As North Americans cheered the beatification of Father Stanley Francis Rother in his home archdiocese of Oklahoma City last September, the joy of the celebration reverberated some 1,500 miles away in the Guatemalan town of Santiago Atitlán. That’s where the new candidate for sainthood served as a parish priest from 1968 until 1981, when he was brutally murdered for encouraging his Tzutujil indigenous parishioners to stand up for their rights.
Padre Apla’s, as he was known in Tzutujil, paid a heavy price for his outspoken defense of the poor at a time of civil war in Guatemala, when taking a stand for justice was considered subversive by the government. The priest persisted in his advocacy knowing his name was on a death list. On July 28, 1981, three men broke into the rectory of Santiago Apóstol parish, where Father Stan was pastor, and forced a local man staying there to lead them to the priest. Padre Apla’s reportedly put up a bare-fisted fight. He was beaten black and blue and then shot. The fatal bullet is still lodged in the floor, and his blood stains remain on the wall of that room, which is now a shrine to Padre Apla’s.
On the day he was beatified, thousands of Tzutujil people in their colorful traditional dress crammed the church of Santiago Apóstol for the local celebration. Many of the elders had known Padre Apla’s personally while the younger ones were steeped in stories of his courage and compassion. Shortly after witnessing his beatification ceremony in Oklahoma City via TV monitors, the people of Santiago Atitlán enthusiastically began their own celebration, with a choir of Tzutujil women in their distinctive headdress and an orchestra of men with large guitars leading the hymns.
Archbishop Nicolas Thévenin, apostolic nuncio to Guatemala, celebrated the Mass, which lasted almost two hours. A dozen priests concelebrated. Among them was Father John Vesey, who became pastor of Father Stan’s Santiago Atitlán parish three years after the martyr’s death.
Father Vesey knew Stan Rother when they were both students at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “Stan’s Latin was weak and he appeared to us younger students as a deacon who suffered with his studies,” Father Vesey recalls. “But his gentleness spoke volumes to all of us.”
Father Vesey explained that Stan had been sent home from the seminary in San Antonio, Texas, where he began his studies for the priesthood, because of his inability to learn Latin, but he appealed to his bishop, Victor J. Reed, who recognized the deep strength and selfless spirit of the farm boy from Okarche, Okla. The bishop took the young man under his wing, and sent him to study for the priesthood in Emmitsburg, where he was ordained in 1963 for the Oklahoma City Archdiocese.
Five years later Father Stan joined Oklahoma City’s mission in Guatemala and was assigned to the parish in Santiago Atitlán. “During his 13 years in Santiago, he mastered Tzutujil, an impossible language, way more difficult than Latin,” says Father Vesey, a priest of the diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., who was flying home from his own mission assignment in Paraguay when he read about Father Stan’s death. “I asked if I could come to continue his work here. Eventually the bishop of Brooklyn lent me to the Oklahoma City Archdiocese.”
Civil war was still raging in Guatemala when Father Vesey arrived in Santiago Atitlán in 1984. “To be honest, I wasn’t wise enough to be fearful!” says Father Vesey. “I guess if I had been a wise person, I would have been afraid. But there was fear, every day. You’d hear rumors. The army would come in. When we had Mass, the church would be full of soldiers carrying these gigantic guns. People obviously were fearful and had a right to be. But you just pray a lot. All these communities are very prayerful, and, you know, when you live in war, there is only one person who is protecting you, and that is God.”
Father Vesey, who currently serves as pastor of St. Michael’s Church in Flushing, N.Y., had no doubt about which celebration for Father Stan to attend last September. “I had to be with the people Father Stan loved,” he said.
“To see the joy of those people the day he was beatified was overwhelming. From the day he was martyred, they called him a saint. Now to see the universal Church recognize him made them so happy. One catechist told me, ‘Finally, our father is recognized!’ ”
Following Father Stan’s death his parishioners had petitioned his family to keep his heart and a large jar of his blood as relics among them. After the celebratory Mass, Archbishop Thévenin carried those relics in a procession through the streets of Santiago Atitlán where scores of the faithful marched to the music of a brass band and popping firecrackers. An elated Father Vesey summed up the prevailing sentiment: “I feel so blessed to have known him.”
Back home, the New York priest says Father Stan continues to inspire him and his parishioners. “We have our first U.S.-born martyr,” he says. “In St. Michael’s parish we have six young men who want to be priests. Some of them have problems with studies. I tell them, ‘Don’t worry. We have Blessed Stanley Francis Rother. Pray to him.’ ”
Featured Image: Carrying a placard of Father Rother, Guatemalans crowd the church where he served.