Father Rother with a Tz’utujil child.Courtesy of Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

Update: Pope Francis has recognized the martyrdom of Father Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, making him the first martyr born in the United States. More here.

At 1:30 a.m. on July 28, 1981, three Spanish-speaking Ladino men (non-indigenous) snuck into the rectory of Santiago Apostol (St. James) Church in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. They immediately went to the priest’s room, but he wasn’t there. They then seized and battered the 19-year-old brother of the associate pastor, whispering to the terrified young man that they would kill him if he did not take them directly to the pastor. 

He led the attackers downstairs, knocked at the door of a utility room, and called out, “Father, they are looking for you.” Aware of the threat to the young man, Father Stanley Francis Rother opened the door and let in his killers. 

The young man fled, hearing Father Rother cry out moments later, “Kill me here!” There was a shot. Then another. Then silence. 

The 46-year-old Oklahoman was one of 13 priests — and the first American one — slain during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which claimed an estimated 140,000 lives. On the same day, troops also killed 13 townspeople and wounded 24 others in the isolated village on the shores of Lake Atitlán. No one has been prosecuted for his killing. 

Ongoing devotion

Thirty years after his martyrdom, Father Rother is more than remembered by the parish community of Santiago Atitlán. The people’s devotion make it clear that Padre Apla’s (Francis in their native Tz’utujil) is still witnessing the presence and power and God to his people. 

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City presented Father Rother’s cause for canonization to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes in Rome earlier this year, and he has been declared by the universal Church as a Servant of God. 

But the people of Santiago Atitlán are not waiting for an official declaration. They already affirm Padre Apla’s a saint, their saint, and they come to him daily asking for his help and intercession — much as they did during the 13 years he served them.  

“He was a courageous missionary, who in spite of the violence that surrounded him, did not leave his flock. He is a great example for me, someone who gave his life for the People of God,” said Sister Ambrosia, a member of the Hermanas Misioneras de la Eucaristía (Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist). 

“I can’t tell you how much I admire him. He could have returned to his country, but instead he remained with his people here. He represents Jesus,” Sister Ambrosia said, “who gave his life for all of us. All of Guatemala already knows that he is a saint.”

Finding his calling

Father Rother was a farm boy from Okarche, Okla. He struggled in his studies at the seminary and served the first five years of his priestly ministry without much notice in various Oklahoma towns. Then everything changed when he answered the call to serve at the mission in Guatemala, finding his heart’s vocation as a priest to the Tz’utujil people. 

When Pope John XXIII requested in the early 1960s that a mission be established in Santiago de Atitlán, no resident priest had been ministering to the indigenous community for 80 years. But the Catholic Church has had a presence in that area for 470 years. 

The then-Diocese of Oklahoma City-Tulsa took over the care of the mission of Santiago Atitlán, the earliest parish in the Diocese of Sololá, sending priests and lay workers from 1963 to 2000, when sufficient growth in local vocations allowed the Sololá diocese to resume pastoral care. 

When he arrived in 1968, Father Rother immediately fell in love with the volatile and stunning land of volcanoes and earthquakes, but above all, with its people. He established in Santiago Atitlán the first farmers’ co-op, a school, the first hospital clinic and the first Catholic radio station, which was used for catechesis.  

Dying for the faith 

Once Guatemala’s civil war found its way to the villages surrounding Lake Atitlán, many people, including Father Rother’s own catechists, began to disappear regularly. For more than a decade, he showed people the way of love and peace. He walked the roads looking for the bodies of the dead to bring them home and fed the widows and orphans of those killed or “disappeared.” 

“The people treasure that he was, and is, one of them,” said Sister María Victoria, who worked for five years at the parish in Santiago. “Apla’s shared everything with the Tz’utujil. In spite of his different background, he embraced our culture and the poor and simple people. He ate with the people and drove out in the trucks to work the fields with them,” she added. “He shared everything with them.” 

In a letter dated September 1980 to the bishops of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Father Rother commented on the political and anti-Church climate in Guatemala, “The reality is that we are in danger. But we don’t know when or what form the government will use to further repress the Church. ... Given the situation, I am not ready to leave here just yet. There is a chance that the Govt. will back off. If I get a direct threat or am told to leave, then I will go. But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it. ... I don’t want to desert these people, and that is what will be said, even after all these years. There is still a lot of good that can be done under the circumstances.” 

In January 1981, Father Rother and a local priest left Guatemala under threat of death after witnessing the abduction of a parish catechist. Father Rother returned in time to celebrate Holy Week in April 1981, ignoring the pleas of those who urged him to consider his own safety. On July 12, in a statement read in all the nation’s parishes, the Guatemalan bishops denounced “a carefully studied plan” by the government “to intimidate the Church and silence its prophetic voice.” 

“Just before he returned to Guatemala for the last time, he told me how much he desired to come back. He knew the dangers that existed here at that time and was greatly concerned about the safety and security of the people,” said Oklahoma City Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius J. Beltran, then-bishop of Tulsa in 1981, in a 30th anniversary message to the community of Cerro de Oro, a mission church near Santiago. “Despite these threats and danger, he returned and resumed his great priestly ministry to you. … It is very clear that Padre Apla’s died for you and for the faith.”  

No greater love

A testament to his commitment to the Tz’utujil, Father Rother’s heart rests on a side altar of the big colonial church built by Franciscans in 1540. A large photo banner hanging on the wall above shows a vista of the lake with Father Rother celebrating Mass, along with the words proclaimed by Jesus: “No hay amor mas grande el que da la vida por sus amigos” (“There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”). 

Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley emphasized the importance of Father Rother’s life, death and witness for the Universal Church. 

“We need the witness of holy men and women who remind us that we are all called to holiness and that holy men and women come from ordinary places like Okarche, Okla. His devotion to his parishioners, even to the point of laying down his life, shows how all priests are called to make Christ present daily in their lives and ministry.” 

María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda, who writes from Oklahoma, traveled with the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to Guatemala in July for the 30th anniversary commemoration. She is the author of the award-winning biography of Fr. Stanley Rother, "The Shepherd Who Didn't Run" (OSV, 2015). Order here.