An American who was murdered by Guatemalan security forces in 1981 has been recognized as a martyr to the Catholic faith by Pope Francis. Rev. Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is thus designated as the first martyr born in the United States. The move by the Vatican, which was announced on December 2, is the first step towards the priest’s beatification and ultimate recognition of sainthood. The Congregation of the Causes of Saints had already recognized his martyrdom in a decision announced in 2015.
Father Stanley was born on March 27, 1935, on a family farm near Okarche, Oklahoma. Having been raised on a farm, he was adept at mechanical and agricultural tasks. His duties at a Catholic seminary in Texas took a toll on his studies and, after six years, he was released by his bishop to attend Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland. He was ordained by Bishop Victor Reed of Oklahoma City in 1963. For several years, he performed priestly and pastoral functions at various parishes in the diocese.
In 1968, at his own request and during the midst of a growing civil war in Guatemala, he was allowed to go to Central America as a missionary. Father Stanley was assigned to a village in Santiago de Atitlan, which is on the shores of a scenic volcanic lake and near the seat of what was once the chiefdom of the native T’zutujil people who he served.
Father Stanley worked with the local people to improve literacy and hosted a radio program in the native language to teach mathematics and other skills. He sought to improve the agricultural skills of his neighbors and also translated the New Testament into T’zutujil and celebrated liturgies in that native American language. He helped the people there build a small hospital, as well as a school and its first Catholic radio station. Beloved by the people, he was known as “Padre Francisco.”
The communist insurgency and the reaction on the part of government security forces became more violent as the years went on. Massacres and assassinations became a near-daily occurrence while civil liberties and basic human rights were routinely violated. Priests and other religious men and women were murdered, abducted, and tortured, as were many Guatemalans. Many parishes went without priests. The Guatemalan military conducted scorched earth campaigns, especially in the area bordering Mexico. Over the course of some twenty years, it is estimated that approximately 70,000 Guatemalans perished, mostly at the hands of the security forces.
Father Stanley was increasingly targeted by the military, as were those who cooperated with him. Latin American military forces have been traditionally hostile to the Catholic Church, even before the civil war, but the Church’s identification with the poor and oppressed made it especially hated in Guatemala, as it was in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Members of Father Stanley’s parish, as well as his deacons, were murdered and their bodies were thrown onto the steps of the church in Santiago. He received numerous death threats, which he knew were in earnest. Even though he returned to Oklahoma to rest, he returned to the village despite knowing that he was again risking his life because of his peaceful opposition to the Guatemalan military.
It was on the morning of July 28, 1981, that he was shot to death at the age of 46 in his rectory. The Guatemalan government blamed his death on unrest in the country supposedly unleashed by the Catholic Church despite the onerous poverty in which most of the country lived and their continued denial of basic human rights. On the same day Father Stanley died, Guatemalan troops killed thirteen people and wounded twenty-four others in Santiago.
The people of Santiago were devastated and terrified by the murder of their priest. While his body was returned for burial in Oklahoma, members of his family permitted his heart and some of his blood to be returned to the parish he served to be enshrined under the altar at the church. A plaque bears tribute to his sacrifice.
Catholics in Guatemala have regarded Father Stanley “Padre Francisco” or “A’plas” Rother as a martyr since his death, while his name has been included in a list of seventy-eight martyrs of the faith who died during the civil war that lasted thirty-six years. The names were submitted to Pope John Paul II for consideration in 1996.