Pope Francis has recognized the martyrdom of Father Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, making him the first martyr born in the United States.
The Vatican made the announcement Dec. 2. The recognition of his martyrdom clears the way for his beatification.
Father Rother, born March 27, 1935, on his family’s farm near Okarche, Oklahoma, was brutally murdered July 28, 1981, in a Guatemalan village where he ministered to the poor.
He went to Santiago Atitlan in 1968 on assignment from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. He helped the people there build a small hospital, school and its first Catholic radio station. He was beloved by the locals, who called him “Padre Francisco.”
Many priests and religious in Guatemala became targets during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war as government forces cracked down on leftist rebels supported by the rural poor.
The bodies of some of Father Rother’s deacons and parishioners were left in front of his church and soon he received numerous death threats over his opposition to the presence of the Guatemalan military in the area.
Regarding his martyrdom:
Within the last year of his life, Rother saw the radio station smashed and its director murdered. His catechists and parishioners would disappear and later be found dead, their bodies showing signs of having been beaten and tortured. Rother knew all this when he returned to Guatemala in May 1981.
In early 1981 Rother was warned that his name was on a death list and that he should leave Guatemala. He returned to Oklahoma in January 1981, but asked for permission to return. Rother went back to Santiago Atitlán in April. On the morning of July 28, gunmen broke into the rectory of his church and shot him twice in the head after a brief struggle. The killers forced a gardener to lead them to the bedroom of the “red-bearded Oklahoma-born missionary”. He was one of 10 priests murdered in Guatemala that year.
Rother’s body was flown back to Oklahoma City and was buried in his home town of Okarche, Oklahoma. At the request of his former Tzutuhil parishioners, his heart was removed and buried under the altar of the church where he had served.
Since Rother’s death, led by the Archbishop of Oklahoma City, Eusebius J. Beltran, the Catholics of Oklahoma and Guatemala consider him to be a martyr for the Catholic faith. The archdiocese has petitioned the Holy See to designate Rother as “fit for veneration” (a step on the path to sainthood). His case was accepted by Rome, and he was thereby granted the title of Servant of God.
In the room where Stanley Rother was murdered, the following poem resides.
For Padre A’plas from his people
Your days clasped to our days, one by one,
had chained you tight. You wouldn’t cut and run.
Bound by your affection, and our trust,
you had no other world but here with us.
Long days, hard days, tight-linked down the years,
nights sharing plans and other people’s tears.
Hosts lifted high against a rusting roof,
you fed us God.
How could we set you loose?
Torn from flesh, your shackled heart remains.
Compelled we sent your bones.
We kept the chain.
Father Stanley Rother, pray for us!