Oklahoma Missionary Murdered in Guatemala

Sooner Catholic
(Page 1, August 2, 1981) 
Father Stanley Rother, 46, Oklahoma missionary to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, was shot to death in his rectory early Tuesday morning, July 28, 1981. The report of Father Rother's death was received in a telephone message from the chancery office of the Diocese of Solola. The parish of Santiago Atitlan is locted in the Solola Diocese. 

Father Aguirre, vicar general of Solola, told Father John Steichen, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, that nuns from Santiago Atitlan arrived in Solola with the news the morning of July 28.

The nuns said that intruders had murdered Father Rother in his rectory about 1 a.m. Father Aguirre sent a priest to Santiago Atitlan to confirm the news. The priest reported back that Father Rother was dead and that an autopsy was being performed, probably at the small American-operated hospital at Santiago Atitlan. 

Father Rother was accosted on the street in Guatemala City, in January of 1981, and was told he was on the death list and should leave the country immediately, he knew this was good advice. One of his own catechists had been kidnapped from the rectory porch on January 3. More than 20 of the parishioners of Santiago Atitlan had been abducted and murdered or were missing from the time Guatemalan troops occupied the town on Oct. 22, 1980, until January. Some 27,000 Tzutuhil Indians, are the major part of the parish membership at Santiago Atitlan. 

So he did not return to the mission at Santiago Atitlan. He went into hiding for two weeks until the American Embassy could prepare the proper papers not only for him but for his Guatemalan assistant whose life was in special danger. 

When Father Rother arrived at the airport in Oklahoma City, January 29, 1981, he had no luggage, only a flat briefcase. He went to stay with his parents in Okarche. He helped with the farming and did helpful things for his mother around the house. On the weekend he assisted with the Sunday Masses. Briefly he went to New York to see Mary Lou McInturff his sister-in-law. Jim Rother had died of leukemia in 1974 and Mary Lou had recently remarried. He went to Wichita to visit with the Precious Blood sisters and with Frankie Williams, a frequent volunteer at the mission. He had a portrait made for his parents. 

When all this was done, he asked Archbishop Salatka if he could return to Guatemala. "My people need me," he said, "I can't stay away from them any longer." So he went back. 

Father Rother returned to Guatemala and Santiago Atitlan shortly before Holy Week in April. He came home briefly in May for the ordination of his cousin. Father Don Wolf, but returned immediately to his mission parish. 

When he was in Oklahoma for the ordination, the Oklahoma missionary said that several hundred troops remained camped at the edge of Santiago Atitlan. He said that the troops claimed to be there to protect the town from left-wing guerrillas in nearby mountains. The brief entry of guerrillas into Santiago Atitlan about a year ago was the apparent occasion for the troops arrival in October. 

He brought his chalice and left it with his parents. They had given it to him. He visited with his close friends however briefly. There was a certain finality about his words. In retrospect, it seems that he was finishing his business. He was quietly preparing for death which might be imminent. That was his style.

Back in Guatemala, he was more careful than ever. Government forces were still stationed outside the mission village of Santiago Atitlan. He had been told his sermons were monitored. Paid informers lived in the village. 

Father Rother no longer slept in his bedroom on the second floor which had two windows opening on a balcony. He slept downstairs in a room which had a heavy door. At night he slept with his boots on. As Archbishop Salatka said, "Father Stanley Rother did not go back to Guatemala to die. He went back to help his people." If death came, he would face it, as he had told his friend, Father Donald Moore, with courage and dignity. 

Death did come. Assassins entered the rectory about 1 a.m., July 28, searched for him, and shot him twice in the head. 

Guatemalan bishops had recently publicly denounced “a carefully studied plan to intimidate the Church and silence its prophetic voice.” Their statement was read in 330 Guatemalan parishes at Sunday Masses on July 12. The bishops stated that the government has done nothing to investigate or prosecute the murders of nine priests and hundreds of catechists. 

Father Rother is thought to be the first American priest to be certainly murdered in Guatemala in recent years. The mission of Santiago Atitlan was given to the care of the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa in 1964. Father Rother was assigned there in 1968. He had mentioned privately that he intended to remain in mission work in Latin America for the remainder of his life. 

Among Father Rother's many accomplishments at Santiago Atitlan was the translation of the New Testament into Tzutuhil language and the regular celebration of the liturgy that same tongue. 

His mother and father, Gertrude and Franz Rother, received this word from Father Charles Beckman, their pastor, who came to tell them what had happened. They accepted the news with their accustomed faith. Gertrude said, "We wanted him if we could have him, but if we couldn't, we'd accept it." Franz said, "We are real proud of him. He felt his people needed him and he went back."