Guatemala’s American Saint: The Death of Father Stanley Rother

“A shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” – Reverend Rother, in a letter from 1981.

Stanley Rother was born during a difficult time, in the midst of the Dust Bowl in 1935, to farmers in rural Oklahoma. The wind and soil made it impossible for farmers to earn a living wage. Being a Catholic German in an area where only 3% of the population was Catholic didn’t make things any easier for the Rother family, not to mention the significant Ku Klux Klan presence in Oklahoma that occasionally targeted Catholics, among many other groups.

Even in this environment, the family chose not to live in fear. When he wasn’t helping on the farm, a young Rother attended Holy Trinity Church and school. He was described as private and stoic, not unsurprising for a full-blooded German family. Rother honed a devotion in service to Christ that would carry him into priesthood and eventually to sainthood.

Father Stanley Rothers
Photo by Kunal Shinde on Unsplash

The journey to become a priest, however, was not easy for Rother who had difficulty mastering Latin in Seminary school. His real passion was for action and service in the name of Christ, and he developed a fondness for Hispanic culture.

In 1960, Pope John XXIII began deploying U.S parishes to Latin America. The mission was to assist the local Catholic church in the are as well as to help the Indigenous people who were descendants of the Mayan Civilization.

In 1968, Reverend Stanley Rother was sent to a poor region in southwestern Guatemala to serve mission at Santiago Atitlán. Rother was visiting the country during a time of upheaval, Guatemala was in the middle of a bloody conflict which would last 36 years and become known as the most brutal conflict in Latin American History.

Black and White Rothers
Rother’s red beard and soft smile were a familiar presence in the community, where he become a beloved figure. INSTAGRAM @catholicconnect

“A Paradise And A Hellhole”

In the foreword of “The Shepard Who Didn’t Run,” by María Ruiz Scaperlanda, she described the area as “a paradise and a hellhole.” It was a place where poverty met some of the most incredible natural scenery to ever exist. Malnourished indigenous peasants worked tirelessly for an unlivable income right beside what is still now considered to be one of the most incredible lakes in the world. The lake is guarded by two volcanos whose eruption 84,000 years ago created the gargantuan caldera with dark blue-green water.

The Lake
Renowned author Aldous Huxley described the lake as touching, “on the limit of permissibly picturesque,” and “it really is too much of a good thing.” INSTAGRAM @marioaja

The unrest began in 1954 after the United States’ CIA engaged in a coup d’etat, overthrowing Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. He was a backer of land reform to benefit the indigenous peasantry in Guatemala, at the cost of the US-based fruit corporations and other private interests. Six years after the coup, a rebellion would emerge in an attempt to retaliate against the military regime, kicking off the thirty-year war. In essence, it was a civil war that pit the rich and powerful against the poor.

According to Scaperlanda, Father Rother explained the conflict in a letter he wrote, “Guatemala is systematically doing away with all liberal or even moderates in government, the labor leaders and apparently there are lots of kidnappings that never get in the papers.”

Skirmishes and Guerilla-based warfare waged between the military and the leftist rebels, the military began targeting any and everyone who was seen as sympathetic to the rebellion including entire indigenous villages, nuns, and Catholic priests.

Anyone suspected of helping the impoverished people of Guatemala was considered a threat and put on a hit list

It wouldn’t be known until much later when war documents resurfaced that revealed just how much the U.S. was involved in the war. It turned out that the American government’s consistent support for the military regime allowed for devastaing human rights atrocities to take place.

War Photo
INSTAGRAM @daily_history_aesthetic

Father Rother was beloved among the indigenous community which generally supported the leftist rebellion. Rother’s language struggles did not stop him from helping the people of this new community he belonged to. He managed to learn the local language, Tz’utujil, and translated it into the New Testament for his congregation. His good deeds did not stop there, and he went on to teach his parishioners to read and write, helped on the local farms, founded a hospital, a radio station, and a school.

missing rebels
According to Scaperlanda, “massacres by the Guatemalan army; killings instigated by a number of different guerrilla groups, each with its own agenda; death squads operating with silent government approval. In the Sololá region, the death squad most active was called Mano Blanca—but there was nothing white and innocent about them.” INSTAGRAM @daily_history_aesthetic

Heart of a Martyr

Father Rother was very aware of the danger he was in if he stayed in Guatemala. At first, he heeded the warnings and returned to Oklahoma, but couldn’t stand the idea of leaving his parishioners so returned to Guatemala fully knowing it was only a matter of time until he was targeted.

“A shepherd cannot run from his flock,” Father Rother wrote in a letter to his brother, providing a glimmer of the stoic little boy who had grown into a brave and selfless clergyman.

At 1:30 a.m. on July 28, 1981, Father Rother was shot twice in the head after three masked men broke into the church rectory. He was just 46 years old.

Although the three men were never unmasked it was suspected that they were members of a paramilitary death squad.

In 2016, Pope Francis beatified Father Rother and made him the first U.S. born martyr to be dubbed by the Catholic Church. A shrine in Oklahoma was erected in his memory. The people of Guatemala whom Rother gave his life for have their own way of remembering him.

To become a saint, a miracle must be attributed to the person, some divine occurrence that happened posthumously that was miraculous enough to convince the Catholic Church that the person truly is one of God’s intermediary.

In the eyes of the indigenous, parishioners felt that their God had died. To preserve his spirit, the Tzutujil were given his heart to keep in Guatemala while the rest of his body was buried in his hometown of Oklahoma.

About four years after Rother’s death, a fellow priest from Oklahoma, Rev. Thomas McSherry, chose to take on Father Rother’s mission: to serve the same Mayan descendants that Rother’s cared for before his death.

In July of 1981, ten years after Rother’s death, McSherry removed Rother’s heart from its resting place. The organ was in a simple wooden box, wrapped in a black plastic sheet.

“There was about a half-gallon jar with blood in it, and the metal part of the jar had rusted but the blood had not congealed,” McSherry told the Oklahoma Gazette.

McSherry and Rev. Greg Schaffer were astonished by the blood appearing seemingly unchanged from the day they first placed the heart in the box ten years earlier.

Saint Stanley Rothers
INSTAGRAM @santoauxiliu

With a miracle having occurred to Father Rother, there was no need to question his sainthood.

The farmer turned clergyman had achieved the peak of divinity that a person could accomplish. Sainthood was the title he earned due to his unwavering love for his congregation – the Mayan descendants of Santiago Atitlan.

Allison Hinrichs

Content Editor Associate

Hailing from Minnesota, Allison is a vegetarian, meditating yogi who practices a conscious lifestyle. An adrenaline junkie at heart, she has gone rock climbing in Germany and surfing the waves in Mexico. She is a keen reader who loves to learn, as long as it’s not math. And she has hopes of discovering “the secrets of the universe” by exploring the globe, experiencing other cultures, and finding a variety of different perspectives.

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