Archbishop Coakley, family, friends remember 36th anniversary of Fr. Rother’s martyrdom

By Diane Clay
The Sooner Catholic

OKARCHE – When Mary Marfisee walked through the doors of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche on July 29 for a Mass commemorating the death of Father Stanley Rother, it had been 37 years since the former missionary had seen him at a clinic in Guatemala.

“I haven’t thought about it since the day he died. It was too hard. I miss him,” Marfisee said as her eyes glistened. “When I picked up the Mass program and saw the picture of Stan on the front with one of his pipes in his pocket, I lost it.”

Marfisee, who was in her early 20s, worked at the small hospital opened by Father Rother in Santiago Atitlan. She and other staff members spent considerable time with their pastor, often listening to the radio or helping him find a lost pipe. She said he always played the role of their big brother, urging her to find better men to date, protecting her from seeing traumatic injuries and continuously imploring her to go back to school to get her medical degree, which she did.

When she would ask how she was supposed to do all of these things, “He would say ‘Just start praying.’ And he started out with ‘Praise God first; don’t ask for things.’ I really can say that’s a gift I got from him, learning how to pray.”

Marfisee was one of nearly 400 parishioners, friends and family members to join Archbishop Coakley at the standing-room-only Mass in this small farming community northwest of Oklahoma City. The anniversary Mass is held each year to remember the sacrifice of Father Rother, who was killed July 28, 1981, in his rectory during Guatemala’s bloody civil war. 

“Year after year we have gathered to commemorate this heroic life, this man who gave his life, this shepherd who could not run. Next time we gather to celebrate, it likely will be celebrating his feast day,” Archbishop Coakley said in his homily.

“What kept him from running? He knew the danger. … He spent months praying, discerning, reflecting on what the Lord was asking of him. Ultimately, he knew where his treasure lay. He had already found that pearl of great price. He had found his life. He had found Jesus in the people. He knew that was where he was being called. Jesus was inviting him to come home.” 

In December, Pope Francis declared Father Rother a martyr for the faith, clearing the way for his beatification and making him the first U.S.-born martyr for the Catholic Church. On Sept. 23, in Oklahoma City, Father Rother will be the first U.S. priest to be beatified, the last step before sainthood. 

Diane Clay is editor of the Sooner Catholic.