Guatemalans Celebrate Beatification of First U.S.-Born Martyr

Guatemalans Celebrate Beatification of First U.S.-Born Martyr

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Above: Fr. Stanley Francis Rother became the first U.S.-born martyr named by the Catholic Church during his beatification in Sept. Rother was killed in 1981 during Guatemala's brutal civil war that claimed upwards of 200,000 lives. 

SANTIAGO ATITLÁN, Guatemala – While the first U.S.-born martyr was being beatified September 23 before an overflow crowd at Cox Stadium in Oklahoma City, townspeople here celebrated their beloved “Padre Apla’s” with an outpouring of prayer, song and splendid display commemorating his violent death and road to sainthood. They claim Fr. Stanley Francis Rother as their own.

“He is our example of love,” said Juan Ratzan Mendoza, who was married to his wife by Rother, along with sixty other couples, two days before the Oklahoma priest’s murder here by a government death squad.

At dawn on July 28, 1981, men went through the streets crying, “They killed our priest!” His parishioners had expected it. Maria Pablo Mendoza said she heard the church bells ringing and “wept and wept.”

This lakeside town was one of the hardest hit in violence that cost 200,000 lives during Guatemala’s 36-year war that ended in 1996. Most of the dead were unarmed indigenous Maya, like the Tz’tujil Maya who live here, cut down by a brutal army. “I don’t want to desert these people,” Rother wrote to the bishops of Tulsa and Oklahoma City in 1980. The government regarded the indigenous as allies of leftist guerrillas because they wanted the same kind of changes the guerrillas said they wanted.

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Credit Mary Jo McConahay

“The low wages that are paid, the very few who are excessively rich, the bad distribution of land – these are some of the reasons for the widespread discontent,” Rother wrote. “The Church seems to be the only force that is trying to do something [about] the situation.” Thirteen priests and hundreds of catechists were killed nationwide during the violence

On the eve of the beatification, upon a rise where a Maya temple once stood, parishioners filled one of the oldest churches in the Americas, St. James the Apostle. Having arrived by boat, the papal nuncio Archbishop Nicolas Henry Thevenin took almost an hour to walk the brief blocks from dock to church, regaled by children and townspeople, called Atitecos. The church went dark as women in traditional dress and indigo head shawls processed with candles.

The next day men put on their best clothing woven through with images of birds and animals, and women gathered in the churchyard to wind yards of woven ribbon around their heads in a traditional headdress worn on the most important occasions.

“Padre Apla’s was part of my vocation, of attention to the most needy,” said Fr. Manuel Yojcom, using the familiar name – Tz’utujil for Francis – by which Rother was known.

“This is a blessing for the poor, to see him recognized,” said Fr. John Vesey of Queens, New York. Vesey served in the parish in the late 1980s.

When Rother was killed the Catholics of Santiago begged to keep his heart, and the blood that spilled at his death, and Rother’s family agreed. The relics have been enclosed in an altar, kept from view, under Rother’s picture.

“He did not act superior, he was one of us,” said parish council president Gaspar Mendoza. On the day Rother was born in 1935 in Okarche, Oklahoma one of the worst storms of the Dust Bowl era was blowing through the family farmstead. He was physically strong, and “he could fix things,” Atitecos say, not only a priest but a mechanic, carpenter and farmer like them, pitching in where needed.

Rother learned to speak Spanish and the far more difficult Maya language of his parishioners, Tz’utuhil. He pursued a project to translate scripture into the ancient tongue. On one anniversary of his death, upon the coffin that represented his remains, parishioners placed a folder that held the Tz’utujil translation of the Holy Mass.

Rother took grave risks to make sure translations continued despite the violence, secretly moving a threatened translator, Juan Mendoza, to a safe house in Guatemala City, visiting him to bring food, and when possible, Mendoza’s wife and five children. A year after Rother was killed Mendoza was pulled from a bus and never seen again.

Rother was also open to traditionalists who practiced an older Maya form of Christianity, even though they are considered by some throwbacks, pagan. “He talked about equality of people, and equilibrium, that people should love each other, like the harmony of our Maya cosmovision," said Miguel Pablo Sicay, 42. “He said this was the word of God.”

Rother started a co-operative so dirt-poor peasants could experiment with cash crops, and brought in the first tractor most had seen. He began a weaving project that helped women earn cash. He started a hospital that still serves the community, helping build it with his own hands.

“His social works were important not because they were social but because as a pastor he realized it was difficult for people to be spiritually strong while they were physically damaged, hungry,” said Archbishop Thevenin, “without politics – only with his heart.”

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Credit Mary Jo McConahay

Rother’s martyrdom came most directly from his commitment to accompany local people in their darkest hour, instead of fleeing as other clergy in the country and even a bishop felt forced to do. “A shepherd does not leave his flock,” he said.

On January 7, 1981, an army truck hit a guerrilla mine and soldiers killed eighteen defenseless civilians in retribution. Only the bravest wives and mothers had the courage to defy the terror of the army and claim loved ones. When seven bodies remained Rother had coffins made and gave them a Christian burial. In early 1981, his name appeared on a death list but he continued to search for parishioners gone missing. He kept account of widows and children left behind although “helping these people could very easily be considered subversive by the local government,” he wrote. When word spread that the army was going to forcibly recruit local youth during the town’s saint’s day fiesta, he opened the church to five hundred young men who slept on the floor.

Rother never denied his precarious situation with the army, but often said he would not be taken alive. He did not want to risk divulging information under torture that could harm others. On July 28, 1981, three armed men in ski masks forced the rectory guardian to lead them to Rother’s room. Rother shouted, “Kill me here!” and fought so hard that the skin on his fists was torn bare and his blood leaped onto a wall. One of the attackers got off two shots, one to Rother’s face, the other to his left temple.

Gaspar Mendoza, who received his first Holy Communion from Rother, considered the priest’s last moments. “Maybe his body felt fear, but his spirit, no,” he said.

A longer version of the story appeared in the National Catholic Reporter. Mary Jo McConahay has reported from Central America for numerous publications. She is the author of "Maya Roads, One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest."