Sister Bernice Kita, an American Maryknoll missionary to the Lake Atitlán region of Guatemala, will be flying to Oklahoma City for the beatification of Father Stanley Rother, the first U.S.-born martyr, on Sept. 23.
Sister Bernice knew Father Rother personally, and Our Sunday Visitor recently talked with her about her memories of him and about the upcoming beatification.
Our Sunday Visitor: How did you meet Father Rother?
Sister Bernice Kita: I first met Father Rother in December 1976 when another sister and I were installed by Bishop Angelico Melotto of the Sololá diocese as administrators of the quasi-parish of San Antonio Palopó on the eastern shore of Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Father Stan’s parish was on the southern shore, and he came to our inauguration in his motorboat.
OSV: What was your first impression of him?
Sister Bernice: I was impressed with his good looks, of course. He was a quiet guy, and I got to know him slowly through our participation in the diocesan meetings we attended.
OSV: How did your path cross with that of Father Rother?
Sister Bernice: I didn’t work with him, but I knew he had invited a community of indigenous sisters to work in his parish. In addition to a Mexican superior, they were mostly young Mayan sisters on their first mission. My partner, Sister Lorraine Beinkafner, and I developed formation programs for our parish, which we shared with those sisters once or twice. But when we went there, Father Stan was never at home.
|Get to Know Sister Bernice
◗ Born in 1940 in Philadelphia
◗ Grandparents were Polish immigrants, and she attended a Polish Catholic parish school and later a diocesan Catholic girls’ high school. The family was steeped in Catholic doctrine and tradition.
◗ Began thinking about religious life at age 13, but didn’t act on her desire until she was in high school.
◗ Call to religious life was “a slow-growing feeling,” not triggered by anything in particular.
◗ First heard of Maryknoll through Catholic press; entered in September 1959, a year after high school.
◗ Went to college via Maryknoll
◗ Left for Guatemala in 1970; first assignment was in Guatemala City, in a parish social-service center.
◗ Went on to do missionary work at a parish in the indigenous highlands, specializing in programs for women’s development and formation of catechetical and parish leaders.
◗ Currently in San Andrés Sajcabajá, in the Diocese of Quiché, working in formation of Delegates of the Word and responding to various needs.
OSV: Can you share some of your memories of when you heard about his death?
Sister Bernice: I was very far away when I learned of his murder. I turned right around and went directly to Santiago Atitlán, arriving at the time of the offertory. I went home and the next day returned with my camera and tape recorder. I went to the church and saw a group of men way up at the altar. When I came close, I asked what was going on and was told they were burying his heart and his blood behind the altar.
I interviewed one of the men there and got a picture, along with a picture of the sisters I visited afterward, who wanted to send their thoughts and prayers to Stan’s family. I later transcribed and translated all of it and sent it to his parents.
OSV: What are some memories of him that stand out?
Sister Bernice: Stan was clearly loved by the people. I know he was generous and liked working the parish land himself. That was very different from almost all the other priests. He earned the respect of the rural folk by working with his hands.
This is one story I recall from himself: (Lorraine and I were driving to Santiago Atitlán to share a course with the sisters there and we met him on the road, leaving. We stopped to talk.) He said he was going to the jail in Sololá, where one of his close Santiago Atitlán co-workers was. He was taking him some items he needed, since they don’t give prisoners anything. The trip was a very long one, since he had to drive halfway around the lake and then up the mountain to Sololá, the town where the jail was.
I later learned from others that Stan had left his jeep in the hands of [the prisoner] while he himself was away. The man got drunk with some friends, piled everyone into the jeep and took it for a joyride right into the lake. Not only was the jeep ruined; somebody was killed, drowned, I guess. That Stan’s car was the cause of the death gave him a lot of legal trouble, apart from the damage. Did that driver merit Stan’s compassion, or his wrath? Compassion had the upper hand. I was so impressed!
OSV: Were you involved at all in the beatification process for Father Rother?
Sister Bernice: I was asked for information and sent my audio tape, pictures and the letter from my book.
OSV: Did you think that you would someday be attending a Mass beatifying him?
Sister Bernice: Bishop Melotto was out of the country at the time of the funeral. He celebrated the Mass of 40 days (after the funeral), and it was at that Mass in Santiago Atitlán that he said he believed that Father Stan would one day be declared a saint. How many priests would their bishops say that about?
I learned of the beatification by chance and decided I had to go. I felt I owed it to Stan. After all, he came to our celebration in 1976 when we were installed in San Antonio, and I would go to his celebration as he was beatified.
OSV: What do you think Father’s beatification will mean to the Church, and how will he help souls get to heaven?
Sister Bernice: I hope the beatification will bring more people to appreciate the life of missioners and maybe dedicate themselves to serving in some way themselves.
As for his helping people get to heaven, that’s between them and him. He would probably be self-deprecating and say that it was really Jesus doing that.
Mariann Hughes writes from Florida. For more on the beatification of Father Stanley Rother, go to www.osv.com.
On Sept. 23, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, will read the apostolic letter declaring Father Stanley Rother blessed at a Mass at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City. The Mass will be broadcast live on EWTN, and will begin at 10 a.m. The event has open seating, meaning no ticket is necessary.
Father Rother, an Oklahoma priest who served as a missionary to Guatemala, was shot to death in the mission rectory on July 28, 1981, by three intruders who were never caught. Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of Father Rother — making him the first martyr born in the United States and clearing the way for his beatification — on Dec. 2, 2016.