The shepherd who didn't run

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic


Blessed Stanley Rother
Blessed Stanley Rother

The St. John the Apostle pastor feels a special connection with the missionary priest who was beatified Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City. Both men lived in Guatemala and loved the people there. Fr. McKone continues to lead mission trips to the Central American country. Fr. Rother’s ministry ended with his July 28, 1981 murder.

“I think every priest, if they reflect on their vocation story, has models of priesthood that are inspiring. Fr. Rother is one of the most powerful ones,” Fr. McKone explained. “Look how much he gave to his people for the love of Christ! It was total dedication.”

Approximately 20,000 people — including 52 bishops and cardinals, 288 priests, and 137 deacons — crowded into the Cox Convention Center to hear Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation of Saints’ Causes, declare the diocesan priest from Oklahoma “blessed.” In December 2016, Pope Francis recognized the missionary as the first martyr born in the United States.

Witnessing the proclamation were Fr. Rother’s younger siblings, Tom Rother and Sister Marita Rother, ASC, who remembers her brother as a self-giving person who didn’t relish the limelight.

“He just wanted to be out there doing the work,” she told reporters before the ceremony. “Even if this [beatification] is the end of it, he’s a saint to the rest of us.”

Cardinal Amato told the spirit-filled arena of worshippers that Fr. Rother chose love over hate.  

“His martyrdom fills us with sadness but also gives the joy of admiring the kindness, generosity, and courage of a great man of faith,” he stated in his homily. “The 13 years spent as a missionary in Guatemala will always be remembered as the glorious epic of a martyr of Christ, an authentic, lighted torch of hope for the Church and the world.”

Students from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls and St. John Paul II University Parish in Denton traveled to Oklahoma City to participate in the Beatification Mass — an event traditionally held in Rome.

“We talked about Fr. Rother at the beginning of the semester and everyone was excited to attend this liturgy and be there when someone is made blessed,” said Jenny Lynn Pelzel, a St. John Paul II campus minister. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Fr. McKone joined Father Tim Thompson and Father Khoi Tran from the Diocese of Fort Worth in concelebrating the Mass with Cardinal Amato and other priests and bishops.

North Texans feel a special affinity for Fr. Rother, who grew up in a German-Catholic rural community not unlike Muenster or Lindsay.

“We feel a closeness,” Fr. McKone pointed out. “For a lot of us, martyrs are abstractions. They’re remote in history, culture, and language. Relating to them is difficult. But here is someone who was one of us. He was an ordinary man who became a martyr.”

Fr. Rother’s enormous courage and commitment to his parishioners in the poor mountain village of Santiago Atitlan cost him his life. Answering the call of Pope John XXIII, who wanted pastoral outreach to the Church in Central America, the young priest joined a team of clergy and laity at a mission established by what was then known as the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Blessed Stanley Rother
Blessed Stanley Rother

For the next 13 years of his life, “Padre Francisco,” as he was called by the native Tz’utujil Indians, worked alongside the villagers in the fields teaching them techniques he learned while growing up on the family farm in Okarche, Oklahoma. He also began the process of translating the New Testament into their native tongue.

“This priest, who flunked Latin in the seminary, learned the language of the indigenous people so they could hear the word of Christ in their own language,” said Pedro Moreno, a parishioner at St. Thomas the Apostle Church who works as director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. “This man was an evangelizer — a disciple — and he went out to make more disciples. And that irked people in important places back then.”

When the former farm boy wasn’t using his manual labor skills to repair the rectory floor or fix a truck, he helped build a 20-bed hospital to improve healthcare for the impoverished Indians. To learn more about the Tz’utujil, he would visit the home of a different parish family each week and share a simple meal with them. Unsanitary conditions in the dirt-floor dwellings often made him ill and required treatment for infectious hepatitis on one occasion.

“He also began a [Catholic] radio station,” Moreno added. “Through the radio station, he proclaimed the word of God beyond the parish borders.”

Fr. Rother lived in Guatemala during a 1971 to 1981 civil war that pitted the militarist government against guerrillas. The Catholic Church was caught in the middle of the conflict. 

“Missionaries were helping the indigenous Mayan Indians — the lowest of the low in society — by giving them a written language and forming co-ops so farmers could earn more money for their crops,” explained Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, a freelance journalist and author of the biography, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run. “When that happens in the middle of a civil war, the Church becomes a target. Everything was labeled subversive.”

Missions in the highlands of Guatemala, started with large numbers of lay people and clergy, dwindled to one or two priests. People began to disappear. Journalists, farmers, and teachers were dragged from their homes and murdered or kidnapped. Fr. Rother would scour the countryside retrieving the dead bodies of parishioners and then care for the widows and orphans left behind.

Eventually his name, and the name of his associate pastor, Father Pedro Bocel, appeared on a death list. Fr. Rother returned to Oklahoma in January but promised to spend Holy Week with his parishioners in Santiago Atitlan.

“He was here a couple of months but longed to go back,” said Scaperlanda, a Norman, Oklahoma resident who first heard about the missionary’s bravery from her children and their Catholic school projects. “[Fr. Rother] would say, ‘those are my people. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.’ He knew he was going back to danger and death.”

Although the pastor beefed up security by locking doors and changing his sleep habits, violence came to the Santiago Atitlan compound in the middle of the night. Three militants broke into the rectory, found the pastor in a corner utility room, and a struggle ensued. Protecting the Carmelite sisters, whose convent was across the courtyard, Fr. Rother never called out for help. Two gunshots, shattering the night’s stillness, ended the priest’s life.

Rattled from their sleep, the sisters ran to find Padre Francisco lying in a pool of blood. Spatters of his blood remain on the wall and floors today.

Dani Ayala, a 22-year-old education major at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, visited the room where Fr. Rother was martyred for the faith. She was part of an eight-member team of campus ministry students who took a mission trip to Guatemala in May.

“We heard Fr. Stanley’s story beforehand and stayed with Madre Ana Maria, the sister who was in the complex the night he was murdered. So it’s a wonderful experience to be here today,” said the college senior who attended the Beatification Mass with 17 other students and her mother, Lisa Ayala. “Seeing all these people celebrating the Eucharist and Fr. Stanley’s life is beautiful.”

Another Midwestern State University student, Jose Gonzalez, decided to learn Spanish after hearing about Fr. Rother’s troubles with language.

“If it wasn’t for his inspiration and courage to do what he did, I wouldn’t embrace my role as a young Hispanic person,” explained the 24-year-old psychology major who wants to become a counselor for Spanish-speaking families. “A lot of us are farmers and he was a farmer. I think that’s another reason people can relate to and embrace what he did.”

In his apostolic letter, Pope Francis set Fr. Rother’s feast day as July 28 — the anniversary of his death in 1981 and “the day of his heavenly birth.” Beatification is a declaration by the pope that someone lived a holy life and is a good example to follow. It’s the final step before sainthood.

“Pray to him. Ask him for his intercession and look at his model of service,” Fr. McKone urged. “I think that’s something every priest and every Catholic should do.”


Blessed Stanley Rother

The St. John the Apostle pastor feels a special connection with the missionary priest who was beatified Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City.