KARCHE — Courage can sometimes emerge from the unlikeliest of places.
Catholic Priest Stanley Rother was an ordinary man at first glance – a tall, slender, quiet son of an Okarche farmer. A neatly trimmed beard framed his jutting jaw line, which often got lost behind a simple smile or the billowing tobacco smoke from one of his favorite pipes.
As a child, he gave no hint of greatness.
In the seminary, he once failed to achieve passing grades.
As a young priest, he served with little notice through his first five years while bouncing among four Oklahoma parishes.
And, yet, the story of the Rev. Rother's life – and death – is nothing short of biblical. By the time Rother's destiny was finally revealed, one thing had become abundantly clear. His extraordinary courage sprang from some unseen reservoir of love and faith.
This revelation – blessed in the eyes of his followers – came as Rother's lifeless body laid in a puddle of his own blood …
Rother stared despondently out the windows of his family's white, two-story farmhouse in the spring of 1981. He stared with little movement, as if mesmerized by the fields he plowed continuously as a youngster. Although it is doubtful he noticed the fields at all, or the picturesque shade trees, or even the plush, green lawn that encircled the old homestead.
He likely saw only Guatemala – his home as a missionary the previous 12 ½ years.
Frustrated, Rother found himself back home in Okarche, as if in exile like some political fugitive. Bloodshed had swept across Guatemala, claiming the lives of nine priests and hundreds of catechists. Lay people were being intimidated, abducted and murdered.
Somewhere in the madness of this escalating civil war, Rother's name reportedly surfaced on a rightwing hit list. Friends and colleagues pleaded with Rother to flee. He finally relented in January 1981, only to go missing for weeks as he moved from one safe house to another. He finally resurfaced safely in Oklahoma.
"Looking back now, I wish I had never seen him then in that way," said Marita Rother, who at 73 is Stanley's only surviving sister and a nun of 54 years. "He was so distant … He just sat in the house and looked out."
Rother first called Guatemala home in 1968 when he stepped into mission life at an ancient Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan, a village of 40,000 souls cradled in the country's western highlands. Of that population, 30,000 were Tzutuhil Indians – descendants of the Mayans.
The 33-year-old Oklahoman found the Tzutuhil people as gracious and as loving as they were impoverished. Yet, Rother recognized how they carried themselves with dignity, clinging to their colorful ancestral dress and culture while sometimes starving.
The Rev. Stanley Rother celebrated his first Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche.Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman
Tzutuhil Indian boys pose for a picture in 1986. The Oklahoman Archives.
The blur of beauty and poverty of the Tzutuhil's native land toyed with his senses. Life centered on the dark, blue waters of Lake Atitlan, which sat in the shadows of majestic, volcanic peaks. Rother, like many before him, found the region to be paradise in Hell.
Santiago Atitlan's scenery was breathtaking, but its daily life could also be deadly.
Locals were plagued by a miserable poverty, malnutrition and a litany of health landmines. Before Rother's arrival, nine out of 10 people were afflicted by intestinal worms from drinking polluted water. Flu, diarrhea and measles claimed the weakest, while malnutrition killed roughly half of the children by the age of 6.
An Oklahoma contingent of Catholic missionaries fought back after their arrival in 1964. They dug wells, opened a clinic, started an experimental farm, and began schools.
The Rev. Ramon Carlin – an outspoken, pioneering priest in Santiago Atitlan – even began the monumental task of translating the Tzutuhil language into the written word. To the amazement of church elders, Rother would continue Carlin's work and not only learn the Tzutuhil language, but rewrite the New Testament in the Tzutuhil's new written language. In a 1973 letter, Rother proudly noted, "I am now preaching in Tzutuhil."
Stunning news from a priest who struggled with Latin in the seminary.
Yet, few, if any, foresaw Rother's spiritual path. His journey appeared as fractured and confusing as the winding, broken roads that first carried him into the mountainous perch of Santiago Atitlan. He made the five-day trip in the company of the Rev. Tom Stafford. The two priests towed a 1,000-pound rock picker over rugged terrain, and survived the last several miles without a muffler.
Five American priests greeted Rother upon his arrival. At the time, the Santiago Atitlan staff also consisted of three nuns, a U.S. Navy nurse who ran the clinic, and two papal volunteers who had started the Montessori school.
Less than six years later, only Rother remained in Santiago Atitlan.
Rother immersed himself in the daily lives of the Tzutuhil people. He used the farming skills of his youth to assist locals with experimental crops such as wheat, corn, black beans, avocado and even garlic. At one point, he operated a bulldozer daily from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to clear land on a cooperative farm. He stopped only long enough to preside over Mass.
The Tzutuhil also found the door to the rectory open to anyone with a problem. One old man appeared daily at the rectory for lunch. In time, locals sought Rother for advice on personal or financial affairs. Some even showed up to have teeth extracted.
No soul was ever turned away.
Once, Rother personally escorted a boy to Guatemala City to be treated for lip cancer. The boy was cured.
Rother loved the Tzutuhil people and they loved him. With no Tzutuhil word for Stanley, locals rewarded Rother by lovingly calling him by his little-used first name "Padre A'Plas" – Father Francis. Oftentimes they swarmed him in large groups, reaching out to touch him in affection. The love was mutual.
"Stanley was a very outgoing, generous person, and one whose life was wrapped in that culture," Marita Rother recalled. "He often made the comment, ‘I'm not trying to change them …' He wasn't going to change their culture. He wanted the people to find the Catholic religion … Rather than take everything away from them, he was trying to integrate it, and I think it was probably the most valuable thing for the people.
"And I think that's why they loved him because he didn't come and strip them of who they were."
Such destructive winds would blow from much darker quarters.
Violence didn't creep into the lives of the Tzutuhil. It marched in with government soldiers bearing submachine guns in the summer of 1980. Rebel guerrillas had been gathering strength throughout the country, and the Catholic Church was now being blamed for stirring the uprising. In September, Rother noted in a chilling letter to Archbishop Charles Salatka in Oklahoma City how armed government soldiers showed up in force during fiesta.
The usually quiet Rother – known as a humble servant who understated problems – now spoke openly.
"They didn't do anything but put everyone on edge, walking around in groups of three or four, standing on the corners watching everything," he wrote to Salatka. "Since then we have had strangers in town, asking questions about the priests, this catechist or that one, where they live, who is in charge of the Cooperative, who are the leaders, etc. Because of this intimidation, several of the leaders of the different organizations are out of town or in hiding."
By then, four priests had already been murdered in Guatemala. In one parish, Rother said, "about sixty men of the Church lined up by the wall" and soldiers "killed every fourth person."
"The Country here is in rebellion and the government is taking it out on the Church," he continued. "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 widespread discontent. The Church seems to be the only force that is trying to do something (about) the situation, and therefore the govt. is after us. There are some that say the Diocese of Solola, where the mission is, is the next area on the list for persecution … The reality is that we are in danger."
Rother moved cautiously.
Doors and gates were suddenly being locked. Rother and his associate (the Rev. Pedro Bocel) were seen less on the streets, and mostly confined themselves to the rectory after nightfall. Rother also moved from his bedroom overlooking the Church plaza after news that a church had been attacked with grenades in the eastern part of the country. He settled for the basement where "the walls are rock instead of wood."
Grimly, Rother concluded, "The tactic of the govt. has been to kidnap those they think are leaders, torture them and then kill them."
Rother knew he was being watched.
Father Stanley Rother, left, visits with Father Pedro Bocel in Guatemala in 1981.Photo Provided
A month later, camouflaged government troops had occupied Santiago Atitlan. Over the next three months more than 20 parishioners would end up abducted, missing or murdered. Rother kept the faith. In a Christmas letter sent home to Oklahoma, he told of his plan to continue God's work in the shadow of paranoia.
"We have to be careful where we go and what we say to anyone," Rother stated. "A nice compliment was given to me recently when a supposed leader of the Church and town was complaining that ‘Father is defending the people.' He wants me deported for my sins.
"This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us …"
Within a month, Rother was reluctantly fleeing for his life after being told he was on a government hit list. Suddenly, Rother was back home in Okarche, dejected and depressed. Finally, after months of agonizing, Rother concluded his place was among the people of Santiago Atitlan.
"I said, ‘Why do you want to go back?' " recalled Tom Rother, Stanley's brother and the youngest of five children. "I said, ‘They're waiting on you, and they're gonna kill you.' He said, ‘Well, a shepherd cannot run from his flock.'
"That's the way he felt."
The Rev. Rother understood his destiny.
Shortly after midnight July 28, 1981, three armed and masked men quietly broke into the rectory and made their way to Rother's upstairs bedroom. They found the room empty.
Slowly, they moved about the building until they encountered Francisco Bocel, the teen-age brother of the absent Rev. Bocel. They whispered into the ear of the terrified youngster, threatening to kill him if he didn't lead them to Rother. Francisco did as he was told.
Francisco led them downstairs to the first floor and knocked on a door near the staircase.
"Father," Francisco quivered, "They are looking for you."
Rother arose from his bed and paused. Perhaps he quickly assessed the situation. Windows offered an escape route, but surely he considered the consequences of taking such an action. The intruders would almost certainly kill Francisco.
Rother firmly opened the door.
A struggle ensued as Francisco retreated upstairs. Francisco's heart pounded as he listened. Suddenly, he heard Rother cry out, "Kill me here!"
Moments later, a shot rang out. Then another.
A deafening silenced followed.
Outside, villagers began running to the church. By sunrise, thousands of Tzutuhil stood in silent vigilance in the church plaza.
"It was like their God had died," noted Raymond Bailey, a U.S. Embassy staff member from Guatemala City. "It was a sight I'll remember the rest of my life."
An inspection of Rother's body told the story of his assassination. One shot pierced his jaw. The fatal shot entered his left temple. The autopsy noted one other important point: Both of Rother's hands were badly bruised.
Rother went down fighting.
Father Stanley Rother’s body was returned home, and his funeral was held in Okarche. His heart remained in Guatemala.The Oklahoman Archives
News of Rother's assassination reached Oklahoma a few days later. Franz and Gertrude Rother – Stanley's parents – were among the first to learn of their son's fate. Franz telephoned his eldest daughter, Marita Rother, in Kansas.
"All my dad said was, ‘They got him.' " recalled Marita Rother. "I knew what he meant."
Marita hung up the phone and wept.
In Memphis, where Tom Rother and his family were enjoying a rare vacation away from their Okarche farm, he, too, received the dreaded call. His family packed their bags, and returned to Oklahoma.
The family buried Rother's body in a family plot Aug. 3, 1981, at the Holy Trinity Cemetery in Okarche. They did so without his heart, which the Tzutuhil people buried behind the church altar.
"His heart belonged with those people," Tom Rother said. "He loved them, and they loved him. I think Stanley knew he could do far more for them in death than he ever did in life. I truly believe that is why he went back. He knew that was his purpose in life."