By Mindy Ragan Wood, Staff Writer – An ancient ritual of the Catholic Church was on display for the world to watch, drawing hearts full of faith together to honor a martyr who gave up his life for people of a foreign land.
Italian Cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B. of the Roman Catholic Church and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, addressed a crowd Saturday of about 12,000 people who came to the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City to celebrate the life of Father Stanley Rother.
Rother was an Okarche native who joined the priesthood in 1963
“He was a perfect disciple of Christ,” Amato said, “spreading peace and reconciliation among the people. Unfortunately, his recompense on this earth was persecution and a bloody death.”
Father Stanley Rother was beatified Saturday, September 23 making the Okarche native the first American born priest to be beatified and first U.S. martyr recognized by the Catholic Church.
People from across the globe gathered to hear the story of Father Rother and witnessed the honor of beatification bestowed upon a man who may eventually be canonized as a saint. Beatification is the last ritual before sainthood, but now Catholics all over the world can pray to “Blessed” Stanley Rother for one miracle that would elevate him as a saint.
Bishops and cardinals from Italy, South Africa, Guatemala, and more than a dozen states attended the ritual. At least 400 priests and deacons, in addition to members of religious order attended. Extended family members of Father Rother also attended, 180 from all over the nation.
The atmosphere was tinged with anticipation and joy as the arena filled up with the faithful.
“I am very happy, anxious, very blessed to be here,” Lupe Escobar from Oklahoma City said. She and her family arrived early and were seated together.
Leticia Ramos, also of Oklahoma City, said she could feel the spirituality of the occasion.
“You can feel the presence of Father Rother here,” she said.
Chanda Robinson from Norman had made pilgrimages to the home of Father Rother in Okarche over the years.
“I attended All Saints Catholic School in Norman. We had a house there dedicated to Father Rother. We go to Okarche on an annual basis to see his home, the family farm. So, it’s very exciting to be here for his beatification…here in Oklahoma City,” Robinson said.
People from all over the world and the United States attended the beatification, including a mother and daughter from Denton, Texas.
“I’m excited to share this experience with my daughter,” Jessica Long said. “She is excited to be here. It was a long wait outside, but once we got in and sat down, she was very excited and glad to be here.”
Volunteers from parishes all over the state assisted with parking, set up, and seating. Chris Landolt from St. Monica Catholic Church in Edmond was among the busy workers in blue shirts.
“It’s a very spiritual feeling,” Landolt said. “To have a visible sign of our faith.”
At 9:30 a.m. people were being asked to stop saving seats and move to the middle of their row to make room for others. By 9:50, they were turning people away, having already filled up the overflow. At precisely 9:59, the massive room that had been a dull roar of excitement fell silent.
A premier of the documentary, “An Ordained Martyr” (Lampstand Media) began just after 10 a.m. and told the story of Father Rother’s life. Letters and other writings were used in the documentary in addition to interviews with Rother’s immediate family, clergy, and those who remembered him in Guatemala.
Stanley Francis Rother was born on March 27, 1935 in Okarche, Oklahoma where his family operated a farm. During his high school years, Rother believed his calling in life was to become a priest. He entered a seminary in Texas, but he struggled to learn Latin and therefore his grades suffered to the point he was asked to leave.
However, Rother did not give up. Bishop Victor Reed found another seminary for him to attend at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was ordained on May 25, 1963 and served as associate pastor in Oklahoma. Five years later, he volunteered to go to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala as a missionary and priest.
Although he had struggled to learn Latin, he mastered the dialect of the Guatemalan people readily and even preached in their language. He helped translate the New Testament into Tz’utujil so the people of Santiago, Guatemala could read the Bible for themselves.
His work with the poor and uneducated found him in the middle of civil unrest. The Guatemalan people wanted civil rights including better pay and work conditions. Most families at that time were making $50 a year. The Guatemalan government’s response to the fight for civil rights was to label any resistance as communist. The military moved into villages to identify dissenters and soon people were being killed, including priests. By 1980, 12 years after Rother began his work, he wrote to his Archbishop that four priests had been killed. The number of priests murdered grew to six with two more who would be kidnapped. Thousands of Christians were murdered.
The documentary referred to a letter Rother had written regarding the widespread persecution of churches in Guatemala.
“At one point in the church, there were about 60 people lined up and they killed every fourth person,” Rother wrote. “The country here is in rebellion and they have taken it out on the church.”
It was in this cauldron of political intimidation and violence that Father Rother struggled to continue his work. By 1981, Rother had helped the people establish farms. Using his knowledge of farming in Okarche, he developed co-ops to increase profits. He had helped start a radio station for education and health programs, a school, and continued to help the sick obtain medicine and care. His assistance to the poor was counted as being a communist sympathizer.
The shadow of unchecked political and military power was always upon Rother and his people. Parishioners who were mislabeled as communists sought shelter in the church where he allowed them to sleep to save their lives. When members of the village were missing and discovered dead, their families feared retaliation. They were too afraid to recover their deceased loved ones.
Father Rother brought home the murdered parishioners for a proper burial.
Twelve years after his work started, Rother returned to the United States after he learned his name was on a death list. However, it was not long before he knew he had to return. The documentary quoted letters Rother sent to his superiors, asking to go back.
“The good shepherd cannot abandon his sheep at the first sign of danger,” he wrote.
In the documentary interviews, his brother Thomas Rother remembered that Stanley kept his gaze out the west door of the house.
“He stood there just staring. He wanted to go back so bad,” Thomas Rother remembered.
The Most Reverend Eusebius J. Beltran is a former archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. In the documentary, he recalled Rother’s determination to return.
“A shepherd should not run and that’s what he was telling me and I could hear him, I could see him, and I agreed, ‘yes you can go back.’ I did not think I was sending him to death,” Eusebius recalled.
Father Rother returned after much prayer and with the blessing of the church. He had promised his people he would be back for Holy Week in April 1981. By July, Rother was sleeping in a different room, hoping to avoid being kidnapped.
Despite his precautions, Rother was prepared to die.
“If it is my destiny to give my life here, then so be it,” he wrote before his death.
The night before his murder, he celebrated Mass and a dinner with his flock. Hours later in the middle of the night on July 28, 1981 three gunmen entered the rectory. At gunpoint, they forced a boy to take them to Father Rother. He fought back, but was shot twice in the head inside the church. His blood spilled onto the floor, but sisters collected the blood and later it was entombed with his heart at the church.
Following the documentary, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley made the proclamation of Rother’s title as “Blessed” and the Mass began, performed by several clergymen from around the world and included Rother’s younger sister, Sister Marita Rother. Choirs performed hymns as the congregation sang with them. At the unveiling of Rother’s portrait on a banner from behind red velvet curtain, the arena erupted with cheers, applause, and tears.
Cardinal Amato spoke about Blessed Father Stanley Rother’s life as a missionary and martyr.
“He was tireless in helping, tireless in his labor…great was his heart for the needy and marginalized…great was the love the young missionary showed toward the population.
Amato referred to the persecution that led up to Rother’s death.
“This was a real and true time of persecution for the church. Asking the Lord for the strength to face it without fear…he continued to preach the gospel of love and no violence…in the face of murder and violence, Father Rother felt helpless because he had not succeeded in changing the situation with his words of reconciliation and forgiveness,” Amato said.
He referred to the passage in John 12:24 which many Christians believe refers to martyrs and the fruit of spiritual renewal and conversions that result. The mission in Santiago was established in 1547, but it was not until after Rother’s death in 1981 that priests began to be ordained from that fellowship. Nine have been ordained and two are in seminary.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat,” Amato read the passage. “But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
Amato closed with a challenge to those who attended to follow Rother’s example and a prayer for blessing.
“His martyrdom fills us with sadness, but also gives us the joy…of the generosity, love, and courage of a great man of faith,” he said. “He didn’t hate, but loved. He didn’t destroy, but built up. This is the invitation…extends to us today to be like him as witnesses and missionaries of the Gospel. Society needs this source of good. Thank you, Father Rother. Bless us from Heaven…Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us.”
After the ceremony, a packet with Father Rother prayer cards, a coin, and other materials were offered to one person in every family. Their feelings of joy were evident as they smiled and discussed their feelings with others.
Several parishioners from a church in Guatemala City attended.
“It was beautiful,” Juan Vasquez said. “It was special. We know where he comes from, we know what happened. It is sad because of the way he died, but at the same time we are very happy.”
Goldie Walther and Shirley Ramage of Mustang attended the beatification.
“We just feel so blessed we could be here to experience it,” Ramage said.
“It’s a once in a lifetime event,” Walther said.
Following the ceremony, a Mass was held at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche where extended family members gathered for a reunion.
Before the Mass began, Sister Marita Rother visited with a crowd that had gathered around her. She revealed the thoughts and feelings she had experienced during the beatification ceremony as a sorrow that was eclipsed by joy.
“The documentary…the gunshots, brought it all back,” she said referring to the scene that discusses his murder. “But I am very grateful that he had the courage to do what he did. I am very proud of him.”
The beatification will leave a lasting impression on the state. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City has begun a master plan to construct a new church with a shrine and pilgrimage site inspired by the life of Stanley Rother. The church will seat 2,000 for Mass. The planned site would be visible from Interstate 35, Shields Boulevard, and S.E. 89th Street.
For more information on Stanley Rother, visit stanleyrother.org. Subscribe to the Yukon Progress for $39 a year. Call (405) 373-1616 for details.