Editor's Note: This event was canceled due to low registration numbers.
By Reagan Scott
(SNR) - On Saturday, Sept. 23 the first U.S.-born martyr, Servant of God Father Stanley Rother, will be beatified in Oklahoma City.
The Oklahoma native was killed in 1981 at the Oklahoma mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala where he had served for 13 years.
The beatification Mass will take place at 10 a.m. at the Cox Convention Center. The Most Rev. Paul Cokely, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, will concelebrate the Mass with the Prefect of the Congregation for Causes of Saints in Rome, Cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
In honor of the event, Father Matthew Eickhoff of St. Joseph Parish in Benkelman will lead a pilgrimage to the beatification Mass at the Cox Center in Oklahoma City as the group’s spiritual director.
As Father Eickhoff described it, a pilgrimage is a journey to a spiritual place or event which is a microcosm of the bigger pilgrimage of life to heaven.
“It is a way for Catholics to remind themselves that we are on a journey to heaven, and this pilgrimage will give us the chance to celebrate someone who has completed that journey successfully,” Father Eickhoff said.
The pilgrimage will begin the day before Father Rother’s beatification with Mass at the John XXIII Diocesan Center in Lincoln. After the Mass, Nicole Barrett, a cousin of Father Rother’s and member of St. John the Apostle Parish in Lincoln, will make a few remarks about Father Rother’s life before the group heads to Oklahoma.
Following his beatification, Father Rother will be known as Blessed, the last step before sainthood. As a martyr, the Vatican only needs to validate one miracle attributed to Father Rother for him to be named a saint.
Father Eickhoff said, “As Catholics, we have many traditions that make up our very rich heritage, and the process of canonization is something unfamiliar to most Catholics. This is a rare opportunity to witness part of the canonization process, and we may not ever have that opportunity again in the Midwest.”
Those interested in attending should read the Register and the diocesan website for sign-up information for the pilgrimage.
Barrett sees the upcoming beatification as a chance for her cousin’s story to be shared with more and more people.
“This means that his message is getting out; his story is resonating with people,” Barrett said.
Father Rother was born in 1935 in Okarche, Okla. Although the name on his birth certificate reads Stanley Francis, the parish priest would not baptize him unless his first name was the name of a saint, as was the practice then. So, he was baptized as Francis Stanley.
“The irony of that is,” Barrett said,” if Father Rother is eventually canonized, he will be the first Saint Stanley!”
Father Rother was the oldest child in his family and grew up helping on his family’s farm, learning skills that would one day help him to better serve his mission in Guatemala.
Father Rother later discerned that he was being called to be a priest but failed coursework, and was dismissed from Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas. He still believed he was being called to be a priest, and with the help of his bishop, was admitted to Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. where he later graduated and was ordained.
After serving five years as an associate pastor in Oklahoma, Father Rother volunteered to go to the diocesan mission in Guatemala to serve the Tz’utujil Indians, descendants of the Mayans.
In Guatemala, he served his parishioners not only by administering the sacraments but by also helping build an irrigation system, school and hospital, and sharing the benefits of sharecropping.
Father Rother learned to speak Spanish and Tz’utujil fluently, despite the fact that his difficulty with Latin led to his failing at Assumption Seminary.
With his ability to speak Tz’utujil and Spanish, he was able to celebrate Mass in both languages and oversaw the translation of the New Testament to Tz’utujil for his parishioners, a process begun by his predecessor. It was the first time the language had ever been written down.
“Father Rother loved these people and was well-loved by them,” Barrett said.
Unfortunately, Guatemala was not safe for Catholics at the time. As the country was embroiled in a civil war, Catholics were often the target of violence. Every day Father Rother would take walks to try to find the bodies of his parishioners who had been killed, to bring them back for proper burial. Father Rother also ensured that the widows and orphans of his parishioners were well cared for.
When he learned that his name was on a hit list, Father Rother was called back to Oklahoma by his bishop, but he was determined to go back to the mission for Holy Week. He was quoted saying, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”
On July 28, 1981, Father Rother was attacked in the rectory of his church. Determined not to be kidnapped, he fought his attackers to the end. He never screamed for help, so as not to put anyone else in danger. His killers were never found.
While his family brought his body back to the United States to be buried in Oklahoma, his heart remained in Guatemala with his parishioners, where it remains enshrined today.
Following Father Rother’s death, many conspiracy theories were put forth, some suggesting that he had secretly been working with the government. When he was officially declared a martyr by the Vatican in 2015, his family members felt a sense of relief.
“When the Vatican Council declared Father Rother a martyr, it was confirming that all of the accusations and conspiracy theories were false,” Barrett said.
While Barrett had heard about her martyr-cousin from her grandfather, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that she started learning more about him and eventually connected with his siblings, Tom Rother and Sister Marita.
Barrett has given talks on Father Rother’s life and will do more in the future, including one at her family reunion July 21.
“What he’s done has been so amazing,” Barrett said. “God called him and used him to do incredible work. I encourage people to learn more.”
To learn more about the life of Father Rother, copies of his biography, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run,” can be found at Gloria Deo.
Barrett will also give a presentation on Father Rother’s life Thursday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m. in the basement of the church at St. Teresa Parish, 36th and Randolph streets.