OKLAHOMA CITY – Stan Rother grew up in Okarche, a town whose name is derived from the first letters of Oklahoma, Arapaho and Cheyenne – honoring the “home of the red people” and the people who had settled in western Oklahoma as white settlement eroded their Great Plains lifestyle.
Born into a loving family, he grew up infused with grace, God, faith and farming. After youthful education at Holy Trinity Church and School, Stan surprised many in deciding to study for the priesthood.
His first stab at seminary did not go well, academically. He was told not to return after his worst semester.
He got another chance. Leaders of the Diocese of Oklahoma City (which then included Tulsa and all of eastern Oklahoma) sent him to study in the hills of Maryland. He did well enough. Along the way, he became known for practical skills in carpentry, masonry and care of plants.
He served at a handful of parishes in his home state, then was assigned to do missionary work in Guatemala. For awhile, he was part of a team of 12 American women and men, teaching Catholicism in a region that had not had a resident priest in 100 years. He was a quiet man, working alongside the Indians in the fields, applying well the skills learned on the family farm.
In the tumult and turmoil (and loss of priests) that characterized those years, eventually the Oklahoma-based staff declined to one – Rother. His people soon called Stan “Padre Apla’s,” the latter word equivalent in their native tongue to “Francis,” his given middle name in English.
Although always a difficult life due to poverty and isolation of the region where he worked in western Guatemala, Rother’s time at St. James the Apostle parish was quiet and methodical for awhile. That was prelude to intensified clashes between an authoritarian government and rebels.
In the late 1970s, as the long-simmering civil war intensified, armed rebels visited the central town square, seeking recruits for their battle with the government in Guatemala City. The military arrived in strength. Bloody clashes grew common, and, across the country and in the hills round-about the village, people began to disappear.
From time to time Stan Rother made it home, to see both his family, friends and brother priests like Marvin Leven, Tom Boyer and Don Wolf.
The pervasive Catholic faith and service of Rother’s family includes his closest sibling, Sister Marita Rother. Memories of her big brother enliven his story, including this sketch of moments from his life in Guatemala:
“‘When I was there, we did have time to talk in the evenings, about what he had done during the day. But we never had to say a whole lot to know how we felt.’ When she pictures her big brother in her mind today, Sister Marita said she loves seeing him standing on the porch, looking out over the village, and smoking his pipe. But her favorite image is of him ‘walking down the aisle out of church, because he’s touching every person as he comes out … and the kids are running to him, and he’s patting him or her on the head. … That was his home. Those were his people.’ ”
She was among those who, expressing their love in 1980 and 1981, said it might be best for Stan to leave Guatemala for good. Not indifferent to danger, he memorably argued that the shepherd can not run, and he did not.
After scores of murders, recurring kidnappings, and violent outbreaks, Rother traveled home to Okarche. During that quality time with family and friends, he seemed to say goodbye. He would have preferred to live, yet it seems clear he knew what was coming.
Evidence indicates the killers came on July 28, 1981, he fought with all his strength, likely in an effort to assure they would flee and not take time to harm others in the rectory. People in the town say there were three murderers.
Rev. Stanley Francis Rother’s death and life unfold with heart-felt detail and efficiency in ‘The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run” (Our Sunday Visitor Press, 256 pages, $19.95). Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda performs a wonderful service to all those interested in knowing more about the man whose status as a Christian martyr was ratified early this month by Pope Francis.
About that ratification -- many Americans, including many Catholics, do not understand canonization, by which an honored soul from the past is recognized formally as a saint.
Canonization is indeed a process, and it does not denigrate required steps to term it a formality (but not a “mere” formality). It seems prudent to spend time in discernment before officially declaring that a person now lives in Heaven, for eternity.
Still, in the Catholic tradition, sainthood is first claimed on earth in the hearts of people. When Pope John II died in 2005, massive crowds of people gathered at St. Peter’s Square in Italy, to chant “Santo Subito” -- “Sainthood Now.”
Outside his immediate family, the sanctity, manly dignity and courageous holiness of Father Rother was recognized in his life, and affirmed through the broken hearts and laments of those he had served as parish priest in the Village of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala. Illumined with faith, the Tz’utujil believed Padre Francisco was a saint – before the investigations of popes, bishops, commissions, The Oklahoman or The New York Times. A priest recalls that when Rother's body was placed in the church hours after his martyrdom, "a little old Indian woman" knelt near his body. She cried her heart out, calling out, "They killed our priest. He was my priest, our priest ... he spoke our language."
Five years after Rother’s martyrdom, Padre Clemente Peneleu said his first Mass at the church where his heart is buried. Peneleu was the first native man from that town to enter the priesthood. His vocation became apparent because of Rother’s example and encouragement. In the book, Peneleu recounts the story of how Rother hauled a gift typewriter up and over the San Pedro volcano to assure it got to the young lad in whom he discerned holy potential.
The man from Okarche became a role model for many, including that lad from Santiago Atitlan.
And now, his story circles the planet, as thousands he never knew try to understand his life.
A few personal notes follow -- not to detract from Scaperlanda’s work but to affirm the impact a tale told honestly can have on a reader.
I am a Roman Catholic who began a 12 years as an acolyte (altar server) at the age of six.
Scaperlanda’s tender biography brought a startling moment of recognition with her description of Bishop Victor J. Reed’s ordination of eleven priests, including Rother, at my home parish, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Oklahoma City.
Drawing from an unpublished work of the late Rev. David Monahan, Scaperlanda’s account of that ceremony on May 25, 1963, will help non-Catholic Christians and others to understand our beliefs about the priestly function in the holy faith. Not only that – as this reader studied it, there came a conviction (as Evangelicals might put it) that … I was there.
When my wife read the book, including brief reference to Rother’s time as a parish associate at St. Francis Xavier in Tulsa, she had a similar experience. Scaperlanda describes the days Rother spent away from various parochial postings in the mid-1960s because of his skill as a carpenter and laborer. Rother supervised construction of a Catholic summer camp at Lake Texoma in southern Oklahoma. She suddenly realized this was the young priest the children at St. Francis Xavier parish and school had loved to greet, touch and talk to, but who was often away from Tulsa because, she recalls, “he had another job, too.”
Consequential lives have impact far beyond their immediate surroundings. Monahan, Rother’s first biographer, was my high school principal. When I considered pursuing a doctorate in education, he and I used to discuss dreams of writing a history of Catholic education in Oklahoma, an unfinished project for which he was undoubtedly the best qualified adviser.
When we lived in the national capital area, our family visited Emmitsburg, Maryland, including Mount St. Mary Seminary, where a young seminarian from Oklahoma – Rother – got that second chance to complete his formal training in the path to priesthood. While there, he put those skilled hands to work in masonry repairing a grotto honoring the Mother of Jesus. That is a place where countless thousands (including my wife and our children) have prayed for solace, guidance and bravery to follow in the path of heroic missionaries and saints of old.
This quiet man and so-so scholar, Stanley Rother, is headed toward formal recognition of sainthood, in a ceremony of the Church that gave him a second chance.
Believers are called to sanctified living, modeled as best possible after the Shepherd of us all, Who searches through the dark days of life to find lost sheep, placing each into communion with the Maker of us all.
Reading this book, may every reader be moved to comprehend why the man soon to be called Saint Stanley Francis Rother served the One he considered the true Priest. He speaks our language, every day.
NOTE: For those with the inclination to know more about Stanley Francis Rother, the best place to begin is with Scaperlanda’s fine biography. It is available from the publisher, and at independent book stores like Edmond’s Best of Books and Oklahoma City’s Full Circle. The chain store Barnes & Noble and St. Thomas More Bookstore further north on May Avenue both carry it. After initial release and again in recent days, it’s been selling well, as it should.