existed in Guatemala since the early 1960s due to economic inequalities. In the 1970s, the Mayan people protested against the government. In 1980, the Guatemalan army instituted “Operation Sophia,” which aimed at ending insurgent guerrilla warfare. This program targeted the Mayan population who were believed to be supporting insurgents. The army destroyed 626 villages, killed or “disappeared” more than 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million, while more than 150,000 were driven to seek refuge in Mexico. Catholic priests and nuns also often faced violence as they supported the rights of the Mayan people.

In Guatemala, Father Rother put his farming skills to use clearing land with a bulldozer on local farms. As the violence in Guatemala escalated, the director of the local radio station was murdered and Rother’s parishioners would disappear and later be found dead. In December 1980, Father Rother addressed a letter to the faithful in Oklahoma: “This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”

Brother Stanley Rother talks to a group of Guatemalan children

Father Rother was warned that his name was on a death list (he was number eight on the list) and that he should leave Guatemala at once to remain alive. One parishioner warned him in January: “Father, you’re in extreme danger. You must get out immediately.” Father Rother was reluctant, but returned to Oklahoma in January, though he later asked the archbishop for permission to return: ”My people need me. I can’t stay away from them any longer.” Father Rother went back to Santiago Atitlán.

In the early morning of July 28, just after midnight, gunmen broke into the rectory and shot him twice in the head. The killers gained access after forcing a teenager, Francisco Bocel, who was at the church to show them where Father Rother’s room was located. Francisco led them downstairs and knocked on a door near the staircase saying: “Father. They are looking for you.”  Father Rother opened the door and a struggle ensued as Francisco ran upstairs hearing Father Rother yell: “Kill me here!” One shot pierced his jaw and the fatal shot struck the left temple; there were bruises on both hands. Francisco ran to the Carmelite sisters in the adjoining convent for help. The nuns found Father Rother dead in a pool of his blood and knelt to pray.

Brother Stanley Rother holds the hand of a young Guatemalan girl

Father Rother was one of 10 priests murdered in Guatemala. His remains were flown back to Oklahoma and were buried in his hometown on August 3, 1981, in Holy Trinity Cemetery. At the request of his Tz’utujil parishioners, his heart was removed and buried under the altar of the church where he had served as pastor.

Three men were arrested and charged with Rother’s murder. Despite their confessions, many people familiar with the circumstances of the murder considered the three accused persons as innocent and the prosecutions to be a cover-up of paramilitary involvement in the murder. Convictions for all three men were later overturned by a Guatemalan appellate court, under pressure from U.S. authorities. No other suspects have been prosecuted for the murder.

In 2016, Pope Francis confirmed that Father Rother had been a martyr, killed “in odium fidei” (in hatred of the faith).  He was Beatified on 23 September 2017 at the Cox Convention Centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with Cardinal Angelo Amato presiding a Mass attended by 20,000 people.

For prayers for Blessed Brother Stanley Rother’s intercession and prayers for his canonization, click HERE for more info.

Relic oil, touched to a first class relic of Blessed Brother Stanley Rother, is available HERE.

Portrait of Brother Stanley Rother

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