Book Review: Official Rother biography honors life, witness of first U.S. martyr

By J.E. Helm
The Sooner Catholic

A long-awaited narrative of the life and martyrdom of Servant of God Stanley Rother is available in María Ruiz Scaperlanda’s book, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Father Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma.”

Since the release of the well-written and highly readable biography, a Vatican commission has officially recognized the Oklahoma priest as a martyr and cleared the way for his beatification, which will be held Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City.

“His people in Santiago Atitlan don’t need an official declaration,” Scaperlanda points out in her conclusion. “They already affirm Padre A’plas as a saint, their saint, and they come to him daily asking for help and intercession — much as they did during the 13 years he served as their priest.”

Ch. 1 of the book describes “the quiet, clear night” of July 28, 1981, in the Guatemalan village when three men broke into the rectory of Saint James the Apostle and tried to kidnap Father Rother.

Father had once said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of being tortured” and betraying his beloved Tz’utujil natives. “They won’t take me alive,” he said.

He fought the three men “forcefully, so much so that skin was torn from his knuckles.” Finally, he was shot in the head at point-blank range and died. His body bore bruises from the assault.”

His body was returned to Okarche for burial, but his heart and some of his blood were enshrined at Saint James, symbolically remaining with the people he had served with such tender love.

The book quotes many people who had known Father Rother during his lifetime, a great deal coming from his sister, a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. Sister Marita Rother, A.S.C., provides the forward to the book in which she focuses on the inscription on his ordination card, “For myself, I am a Christian. For the sake of others, I am a priest.”

Sister Marita spent “two different summers, 1972 and 1975, working with Father Stan and three sisters from my religious community.”

The book’s preface is by Archbishop Coakley, who notes that Father Rother’s life is important because “we need attractive models of priestly holiness. We need witnesses to pastoral charity.”

The Epilogue of the book is authored by Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius Beltran, who describes Father Rother as a man of integrity, a dedicated missionary who loved God and his people.”

Referring to Father Rother’s work at the mission, Archbishop Beltran said, “the Church was truly alive under his pastorate.”

Two things strike the reader when reading through the pages of Scaperlanda’s book. One is how ordinary Father Rother was. Born on an Oklahoma farm in 1935, he was raised in a very loving and very Catholic family who frequently recited the rosary together after dinner. He was physically hardworking and mechanically inclined. “If it needed doing, he did it. If it was broken, he fixed it,” Scaperlanda explained.

Beyond the ordinariness of his life, the second thing that strikes the reader of Scaperlanda’s book is his truly awesome courage, his strength and the Christ-like aspects of his martyr’s death. He left Santiago Atitlan briefly in 1981 when he learned that his name was on a “death list” in Guatemala. At home in Oklahoma, he struggled with the question of returning to the mission, and Scaperlanda calls this period “his Garden of Gethsemane.”

At his funeral, the coffin was borne by the men of the mission. More than 2,000 people had “already been there for hours, praying, singing and crying together.” The mourners filed past the open coffin, and both men and women kissed the coffin. When the body was later taken to the airport to be flown to Oklahoma, great crowds packed the streets and reduced the procession’s movement to a snail’s pace.

In a Mass five weeks later, Bishop Angelico Melotto said at Saint James “The presence of Father Francisco’s blood will be an efficacious sign that will remind coming generations of the great apostolic soul of this priest of Christ. He loved the parish community of Santiago Atitlan with all his heart.”

J.E. Helm is a freelance writer for the Sooner Catholic.

“The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run” by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda
Available at Our Sunday Visitor, Amazon and at your local Catholic bookstore.