Blessed Stanley Rother, the First American Martyr: Beautiful Priest, Beautiful Soul

Since this article was originally published, Father Rother was beatified, July 28 being established as his Feast-Day:

On Dec. 1, 2016, Pope Francis officially recognized Father Rother as a martyr for the faith. He is the first martyr from the United States and the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified. The Rite of Beatification was held on Sept. 23, 2017, in downtown Oklahoma City — an event attended by more than 20,000 people from around the world. (Source)

WHAT would prompt a simple holy parish priest in Oklahoma, a farm boy in his youth, to volunteer to work in a country so different from his own, ministering to a people whose language he could not speak nor understand? Neither could he study this language in advance — because it is spoken by very few native Mayas in a small area of Guatemala and had never been written down. This young priest, Father Stanley Francis Rother, answered the call sent out by Pope John XXIII in the early 1960’s for missionary priests to minister to this small and isolated flock of Tz’utujil Indians in the highlands of Guatemala during a very dangerous and difficult time for their homeland. His story is one of bravery, love and total dedication to his flock in the face of mounting danger to his people and himself.

Guatemala is a land unknown by most Norteamericanos (North Americans). It is the largest country of Central America, just south of Mexico with coasts on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its immediate southern neighbors in Central America are El Salvador and Honduras. Guatemala’s topography is very varied with high and active volcanoes as well as lowland jungles where one will find many Maya ruins dating from several centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. Father Rother’s people lived in the highlands near the Pacific coast on the shores of Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America. It is a stunningly beautiful area, home to Guatemala’s many coffee plantations. The Tz’utujil spoke one of twenty-two varieties of the Maya language. Why so many, you may wonder? It is because the individual groups of Mayas became separated by the rugged country with only primitive roads linking villages; so, over time, their languages developed separately.

In pre-Colombian times, Maya peoples inhabited what is now southern Mexico, much of Guatemala and the rest of Central America, in substantial numbers, probably about eight million. In modern Guatemala, there are many pure Maya, mostly living in non-urban areas. Ladinos are mixed race Spanish/Maya. European descendants mostly occupy the cities. There is also a group of people called the Garifuna, a mixture of Africans and Caribbean Indians who occupy the short Caribbean coastal areas. It is indeed a country of interesting racial and ethnic identities. Father Rother knew nothing about this country when he stepped forward to answer the Pope’s call. He would soon learn the difficulties facing him and his missionary brothers and sisters in this beautiful, but troubled, land.

The Farm Boy Who Became a Priest

Stanley Rother’s great-grandparents moved from the cold climate of Minnesota where they farmed among fellow German Catholics for many years. When the Oklahoma Territories opened up cheap farmland to non-Indians they bought land near the town of Okarche where Stanley and his siblings would be born and raised four generations later.

Stanley’s mother’s side of the family shares a similar story, except that they originally hailed from a German Catholic area of Illinois. Stanley’s parents married in 1933, during the bleak days following the Great Depression and the dust bowl era of Oklahoma. It was a hard time and a hard place to farm successfully. Nevertheless, being hard-working and of tough stock, they made a go of it. Their first child, Stanley Francis, was born in 1935. Two more sons and two daughters followed, the second-born daughter dying the day after her birth. The children grew up working on the farm and attending the local Catholic school, Holy Trinity. Theirs was a devout family, praying the daily Rosary and living the Faith as simple German-American farmers.

Stanley was hard-working and dedicated, both on the farm and at school. He was not the most brilliant of students, his teachers remember, but he tried hard and was always thought of as average, a “good boy” and cooperative. Their close-knit Catholic parish produced many religious vocations, both to the priesthood and the Sisters Adorers of the Blood of Christ. Stanley’s only sister became Sister Marita of this teaching order of nuns. It was a surprise to his family when he announced that he wanted to become a priest. The assumption was, like all the farm families of Okarche, that Stanley would be a farmer and a family man.

Stanley’s first seminary was Saint John’s in San Antonio, run by the Vincentian missionary priests. His first year was difficult, but he completed it successfully, though with mediocre grades, coming home that summer to help on the farm. He struggled through his second year at Saint John’s, but somehow he muddled through. It was the third year at Assumption, the major seminary, that he truly did dreadfully. Although the philosophy classes were taught in English, the textbooks were in Latin — a real stumbling block for him. It was the next year in his theology classes that proved his undoing at Assumption. He was told that he could not return because of his poor grades. In retrospect, some of Stanley’s supporters thought that the seminary took advantage of his good nature and his willingness to help out with the physical work around the place. He was the students’ barber, learned to bind books in the bindery, and in general, was willing to do any kind of “fixer-upper” work that was needed. He was very good at these tasks and enjoyed doing them, but they did disrupt his study time.

When his fifth grade teacher at Holy Trinity heard that he had flunked out of seminary, she wrote him to remind him of Saint John Marie Vianney, who also had a very hard time passing Latin. She told him to keep praying and use the Cure of Ars as his model, for now he is the patron saint of all priests. God would find a way, if He really wanted him to become a priest.

And find a way He did. His vocations director sent him to that seedbed of Catholicism, Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, a place so different from the rolling plains of his home state, that Stanley spent much of his early time there exploring the beautiful mountainous scenery of Saint Mary’s 12,000 acre campus. Here Stanley blossomed.  While never outstanding, his grades became solid. Ordination day came on May 25, 1963 at the Cathedral of Oklahoma City. Needless to say, his family and his bishop were overjoyed, as was the new priest himself, describing his feelings as “very excited.” Deo Gratias!

What a time to become a priest! Massive and revolutionary changes were taking place in the Church and in American society. Vatican Council II began and caused (and is still causing) enormous changes within the Church. In the United States, civil unrest led to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and President Kennedy. The Supreme Court outlawed prayer in public schools and racial unrest was everywhere.

Father Rother’s Early Priestly Life

Our newly-minted priest was assigned to the small parish of Saint William in Durant, Oklahoma as its assistant pastor. He would say Mass there, but his main work was to prepare a large tract of land on Lake Texoma that the diocese occupied at very low cost from the U. S Corps of Engineers with the provision that the land be cleared and made usable. The plan was to have a diocesan retreat center on the land. Father Stanley’s unique talents made him the perfect man for the job. For the first few years, Father was transferred several times to parishes within the diocese, all the while keeping as his main focus the preparation of the retreat center on the lake. When the site was completed in Fall of 1966, the diocese put it to good use. In fact, the buildings that the good Father Rother built are still in use by the Oklahoma City Archdiocese today.

Meanwhile, Back in Guatemala

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Guatemalan mission was in full swing at the small town of Santiago Atitlan, an Indian village on the shores of the beautiful lake at the foot of several volcanoes in the western highlands of the Central American country. There were four priests and five laymen at the mission when Father Rother arrived. The large church was built by the Spanish Franciscans in the 1540’s; there were several newer outbuildings. The occupants of the town, Tz’utujil Mayas, had not had priests in their midst since 1878 when all foreign priests were expelled from the country by the anti-clerical government. These people were among the poorest of the poor, physically and spiritually malnourished, whose language was known only by them, and they could neither read nor write. The Maya peoples of Guatemala were the “low class” of a stratified society who knew nothing but constant backbreaking work for their own subsistence. Most worked on the nearby coffee plantations for little pay, twenty-five to seventy cents a day. Half of their children died before the age of six. There were no unions, no such things as “workers’ rights.” Our missionaries were plunked down right in the middle of a seething civil war which would only become more and more violent as the days and years passed.

Bishop Reed of the Oklahoma Diocese appointed Father Stanley to his new post in the Guatemala highlands effective June 1968. In the Fall, Father Rother and veteran missionary Father Tom Stafford drove the 2,000 mile trek from Oklahoma to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala in Father Rother’s Ford Bronco. It was quite an adventure and took five days to complete. Father Rother would be the sixth priest at the mission. Little did he know as the newbie that his eventual total commitment to these people would bring him an early death.

The Guatemalan Civil War

The most tragic of all wars is the “Civil War” — that war in which citizens of a country fight against one another, usually for the purpose of replacing the existing government. The Guatemalan Civil War spanned thirty six years plus, beginning in 1960. It primarily consisted of government forces — sometimes left wing, sometimes right, sometimes democratically elected, sometimes with Communist leanings, sometimes with United States CIA interfering against the oppressed minorities, chiefly the indigenous Maya and the lower class Ladinos. There was much influence from the Communists of Cuba and other parts of Latin America on the side of the oppressed and interference of the United States “advisers” who mainly supported the government forces against perceived Communists. It was a very complex and seemingly unending series of events that resulted in the deaths of about 200,000 Guatemalans, the majority of whom were Maya. The tactic of “disappearing” people — meaning kidnapping them, usually at night, taking them away from their homes, then torturing and killing them — was common. This was used to keep the population in fear, fear of the police squads that would snatch people off the streets and from their homes. Sometimes they would show up dead, left in shallow graves with obvious signs of brutal torture. Many were never found. These fear tactics kept the population silent because one might never know who was an “informer” either to the government forces or to the insurgents.

What Happened at Sacuchum

Although the incidents that plagued the town of Sacuchum will horrify the reader, it must be kept in mind that these were not a one-time occurrence. The name of the town or village could be changed multiple times because such was the way of war for the poor indigenous Mayan peoples in their little individual settlements.

First, a little background: In the late 1960’s Guatemalan leftist guerrillas killed several U. S. officials. In 1970, the German ambassador to Guatemala was abducted in the streets of the capital, Guatemala City, forced to his knees and shot while pleading for his life. This incident was caught on camera. By 1980 bodies were appearing on the roadsides on a regular basis. Most believed that it was the guerrillas doing the killing. Violence was escalating all over the country.

Word got out, however, that the army had massacred an entire village on the premise that any Mayans who helped the insurgents in any way were collaborators and needed to be extinguished. In the tall volcanic peaks near the Pacific coast there were many villages. The vast coffee plantations were below. During the bad times of the war insurgents swarmed these peaks getting help in various ways from the Indians, mostly gifts of food so that they could keep themselves alive and on the move without being discovered by the army. In time, the government got wise to this and sent soldiers into the mountains to rid them of insurgents and those who supported them. The very uppermost village on the peak of San Marcos Volcano was Sacuchum de los Dolores — Sacuchum of the Sorrows. These villagers spoke another of the Mayan languages, Mam. Sacuchum was an important village supplying the rest of the hamlets of the mountain with agricultural products, lumber, and the local liquor, “cusha.” These items were traded at the local market town of San Pedro, also on the mountain.

On Friday, January 1, 1982, a battle raged in the woods and the people of Sacuchum heard the army bombing the mountainside. Soldiers by the hundreds invaded the town. Helicopters hovered over the center of Sacuchum. The soldiers ordered everyone out of the houses and into the center, dragging some by the hair and beating others as they ran, knocking them to the ground. They looted the meager belongings of the residents and took whatever they could find that seemed of value. In the melee, twenty of the women were raped. Then everyone was herded onto the soccer field. A hooded man had a list of names. Those whose names were on the list were taken by the soldiers and the rest were ordered back to their homes. No fires were allowed; so they were unable to cook and no one was to venture outside.

On Monday, the soldiers left town and the villagers of Sacuchum began looking for their relatives. They found a few at a time in shallow graves — their throats had been slit; some had been garroted with tight cords, and worst of all, their tongues had been cut out. Forty-four people had been killed without a shot being fired. During the next eight months, eight more men were abducted and murdered. The people lived in fear, and, because they were forbidden to do business with neighboring towns, there was much hunger. Fifty- two widows and and more than a hundred orphans were left behind. Worst of all, they could not report the incidents because they couldn’t leave Sacuchum.

Such was the viciousness of the soldiers that the Mayan population was reduced to petrified silence. Catholic priests were targeted for assassination because the government assumed they were on the side of the Mayans. Thirteen of them were murdered or “disappeared.” While a few may have actively worked against the government, it most certainly was NOT the case with Father Rother.

Padre Francisco”

In 1968, when Father Stanley arrived in Santiago Atitlan, the village where the Oklahoma mission was located, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the surroundings. Volcanoes reaching heights of eleven thousand feet surrounded the area and the deep lake was breathtaking. Also breathtaking, but in another way, was the absolute dire poverty of the inhabitants. Many of the adults had intestinal parasites from drinking water directly from the lake. They lived in the grinding poverty of the lowest class in all of Central America, depending on subsistence farming and occasional work on the nearby coffee plantations. Their language had never been written down; so Father Stanley had to first learn Spanish, which most spoke, at least to some degree. But, if these were to be “his people” he determined that he must learn to communicate with them in their native tongue. Remembering the difficulty he had with Latin in seminary, it is indeed remarkable that he picked up Tz’utujil relatively quickly. During his years with these simple people, he was able to write up a vocabulary and a prayer book for them in their own language. He so connected with them that they began to call him “Padre Francisco,” the Spanish version of his middle name.

The mission of the team was not merely to improve the economic situation for their people, but to bring them more fully into the life of the Church by good catechesis, holy liturgy, and preparing them to receive the Catholic sacraments of Baptism for their children, Confirmation for the adults and adolescents and Matrimony for the couples. In addition to improving the sacramental life, they established a radio station, “The Voice of Atitlan,” a Montessori style school for the children, a health clinic run by volunteer nurses and a farmers’ cooperative for land held in common by the residents. With the help of a fellow priest, Father Ramon Carlin, and the language school of the city of Antigua, a Tz’utujil alphabet was constructed. By the first anniversary of Padre Francisco’s arrival, the prayers of the Mass and the readings for the day’s liturgy had been translated into this difficult language — quite a big step in incorporating the Mayans into the life of the Church.

We will not be surprised that Padre Francisco reveled in building projects to make the rectory and the outbuildings more presentable and less primitive, given his expertise at building and “fixing up.” Eventually, a problem arose among the missionaries. Some wanted to show the Indians the “better” way of doing things by trying to “turn them into Americans.” Father Stanley and some others, however, thought that teaching them the important things while still retaining their way of dress, cooking, and life in general was more appropriate. One of their biggest accomplishments was building the “hospitalito” — “little hospital.” This gave work to almost two dozen of the Mayans and gave them a sense of accomplishment while allowing them to have a modicum of western medicine.

Padre Francisco so completely dedicated himself to serving his people that it became his practice each Sunday after Mass to have his dinner at the home of one of the families. The meals were always spartan; sometimes there were only weeds and a few vegetables. In this way, he earned their love and complete trust. Sometimes he also got very sick on their fare, but considered that a necessary evil.

During the following several years, the missionary team at Santiago Atitlan mission dwindled. Some were called back to the States for other duties; some of the priests left their calling; several of the lay volunteers returned home due to the worsening civil war. By 1975, Padre Francisco was the only priest left at the mission — responsible for serving twenty-five thousand parishioners! Of course, he had volunteer help, lay as well as several nuns, including his own sibling, Sister Marita, who would come during the summers when her school was on vacation. In the later years, a group of Carmelites — all of them Maya Indians, came to help Padre Francisco run the practical aspects of the mission.

Some of the amazing things that this wonderful priest did for his people were small in the eyes of the world, but meant a great deal to the simple people of the mission. Once he was approached by a couple with a tiny four-pound baby girl. The mother had given birth to twins and they could afford to keep only one of the babies. Father Stanley took the little one into his arms and cared for her as if she were his own, changing her diapers during the night and getting up to feed her formula at all hours. He even drove to the nearest place that he could buy liquid formula for fear that dry formula would be mixed with contaminated water. He named the baby Maria. As times became tougher because of political unrest, many orphans found their way to the mission, where Father would always find someone to take care of them. One of his former priest-colleagues who had left the priesthood traveled with his wife to visit the mission for the yearly celebration of the feast of Santiago. Father Stanley approached the couple about Baby Maria and they readily agreed to adopt the little girl as their own.

Father’s nightly habit after the evening meal was to visit the homes of the sick and dying. Often he was accompanied by one of the volunteers who witnessed his selfless devotion to this simple flock. In 1976, Guatemala was rocked by a terrifying earthquake. There was much death and destruction in the country, but Santiago Atitlan was for the most part spared. The little town became a center of care for the injured and homeless. Father Stanley performed heroic rescues of people trapped in valleys by climbing down the mountainsides and hauling the injured up the slopes to safety on his back. There was no question that his flock was as devoted to him as he was to them.

The Gathering Political Storm

There was unrest all over Latin America by the 1970’s. In Guatemala, at the end of May, 1978, there was a massacre of one hundred fifteen people in the northern part of the country. In June, a Guatemalan activist priest was submachined outside of Guatemala City. Some catechists were killed for trying to help a Maryknoll priest start a union among miners. The government and army took any attempt to help the underclasses as a direct assault against itself.

Although the storm was late coming to the Lake Atitlan region, it came rather quietly one June day in 1980 when members of the guerrilla group ORPA — Organization of the People at Arms — marched into Santiago and occupied the central square for a few hours. They spent a few hours criticizing the government on a number of topics. After they had their say, they peaceably left town. Seemingly a small occurrence, this was the match that ignited the government’s attention on Santiago Atitlan and the surrounding region. There was no doubt that the government considered the Catholic Church, its bishops and pastors of the region, complicit in the insurgency — as some of the activist priests and catechists truly were.

Almost immediately upon hearing of the visit of the ORPA group, the government sent a squad of soldiers on motorcycles. The soldiers began questioning the townspeople about the event, asking for names. It was almost time for the annual celebration of the patronal feast of Santiago Apostol on July 25, and the little Catholic parish was abuzz with excitement, for this was the time all the new babies were baptized, the youngsters received First Holy Communion and Confirmation and the newly promised couples were married. A happy time, indeed.

Strangers began to arrive in the little town. They asked many questions, so many that many of the townspeople quietly left town for safer quarters, some into the mountains, others to Guatemala City where they could blend in with big crowds. Father Stanley reinforced the doors and gates of the mission compound. Stories got around of priests fleeing the country for safety elsewhere and whole dioceses being shut down. Father Stanley and his associate priest were careful not to go out after dark because that is when the kidnappings and “disappearances” happened.

On October 21, 1980, army troops arrived just outside the town of Santiago, setting up camp on its perimeter and occupying part of the farm owned and run by the parish. They made their presence known throughout the town. Two days later, five men forced their way into the small hut of Gaspar Culan Yataz and his wife, just outside of town. Gaspar had been a seminarian and was now one of the catechists and the director of the radio station. The men grabbed Gaspar, pummeled him, and put a noose around his neck. Concepcion, Gaspar’s wife, grabbed their baby daughter and held her close while the men dragged her husband off into the darkness. Gaspar’s body was never found. Conception swore that he was never connected to the guerrillas. He was the first — but far from the last — resident of the town to be murdered.

As people began to disappear, one of their defenses against being kidnapped from their homes was that they began spending the night in the big church. This, plus the fact that Father Stanley could preach and speak to the Indians in their own language made him suspect to the soldiers who spoke only Spanish. Father Stanley was able to find a “safe house” in Guatemala City for some of those who had been threatened.

It is ironic that the priest who could speak the language of the Maya was the threatened one, but the Protestant Evangelicals who were there to take the people away from God’s Church handed out Bibles to the soldiers and patted them on the backs. Many Guatemalans joined the Evangelicals because they felt safer from the threat of the government. After all, they did not need “a church” to get to God, it was just “me and Jesus.” Since the Catholic Church had been identified with the insurrectionists, some of these misdirected people felt a measure of safety in leaving Her.

By December 2, Father Stanley had learned that there had been ten Tz’utujil men “disappeared” from the village. He began searching for their bodies and, even more dangerous, giving financial assistance to their families. He knew he was in danger, but as their shepherd, he could not flee. The eleventh, Diego Quic, a sacristan at the mission and dear friend of Father’s, was making his way back to the mission compound one evening. He was within fifteen feet of the building when a car drove up and snatched Diego in front of the very eyes of Father Stanley. His kidnappers stuffed a rag in his mouth and sped away. He left a young wife and two little sons. Father was devastated at not being able to help him as he heard his muffled screams for help.

The Duck Massacre

On January 7, 1981, an army truck on the road near Santiago hit an ORPA mine. Immediately, the soldiers began shooting at the coffee fields killing everybody they could see, even though they were innocent civilians going about their daily tasks. The United Nations report of the incident stated that eighteen defenseless civilians were arbitrarily executed and at least four of these were tortured. It became know as “la masacre del pato” or the “duck massacre” because the victims were killed as they carried out their everyday tasks such as hunting ducks on the lake.

The bloody bodies were carried into town and set down on the plaza of Santiago. As Padre Francisco walked across to the plaza, the crowd parted to allow him to see the bodies. Finally, one brave Indian woman pointed to a bloody corpse and said, “This is my husband.” The brave Padre walked over to the widow’s side to comfort her. Several other women did the same, and each time, her pastor stood at her side. Some of the women were too frightened to claim a body, for that would make them subject to suspicion. Padre Francisco ordered the bodies to be brought into the church and coffins to be made for them. He felt so powerless that he cried, “What can I do? What can I do?”

It was soon learned, not surprisingly, that Father Stanley and his assistant priest, Father Pedro Bocel, were on a death list. They immediately went to Guatemala City to accomplish the arduous task of acquiring a visa for Padre Bocel, a Guatemalan national. They “went underground” for sixteen days and were finally able to board a plane for Houston and safety on January 28, 1981. Before he left, ever the pastor, Father Stanley secured permission from the Guatemalan government to return.

Back in Oklahoma, to the great relief of his parents and siblings, Father saw friends and family and busied himself around the farm. His heart bled for “his people,” though, and he made it clear that he intended to return to them. The two bishops of Tulsa and Oklahoma City discouraged him, but did not forbid him, to return.

The Final Return

Father Stanley arrived in Guatemala City in April, 1981. He did not inform the sisters at  the mission that he was returning. In the capital, he touched base with a number of his contacts in the area and was informed that the size of the army on the outskirts of Santiago had doubled to six hundred men. The United States officer at the embassy in Guatemala City warned him not to return to Santiago; he knew he was a marked man.

Father returned to Santiago the day before Palm Sunday to the delight of his parishioners who greeted him with shouts of joy. The Carmelite sisters who cared for the mission were shocked and delighted to see him. All went well for Holy Week and Easter. In May, Father Stanley returned to Oklahoma for his cousin’s ordination. Central America was in an uproar with the recent assassination of Archbishop Romero and the American sisters in El Salvador. The eyes of the world were on that troubled area.

When he returned to Santiago, it was time to ready for the annual Santiago Apostol celebration. The day before the celebration, he received a definite warning that the government had made the decision to kill him. His friend Father Adan warned him to leave Santiago and the country for good. “Don’t worry. They won’t take me alive.” He had determined that when they came for him he would fight to the death. He would die in his beloved mission. He had obviously resigned himself to the inevitable.

The evening of July 27, 1981, he said his regular five P.M. Mass in the Church — his final one. After that, he and two of the sisters went to the market to prepare for supper. The usual crowd was in the church building for the night for safety. After supper the sisters and Father were chatting and reading in the “safe room” when Father Bocel reported three men pleading to hide in the rectory for the night. Reluctantly, Father Stanley let them in.

At one-thirty in the morning, July 28, 1981, three masked men broke into the rectory, found the dear priest and murdered him. Two shots to the head — one went into his jaw, the other went through his head leaving a large wound as it exited. There was a fierce struggle — as Father Stanley said he would fight for his life. He did so silently, without crying out for help, for he did not want any of his dear friends, the Carmelites, to be hurt. Was it the three that he let into the rectory “reluctantly?” Although three men eventually were arrested for the murder, they were released for lack of evidence.

Blood was everywhere. The nurse, Bertha Sanchez, and the Sisters gathered his blood into two containers, one containing only liquid blood, the other the gauze pads which they used to clean the blood from the floor and the walls. They carried his body into the little hospital where they cleaned him and dressed him in his priestly garments. A touching moment occurred when they were trying to straighten his arm, which had been raised to defend himself, and rigamortis began to set in, rendering the arm immovable. One of the sisters, prayed, “Padre, help us. Please help us.” And the arm relaxed.

The people who had sought safety in the church became very angry and were raising their voices in anguish. To prevent further carnage, one of the sisters led them in singing songs of Resurrection to calm them. His people were inconsolable, with one old woman crying loudly, “They killed my priest; they killed our priest!” A bittersweet side note: Father Stanley’s coffin had to be specially made to fit his long lean frame. The native people were so short that the standard size did not fit him.

Naturally, Father Stanley’s Tz’utujils wanted to keep him with them forever — to be buried in the church. His parents wanted to bury him in the family plot in Oklahoma. An agreement was reached which satisfied both: His heart would remain in the ancient Spanish church in Santiago Atitlan where it was buried along with the two vessels of blood in a place of honor behind the ornate altar. His body was flown home to lay in the windy plains of his native state.

Cause for Sainthood

An investigation was opened on October 5, 2007, into the life and death of our priest. It closed on July 20, 2010. Pope Benedict XVI declared him Servant of God on November 25, 2009, and Pope Francis declared that he died “in odium fidei” on December 1, 2016. His beatification took place at the cathedral in Oklahoma City on September 23, 2017. There is already one church named for him in Little Rock, Arkansas.


Sad to say, our own country was heavy-handed in the killings and political assassinations in Guatemala, always with the excuse that they were supporting anti-communists. Much of the training of the army death squads was done by CIA operatives and special units such as the Green Berets. The big money was always on the side of the coffee plantation owners and American companies such as the United Fruit Company. Help in the form of military advisers, equipment and personnel came also from the governments of Israel, Argentina and South Africa. The poor landless peasants, the majority of them Mayan Indians, were among the Guatemalans most negatively affected by the war. Of the approximately 200,000 dead, three-quarters were indigenous peoples. That does not count the thousands of orphans and widows who were without any means of support. In 1999, President Clinton apologized for the part that his country played in the awful Civil War, but the damage was done.

While most of the killing was done by the army in the name of the government, the insurrectionists did their part as well. Various rebel groups had their share of atrocities perpetrated upon government officials and landowners. It was a very dirty, ugly war which profited no one.

Today, Guatemala is more stable with a democratically elected government and a thriving tourist industry, ironically, based on interest in “seeing the natives” in their own villages. It still struggles economically and deals with high levels of poverty, not to mention a thriving drug trade. It is a beautiful and diverse land where an ancient Maya civilization thrived for centuries before the Europeans arrived and whose people have suffered greatly in recent years. Its soil in the little village of Santiago Atitlan is blessed with the loving heart of the beautiful “Padre Francisco” who loved this land and its people so much that he gave his life for them.


*Author’s note: Much of the biographical information in my article comes from “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Father Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma” by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, published by Our Sunday Visitor.

Background for the Guatemalan Civil War is based on “Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala” by Daniel Wilkinson, published by Duke University Press.