Blessed Stanley Rother’s Oklahoma roots

Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese who was murdered in 1981 in the Guatemalan village where he ministered, is shown baptizing a child in this undated photo. (CNS) 

Oklahoma’s eponymous state song rings out, “We know we belong to the land.” These words came to life in the person of Oklahoma’s prospect for sainthood, Blessed Stanley Rother. Born in the swirl of this land in a dust storm in 1935 and working that same land with his hands as a farmer, Father Rother honed these simple skills with the love of Christ in service that carried him to the priesthood and, eventually, to sainthood.

Western Oklahoma has a beauty all its own: blue skies with panoramic views of flat to rolling plains where the only houses in view are those of neighbors a mile or more away. It is a land of wheat farms and vegetable gardens where farmers also raise cattle, horses, chickens and pigs, not necessarily for sale on the market but mostly for their own use.

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In the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, the wind and soil were not your friends. Being German and Catholic in a predominantly Protestant Bible Belt state, where only 3 percent of the population was Catholic, was challenging. (Oklahoma also had a significant Ku Klux Klan presence who targeted Catholics, among others.)

Oklahoma’s eponymous state song rings out, “We know we belong to the land.” These words came to life in the person of Oklahoma’s prospect for sainthood, Blessed Stanley Rother.

In this environment, Stanley Rother grew up on a farm near Okarche, Okla., and attended Holy Trinity Church and school. As a boy, he kept his life to himself, as did the rest of his household. When he decided to go to the seminary, he did not know that his sister had already decided to enter the convent.

Stanley Rother entered Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Tex., but had difficulties with theology studies, which were taught in Latin. He was action- and service-oriented and developed a love for the Hispanic culture. A private conversation with his bishop resulted in a transfer to another seminary.

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He completed his studies at Mount Saint Mary’s in Maryland and went on to become a parish priest in Tulsa at Holy Family and St. Francis Xavier. There the bishop recognized Father Rother’s exceptional abilities for building and fixing things and assigned him to build a diocesan retreat center at Lake Texoma in southern Oklahoma. There he also became friends with numerous members of local Native American tribes, especially the Choctaw and Cherokee.

In 1960, when Pope John XXIII directed U.S. parishes to assist Catholics in Latin America, the Catholic Church in Oklahoma adopted a sister diocese in Guatemala as part of PAVLA (Papal Volunteers for Latin America). They would assist the Indigenous people there, who were descendants of the ancient Mayans.

Standing with the poor meant being as much of a target for government death squads as the rest of the Indigenous population.

How the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa paired up with the newly formed Diocese of Sololá in Guatemala seems rather random, although it could also be called providential.

Father Rother joined the mission in 1968, driving 2,000 miles from Oklahoma to get there.

Along with pastoral duties, there was a great deal of physical work to be done; Father Rother’s farming background and experience at Lake Texoma had prepared him for the challenge. Father Rother helped start a radio station with the help of another priest, the Rev. Tom Stafford, that was licensed in the name of the local tribe, the Tz’utujil. Its focus was on literacy. Father Rother also helped translate the New Testament into Tz’utujil.

Over the years, Father Rother helped to install an irrigation system, introduced wheat and soybean crops, discouraged chemical pesticides and brought in tractors, which he repaired himself. He worked side by side with some of his parishioners on the mission farm.

As a Catholic whose mother also grew up Catholic on a farm in western Oklahoma, I am proud to see that Father Rother’s Oklahoma roots helped shape the man, priest and saint he would become.

In the 1980s, Guatemala was in the throes of a civil war, which essentially pitted the rich and powerful against the poor. Anyone who stood with the poor was seen as a threat to the government. As detailed in The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run, by María Ruiz Scaperlanda, Father Rother wrote in a letter, “Guatemala is systematically doing away with all liberal[s] or even moderates in government, [as well as] the labor leaders and apparently there are lots of kidnappings that never get in the papers.”

Ms. Scaperlanda writes about “massacres by the Guatemalan army; killings instigated by a number of different guerrilla groups, each with its own agenda; death squads operating with silent government approval. In the Sololá region, the death squad most active was called Mano Blanca—but there was nothing white and innocent about them.”

Death lists became something common to talk about, as normal as discussing the standings of favorite sports teams. For Catholic catechists, priests and volunteers who worked with the Mayans, the question was not “if” but “when” they, too, would be listed.

Father Rother was warned of the dangers if he stayed in Guatemala, and at first he decided to return to Oklahoma. He went back to Guatemala, however, to be with his parishioners. Father Rother said to his brother Tom, “A shepherd cannot run from his flock.”

It was true, though: Standing with the poor also meant being as much of a target for government death squads as the rest of the Indigenous population. At 1:30 a.m., on July 28, 1981, three masked men broke into his rectory, found Father Rother, and shot him dead. He was 46.

On Dec. 1, 2016, Pope Francis beatified Father Rother, making him the first U.S.-born martyr to be beatified by the Catholic Church. Ground has been broken for a shrine in his honor in Oklahoma City. It will include a church to seat nearly 2,000 worshippers, a pilgrim center with a museum, an event hall, a range of classrooms and extensively landscaped grounds. The shrine will be a testament to what can happen when one trusts completely in God.

At the beatification ceremony in Oklahoma City in 2017, retired Archbishop Eusebius Beltran remarked that Father Rother’s life as a farmer “would mold him into the kind of man who would make great strides when he volunteered to go to Guatemala.” As a Catholic whose mother also grew up Catholic on a farm in western Oklahoma, I am proud to see that Father Rother’s Oklahoma roots helped shape the man, priest and saint he would become.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Maria Scaperlanda's name. 

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