In 1962, Pope John XXIII asked the Church in the United States for help in Latin America. The Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa founded its mission at Santiago-Atitlan, Guatemala. The Church in Oklahoma that had only come off the official mission list in 1905 was now sending missionaries to a village where the church building was constructed well before the Mayflower touched the shore of North America.
To lead Oklahoma's mission work, Father Ramon Carlin, a rotund, imaginative priest with a Pied Piper ability to rally others to causes, was appointed by Bishop Reed. For the Santiago-Atitlan effort, Father Carlin envisioned a team effort - priests, nuns, laypeople - who would pool their talents for a comprehensive development of the Tzutuhil Indians and mixed blooded Ladinos people in the Guatemalan village.
In concept and from afar, the missionary work was romantic. In actual fact it was extraordinarily difficult. The Oklahoma team began to operate the mission in the spring of 1964. They found a place of stunning natural beauty populated by some of the most destitute people on earth. The missionaries divided their work into four areas- worship (to this end the Tzutuhil language was coaxed into written form for the first time), catechetics (with native, trained catechists and a radio school), health (a clinic was operated succeeded by a hospital) and agriculture (efforts were made at model farming).
Father Carlin would eventually leave the mission to continue his work with the written Tzutuhil language and went to work in the new linguistic institute in Antigua, Guatemala.
Taking up the mission after Father Carlin was Father Stanley Rother a native of Okarche, Oklahoma. Father Rother would finish the translation of the New Testament into Tzutuhil and won the hearts of the natives. During FatherRother's time the political situation became volatile. Years of war, civil unrest and military corruption made its way to the Oklahoma Mission. Father Rother was marked for death. He returned to Oklahoma twice during that time. Once, when he first learned he was marked for death and once briefly for the ordination of his cousin, Father Don Wolf. But Father Rother told his family and friends he had to return to Guatemala; "the shepherd cannot run, my people need me."
Father Rother retuned to Guatemala and was murdered in his rectory July 28, 1981. The first Oklahoman to die for the faith. It would be almost three years until another Oklahoma priest would once again take the helm at the Oklahoma Mission.
In May of 1984 the first pilgrimage trip was made back to the Mission by Archbishop Salatka, Bishop Beltran of Tulsa, Father Rother's parents and 20 others, including Oklahoma priests. That trip opened the heart of one of those priests and sent him on the path that would have him serve 17 years in Guatemala.
Father Thomas McSherry, a Tulsa native and priest for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City was on that mission trip. He felt called to serve the people of Guatemala but feared that many priests would want the position. He was shocked to find out he was the only priest to ask for the assignment. Over his tenure he built churches, a memorial to Father Rother, memorials to the victims of the civil war that raged for 36 years as well as homes for the widows. He married and baptized thousands and served there longer that any other Oklahoma priest. In July 2001 the Oklahoma mission was returned to the local diocese since it now had enough priests to run the mission.
Father McSherry, in his final letter from Guatemala, put the mission work into perspective when he wrote: "Missionaries, I think are like good teachers or mentors. They give their best and move on."