The story of Father Rother
Servant of God Father Stanley Francis Rother
Oklahoma Priest and Missionary
An Oklahoma farm boy, Father Stanley Francis Rother was born March 27, 1935, in Okarche, Oklahoma. Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, he served in the diocese’s mission in Guatemala for fourteen years. Seeking justice in the midst of a protracted civil war, Fr. Rother fought courageously for the well-being of his people in combating a culture that was excessively hostile to the Catholic Church.
The oldest of four children born to Franz and Gertrud Rother, Fr. Rother grew up in Okarche and attended Holy Trinity Church and School.
Being a normal child raised on a farm, he worked hard doing the required chores, attended school, played sports, was an altar server and enjoyed the activities associated with growing up in a small town.
While in high school he began to discern the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood. He was accepted as a seminarian and was sent to Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas.
The journey to ordination was not without its challenges. More practical than academic by nature, young Stanley struggled with Latin which at the time was critical due to the fact that the entire curriculum was being taught in that language. Due to his difficulties, he was asked to leave the seminary as his grades were inadequate.
He sought the counsel of Bishop Victor Reed. It was decided that Stanley would be allowed a second chance enrolling at Mount Saint Mary Seminary in Emmetsburg, Maryland. Through trials and tribulations he graduated from the Mount and was ordained a priest on May 25, 1963.
As an associate pastor, Fr. Rother served five years in Oklahoma. Heeding the call of Pope John XXXIII, he sought and received permission to join the staff at the Diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
Father Rother’s connection with the people of Santiago Atitlan was immediate. He served the native tribe of the Tzutuhil who are decedents of the Mayans. In order to serve his people, Fr. Rother had to speak Spanish and the Tzutuhil language. He not only learned both languages but his working knowledge of Tzutuhil enabled him to celebrate Mass in their language. To that point, Tzutuhil was not a written language until the Oklahoma mission team arrived and so despite his past issues with Latin what he accomplished was nothing short of remarkable.
As the years past, Fr. Rother tried to live a simpler life to be in communion with his people. His was surrounded by extreme poverty, as the Tzutuhil lived in one room huts, living off what they could grow on their small plots of land.
Fr. Rother ministered to his parishioners in their homes; eating with them, visiting the sick and aiding them with medical problems. He even put his farming skills to use by helping them in the fields, bringing in different crops, and building an irrigation system.
While he served in Guatemala, a civil war raged between the militarist government forces and the guerillas. The Catholic Church was caught in the middle due to its insistence on catechizing and educating the people. During this conflict hundreds of thousands of Catholics were killed.
For a time the violence was contained in the cities but it soon came to the highlands and Santiago Atitlan. Catechists began to disappear, people slept in the church for protection and death lists begin to circulate in the towns.
Eventually, Fr. Rother’s name appeared on the list. For his safety and that of his associate, Fr. Rother returned home to Oklahoma. Determined to give his life completely to his people, he stated that “the shepherd cannot run.” Returning to Santiago Atitlan (despite advice to the contrary), he continued the work of the mission.
Within days of his return, three men entered the rectory in the dead of night and executed Fr. Rother. His death shocked the Catholic world and many questions arose that have yet to be answered; such as why Fr. Rother and who was responsible.
The people of Santiago Atitlan mourned the loss of their leader and friend. His memory continues to stir the passion of the people he served with dignity and vigor. Because of the affection and veneration the people of Santiago Atitlan displayed for the priest, it was requested that Fr. Rother’s heart be kept in Guatemala where it resides today.
From the onset of his death, the people of Santiago Atitlan, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa have believed that Father Rother died for the faith. In 2007 this Cause for Canonization was opened.
In June of 2015 the Theological Commission at the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome voted to formally recognize Oklahoma’s Servant of God Father Stanley Rother a martyr. The determination of martyrdom is a critical step in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s Cause to have Fr. Rother beatified, the final stage before canonization as a saint.