Heart of a Martyr
The Sooner Catholic
The Rev. Stanley Rother’s heart rested behind the church’s main altar in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. The successor to the slain priest, the Rev. Thomas McSherry, wanted to relocate the buried vital organ to a less obscure location during the 10th anniversary of Rother’s assassination.
McSherry unearthed a wooden box, deteriorated by a decade of moisture and turning to sawdust. The heart was enshrined inside a black plastic sheet.
“There was about a half-gallon jar with blood in it, and the metal part of the jar had rusted but the blood had not congealed,” said McSherry, now a priest at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Oklahoma City.
Another excavation eyewitness, the Rev. Greg Schaffer, asked other priests to observe the fresh blood.
“It seemed to me blood would coagulate in a container over 10 years,” said Schaffer, who still serves in the neighboring San Lucas Toliman mission in Guatemala.
A decade before, three unknown gunmen assassinated the 46-year-old Rother in the rectory on July 28, 1981. The Tzutujil (pronounced ZOO-too-heel), a traditional Mayan ethnic group, lobbied to keep their priest’s heart, blood and entrails to symbolize preservation of his spirit. Family and friends in Rother’s native Okarche lined to kiss the casket containing his remains.
Rother, who was on a death list but chose to remain with his people at Santiago Atitlan, knew the stakes. Guatemala was in the throes of a 36-year civil war between the right-wing government and left-wing guerillas. “Shaking hands with an Indian has become a political act,” he wrote.
An ordinary priest, Rother showed remarkable faith under extraordinary circumstances 25 years ago.
“I believe Stan did very common things uncommonly well,” McSherry said.
“He was a priest, a pastor, an electrician, a plumber and a linguist. He helped get the New Testament translated into (the) Tzutujil (language).”
And, if some of Rother’s Catholic colleagues have their way, he may become Oklahoma’s first saint.
Finding a home
How did this candidate for sainthood get from the wind-blown Central Oklahoma prairie to a Third World village?
When the 33-year-old Okarche native arrived at the Oklahoma mission at Santiago Atitlan in 1968, some of the veteran contingent prejudged the amiable Rother as not so bright and conservative — essentially a “Mass priest” — and some doubted he would be able to master Spanish enough to serve the mission effectively, according to the Rev. David Monahan, editor of “The Shepherd Cannot Run,” a collection of Rother’s Guatemalan letters.
Raised in a farming community, Rother joined the seminary in 1953. With little knowledge of Latin, he struggled academically, failing to pass his first year of theology, Monahan wrote in “The Shepherd Cannot Run.” Instead of shipping Rother home, Bishop Victor Reed arranged to send him to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and he was ordained May 25, 1963.
Sister Marita Rother, a member of the Adorers of Blood of Christ based in Wichita, Kan., remembers her brother as an A and B student who never rejected a requested favor. And she challenges the “Mass priest” assessment.
“He was recognized as being pretty handy and could do things … and didn’t want to turn anybody (down),” said the nun, who lives in Okarche. “I think it was really his downfall.”
Rother served five years in four Oklahoma parishes in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Durant. The young priest’s simplicity in directness may have appeared disarming to some, McSherry said, but his lack of materialistic sophistication found a home among an impoverished people accustomed to doing laundry on the shores of Lake Atitlan.
‘A paradise and a hellhole’
In the foreword of “The Shepherd Cannot Run,” the Lake Atitlan area is described as “a paradise and a hellhole” where the indigenous peasants subsist in malnourished misery next to what is considered one of the world’s most beautiful lakes. The dark blue water fills a large caldera formed some 84,000 years ago by a volcanic eruption.
English author Aldous Huxley wrote the lake “touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque,” and “it really is too much of a good thing.”
The lake’s south side, the Santiago Atitlan village, is home to roughly 30,000 Tzutujil Indians and hundreds of Ladinos, or Spanish-speaking Latin Americans who are westernized.
In 1963, a deal was made for the Catholic Church in Oklahoma to provide missionary assistance to the Santiago Atitlan people. The first Oklahoma contingent arrived in March 1964 and adopted a four-point plan that included agricultural development, health care, the liturgy and a catechetical program, Monahan said.
Most Tzutujil claimed to be Catholic but practiced religion ranging from orthodoxy to mixtures of idol worship with Christianity, Monahan said. Rother worked toward fostering an entirely native church. In 1980, the full-blooded Cakchiquel Indian Pedro Bocel arrived at the mission and other indigenous people headed up the catechetical program.
“In Guatemala, I think (Rother) found a great match where his gifts matched the needs of the people; many of those gifts were his physical skills,” said Minneapolis-based writer John Rosengren, who is penning a Rother biography. “But also the fact he was a farmer also helped this agrarian-based society.”
Rother committed his life to the Tzutujil, helping construct their first medical facilities and becoming proficient in their local dialect, Monahan said. He respected the Tzutujil customs and was named an honorary member of the Cofradia, a confraternity of men and women who carried religious and political traditions over centuries, Schaffer said. Rother taught the Tzutujil people they were worth much more than they were earning by giving their sweat to work for the rich people of Guatemala, said the Rev. Marvin Leven, who visited Rother in Guatemala.
The indigenous people called Rother “Padre A’plas” — which means “Francis” (a reference to Rother’s middle name due to an apparent absence of the word “Stanley” in Tzutujil) — and the villagers would swarm him when their pastor returned from trips, Leven said.
“I remember going back to the parish one night late after sundown,” said Leven, now retired and living in Okarche. “As the truck drove through the crowds from the city limits into the church — you don’t have streetlights — the people were everywhere. As we drove through it, I heard the word being called out from the people as we went through: ‘A’plas.’ That’s his name over and over again as we went through. That was the last time I was there. It was right before he died.”
‘Accepted on the side of the Indian’
While Guatemalan security forces murdered thousands during a bloody civil war, the American government was involved intimately with training and equipping the army, The Washington Post reported citing declassified U.S. intelligence documents. The foreign policy dilemma was complicated for the Reagan administration because Guatemala was victimized by a Cuban-sponsored insurgency but the government blatantly violated human rights, according to Time magazine.
The CIA retained close ties and U.S. officials were aware of the murders committed as President Romeo Lucas Garcia’s scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign eradicated Mayan villages in the Eighties, documents obtained by the nonprofit National Security Archive show.
“An anonymous hate sheet … made its debut a few Sundays ago,” Rother wrote circa 1979. “ … I was number 8. … The political situation here is really sad. … Guatemala is systematically doing away with all liberal or even moderates in government, the labor leaders and apparently there are lots of kidnappings that never get in the papers. There are something like 15 bodies that show up every day in the country and show signs of torture and then shot.
“I haven’t received any death threats as such, but if anything happens that is the way it is supposed to be.”
Rother described a leftist group arriving and having the sympathy of the Tzutujil people.
“I really believe I will be accepted on the side of the Indian,” Rother wrote July 9, 1980. “Now don’t be too preoccupied, nothing is going to happen. God will take care of His own, if we are in that group. Nothing will happen that isn’t supposed to. It is all part of His great plan.”
In correspondence two months later, Rother admitted some younger catechists were working with potential revolutionaries. The priest also quoted Lucas Garcia expressing a desire to expel all those catechizing the Guatemalan people.
Thinking ahead, Rother urged church officials to obtain a visa for his assistant Bocel, a Cakchiquel Indian priest from Guatemala. Considering the political turmoil and number of priests already assassinated in the country, Rother feared for Bocel’s life.
“I am not in as much danger as (Bocel) is, because I am a foreigner and I hope they will give me a chance of leaving if they want me out,” Rother wrote Sept. 22, 1980. “They haven’t killed an American priest yet. …
“But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it. Like the priest in the neighboring parish said to me, ‘I like martyrs, but just to read about them.’ I don’t want to desert these people.”
Pastoral before political
Rother did not have a political bone in his body, according to multiple friends, family members and colleagues.
“I don’t think he was capable,” said Schaffer, who currently serves in San Lucas Toliman on the east shore of Lake Atitlan. “That would have been of no interest at all to him. His interest would be the concerns and the needs of his people.”
Rosengren said Rother was pastoral before he was political, but his sympathies remained with the oppressed. He was mistakenly branded a communist because he lived in a mountainous area and the rebels were classified leftist, Leven said.
“By providing for (victims’) widows and orphans, (church members) were thought to be directly or indirectly supporting the guerillas,” McSherry said.
“When people disappeared, (Father Rother) would go looking for them.”
Former Deacon Gaspar Culan, the director of the Voice of Atitlan radio station used as a platform for human rights, was kidnapped and presumed dead in October 1980. By the fall of 1980, Rosengren said, army trucks rumbled into a section of the parish farm.
“The people are literally scared to death,” Rother wrote Nov. 4, 1980. “As a result, hundreds of people come to the Church to sleep for the night. …
“There are several hundred soldiers in the immediate area and they are camped partly on our farm. I have no intention to go ask them to move either.”
Rother, who could now distinguish the army trucks’ whining engines, recalled the story of two nuns in Nicaragua fleeing during firefights and later wishing they could return.
“At first signs of danger, the shepherd can’t run and leave the sheep (to) fend for themselves,” Rother wrote Nov. 16, 1980.
The circulation of Rother’s letter dated Jan. 5, 1981, describing the kidnapping of catechist Diego Quic “may have sealed his fate,” according to Time magazine. In the correspondence, Rother tells of three kidnappers wrestling the victim into a waiting car.
“They had his mouth covered, but I can still hear his muffled screams for help,” Rother wrote. “As I got back in the rectory I got a cramp in my back from the anger I felt that this friend was being taken off to be tortured for a day or two and then brutally murdered for wanting a better life and more justice for his pueblo.”
Less than a week after the kidnapping, the army murdered 17 civilians at a coffee plantation settlement, Monahan said. Rother learned Jan. 12, 1981, that he and Bocel were in grave danger. The neighboring Schaffer said he heard the imminent death threat and informed Rother.
Rother reluctantly agreed to flee Guatemala as long as Schaffer promised to inform him when it was safe to return.
“We were able to convince him and he would respect those of us who were urging him to please go home, at least for now,” Schaffer said. “And we would cover the parish — at least sacramentally — and he said, ‘But that’s not the same.’”
Rother and Bocel hid in Guatemala City for more than two weeks until obtaining special clearance. The duo, apparently protected by U.S. Embassy personnel, left Guatemala Jan. 28, 1981, and arrived in Oklahoma City the following day, Monahan said, with Rother carrying only a slim briefcase.
‘Another nail in the coffin’
Marita Rother knew her older brother would eventually return to Guatemala. The nun remembers visiting Okarche in February 1981 as Stanley just stared off into space.
“He just looked so beaten down,” his sister said. “When I left, I told somebody when I got back, ‘I almost wished I hadn’t seen him that way.’ He just looked so … almost lost.
“I know I did question him: ‘Why do you have to do this?’ And he said, ‘I have to do it.’”
During his time in Oklahoma, Rother spoke to the Catholic congregation of St. John the Baptist in Edmond in March of 1981. Leven, who was pastor of that parish at the time, did not hear Rother’s homily but described the incident in the 2001 documentary “No Greater Love: The Story of Father Stanley Rother.”
“He was apparently talking about … the fact that we are brainwashed by the propaganda that is put out by our government on certain things that are going on,” the retired Leven said. “And we know that today Central America is a foreign policy statement that doesn’t fit situations that are taking place there.
“(Rother) said, ‘Well, don’t believe all of those things our government said.’ Well, some of our parishioners objected to that very much.”
In particular, Leven said two parishioners wrote letters to the archbishop and the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, D.C.
“I do know that involved in this one (letter) that went to the Guatemalan Embassy was a condemnation of him not being a real American patriot to say things like that about our government and that certainly he wasn’t officially speaking for our country in being our ambassador to that particular mission in Guatemala,” Leven said. “So he was roundly condemned by this man.
“It was derogatory enough that it probably had something to do eventually with his demise. And (Rother) said that ‘I think maybe I talked too much when I was home this time. I think maybe I’m in trouble.’”
McSherry, who would follow Rother in Guatemala, said one incident did not lead to his predecessor’s death.
“There’s no one thing that got Stan killed,” McSherry said.
“This guy from Edmond, on its own, wouldn’t have done anything. But it was another straw, another nail in the coffin.”
Date with destiny
As Rother brooded in Oklahoma, Schaffer recalled his pledge to inform his colleague when the coast was clear. Schaffer said he received word that Rother’s name was off the death list.
Rother consulted with the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa sponsoring the Guatemalan mission. The Oklahoman reported Archbishop Charles Salatka “really tried” to encourage the priest to remain in Oklahoma.
Then-Tulsa Bishop Eusebius J. Beltran remembers talking with a restless Rother about his fate.
“I highly encouraged him to return because I really felt he belonged there,” said Beltran, who now serves as Oklahoma City’s archbishop.
Rother returned to Santiago Atitlan April 11, 1981, to celebrate Holy Week while Bocel remained in hiding, Rosengren said.
“I think that was where Stan needed to be, you know?” McSherry said. “He needed to be with his people at that time, and if he died, he died. It’s not unlike Jesus. Jesus goes to Jerusalem at the time of the feast, OK? So he’s got these thousands of people. Jesus could have walked away from Calvary, you know, if he got lost in the crowd. …
“But Jesus had to meet the destiny. He had to do what he had to do. That’s kind of what I think Rother had time to think about. He couldn’t live with himself if he couldn’t live with his people.”
‘Kill me here!’
Three assassins brandishing handguns climbed a rectory wall and entered the second-floor balcony shortly after midnight on July 28, 1981. The masked men moved quickly to Father Rother’s bedroom. The priest was gone. The intruders discovered Francisco Bocel, the 18-year-old brother of the absent Pedro Bocel, and threatened to kill the teen if he didn’t take them to Rother, according to Monahan.
“I found myself face to face with three hooded men, having the same height as Father Francis, and their accent in speaking Spanish, in my opinion, was not native to our region, and they were armed with firearms and knives,” Francisco Bocel said in a sworn statement published by The Sooner Catholic.
Leading them down the stairs to the first floor, Bocel knocked on a door where Rother had been sleeping.
“They wanted me to tell (Rother) there was a bomb on the second floor and that he should go look for it, but I didn’t want to tell him that so I said, ‘Father, they’re looking for you!’” Bocel told KFOR-TV. “And he came out and … fought against them.”
Bocel heard Rother cry, “Kill me here!” The eyewitness went upstairs and heard a struggle followed by two gunshots. Rother had witnessed corpses tortured after hours of interrogation and vowed he would never be taken alive.
One of the hooded men came to Bocel and told him to lock the door. Five minutes later, Bocel went downstairs to check on Rother.
“The men were no longer in the house, and Father (Rother) was on the floor lifeless,” Bocel said. “I saw blood splattered all over and broken objects.”
Nuns discovered Rother, resting in a pool of blood, shot in the left temple and left cheekbone, according to Time magazine and the Times-Post News Service. An autopsy reportedly revealed Rother sustained significant bruising to his testicles and ribs.
Sister Linda Wanner preserved Rother’s blood in a mason jar, Rosengren said. Wanner, an American nun who worked in San Lucas Toliman, discovered on a bookshelf a 9 mm slug that was turned over to U.S. Embassy officials.
“That was from a Smith & Wesson-type gun, and that was the kind of gun used by the death squads,” said Rosengren, author of the recent St. Anthony Messenger magazine article “Father Stan Rother: American Martyr in Guatemala.”
“The guerillas used a different kind of gun. The government wanted to blame it on the guerillas, saying they killed Rother.”
Back in Oklahoma, the pastor of Okarche’s Holy Trinity Church drove a few miles westward to deliver the news, Monahan said. He arrived to find the fallen priest’s father, Franz Rother, working under the tractor.
“Don’t tell me, I know what happened,” Franz Rother said.
‘It was like their God had died’
When word of Rother’s death circulated throughout Santiago Atitlan, more than a thousand gathered at the local church, The Sooner Catholic reported.
“When I saw the scene at the church with hundreds of people standing looking toward the church, it was like their God had died,” said Raymond Bailey, staff member of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. “It was a sight I will remember the rest of my life.”
Schaffer was the first outsider on the scene. Initially fearing the Tzutujil would violently revolt, Schaffer said he remembers the positive influence of Carmelite Sister Ana Maria Gonzalez singing resurrection hymns and calming the incensed crowd.
Schaffer, who said Mass that evening, recalls walking into the church prior to the arrival of Rother’s body.
“There was a little Tzutujil woman,” Schaffer said. “She was aged — she just a little mite of a thing — and she wore that special headdress that the women wear in special occasions, and she was literally all doubled up in the corner of the pew. So as I walked by I simply put my hand on her shoulder.
“She looked up through the tears; she was able to say (in a mix of Tzutujil and Spanish): ‘He was our priest. He spoke our language.’ And I think that moment, she summed up the whole attitude of the people.”
‘Justice has not been done yet’
Tzutujil parishioners went to a nearby mission and begged for Rother’s body to be buried in Guatemala, Leven told The Oklahoman.
The Tzutujil agreed to stop protesting the return of Rother’s body to Central Oklahoma if they could keep his heart, Monahan said. The symbolic organ was removed during an autopsy and buried — along with gauze that sopped up his blood — in the church sanctuary.
“A hole was dug into that so that the heart and the entrails and the blood could be kept there because the people wanted very much to keep Stan’s spirit with them,” Schaffer said.
The U.S. Embassy claimed his body, which was reportedly shipped back to Will Rogers World Airport, blessed by Salatka and taken to an El Reno funeral home. Both in Oklahoma and Guatemala, Masses of Christian Burial were celebrated.
In Oklahoma, 14,000 residents signed a petition urging President Reagan and his administration to exert pressure on the Guatemalan government to thoroughly investigate Rother’s murder. In Santiago Atitlan, three Tzutujil men were arrested by the Guatemalan government for murder and robbery, Monahan said.
Salatka doubted the guilt of the men when they were convicted, calling it “a miscarriage of justice” because the actual killers were not brought to trial, The Oklahoman reported.
The martyr’s mother, Gertrude Rother, called for the release of the innocent men.
“Justice has not been done yet,” she told The Oklahoman.
Who killed Rother?
Following the ouster of Lucas Garcia in March of 1982, a Guatemalan court overturned the murder conviction of the three accused men and officials admitted the Mayan-speaking suspects to be “scapegoats,” The Oklahoman reported. Then-U.S. Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., who helped expedite the review by the Guatemalan appellate court, called the death “a great tragedy” in a letter to Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
“We urge the State Department to conduct a thorough and complete investigation of the circumstances surrounding Father Rother’s death and hope that our government will spare no effort in determining the identity of his killers,” Boren wrote.
No group claimed responsibility for Rother’s assassination, but most everyone with knowledge of the murder assumed a right-wing death squad was responsible.
England’s Granada Television reported two of those “directly” connected with Rother’s murder were killed by the guerilla organization ORPA, the Organization of People in Arms, according to The Sooner Catholic.
Time magazine speculated that the Reagan administration’s “quiet diplomacy” approach would be jeopardized by Rother’s assassination. The State Department denounced “such senseless and wasteful violence.”
At the one-year anniversary of Rother’s death, the U.S. Embassy reportedly did not send a representative to the memorial Mass in Guatemala. A sole American reporter covered the event. No subsequent congressional fact-finding teams materialized to investigate the incident.
The investigation went nowhere.
“What could we as Americans do to pursue it?” Schaffer asked. “It’s so very, very difficult. Any attempts to pursue the investigation immediately got criticized as intrusion into Guatemala internal affairs. … The situation makes it extremely, extremely difficult even if our government people were making concerted efforts to pursue it.
“There are people now who know. Would they come forth? Probably not. Will somebody leave it in memoirs some place? Maybe. … Even with all of those horrible situations going on during those years, there are some very good people around who felt embarrassed about all of this. So someplace, somewhere down the line, somebody just to clear conscience is going to want to come up and say something. But it might be something put into memoirs. … I’d love to see something come out.”
Within a year of Rother’s death, then-Archbishop Salatka said chances appeared to be “good” for his canonization, which could appear “in our lifetimes, but maybe later,” The Oklahoman reported. The “political entanglements” surrounding Rother’s death would have to unravel before his name could be submitted for intense Vatican study.
“One of the difficulties would be of the canonization process because of the politically charged situation,” Schaffer said. “I’m sure there are still people who would’ve thought those 36 years were not civil war but were an attempt at communist takeover when they really were civil war. That was civil war; it was the poor rising up.”
The Associated Press reported Rother’s name was one of 78 candidates presented for sainthood to Pope John Paul II during a Guatemalan trip in 1996. All on the list, which included 71 lay people and seven priests, were nominated as martyrs.
“We’ve asked not only for Stan but also for the Guatemalan martyrs because there were so many,” Schaffer said. “We have an awful lot of high hope for it; we certainly think it’s something that should be done. And certainly Stan … not only for the manner of his death but for who he was while walking this earth — just an exceptional human being.”
The Vatican typically investigates after a candidate is submitted by a local bishop or conference of bishops.
“It’s not a stretch to say he was a saint because he died for his faith,” Rosengren said. “There were several reasons that brought him back to Guatemala when he knew his life was in danger, but his faith was primary and his desire (was) to serve, which came out of his faith, and his sense of belonging in Guatemala.”
At the very least, Rother is a martyr.
“For a martyr, you do not have to have a miracle — just because they gave their life for the faith is sufficient,” said Leven, describing a martyr’s path to canonization. “But there have been miracles.”
Rosengren and Leven said they know of multiple accounts of people praying for Rother’s intercession and the results being beyond explainable by regular circumstances or events.
“Monahan tells the story of a woman trying to dress Rother just after he died and rigor mortis started to set in, so his arm was stiff and she couldn’t get his shirt on and she prayed for him to relax and he did,” Rosengren said.
Both McSherry and Schaffer said the Tzutujil people won’t have to wait for any public proclamations of sainthood. Some Guatemalan parishioners already consider Rother canonized.
“The people certainly honor him as a saint,” Schaffer said.
“The Vatican has to work to catch up.”