OKARCHE — Courage can sometimes emerge from the unlikeliest of places. The Rev. 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 didn’t get passing grades. As a young Catholic priest, he served with little notice through his first five years while bouncing among four parishes around Oklahoma. And, yet, the story of Rother’s life — and death — is nothing short of amazing. By the time Rother’s destiny was 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 lay in a puddle of his own blood.
Safe, but unhappyRother stared despondently out the windows of his family’s white, two-story farmhouse in the spring of 1981. He stared as if mesmerized by the fields he plowed as a youngster. He likely saw only Guatemala — his home as a missionary the past 12½ years. Frustrated, Rother found himself back home in Okarche, as if in exile. Bloodshed had swept across Guatemala, claiming the lives of nine priests and hundreds of teachers of the faith. Lay people were being intimidated, abducted and murdered. Somewhere in the madness of this escalating civil war, Rother’s name reportedly surfaced on a right wing 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 in Oklahoma. "Looking back now, I wish I had never seen him then in that way,” said Marita Rother, 73, his 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 city of 40,000 people cradled in the country’s western highlands. Of that population, 30,000 were Tzutuhil Indians. The 33-year-old Oklahoman priest found the Tzutuhil people as gracious and as loving as they were impoverished. The blur of beauty and poverty toyed with his senses. Life centered on the dark, blue waters of Lake Atitlan, which is in the shadows of majestic, volcanic peaks. Rother, like many before, found the area to be paradise in hell. Santiago Atitlan’s scenery was breathtaking, but daily life could be deadly. Locals were plagued by poverty. Before Rother’s arrival, nine of 10 people were afflicted by intestinal worms from drinking polluted water. Flu, diarrhea and measles claimed the weakest, while malnutrition killed roughly half the children by age 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 — began the monumental task of creating a written form of the Tzutuhil language. To the amazement of church elders, Rother would continue the work and not only learn the Tzutuhil language, but translate the New Testament into it. In a 1973 letter, Rother proudly noted, "I am now preaching in Tzutuhil.” Stunning news from a priest who struggled to learn Latin in seminary. His journey appeared as fractured and confusing as the winding, broken roads that first carried him into 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. 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, Rother was the only one of them who remained in Santiago Atitlan. He immersed himself in the daily lives of the Tzutuhil people. He used the farming skills of his youth. At one point, he operated a bulldozer from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily to clear land on a cooperative farm. He stopped only for Mass. The Tzutuhil found the door to the rectory open to anyone with a problem. One old man appeared daily for lunch. In time, locals sought Rother for advice on personal or financial affairs. Some even showed up to have their teeth extracted. No one was ever turned away. Once, Rother escorted a boy to Guatemala City to be treated for lip cancer. The boy was cured. With no Tzutuhil word for Stanley, locals rewarded Rother by lovingly calling him by his little-used first name "Padre A’Plas” — Father Francis. Often they swarmed him, reaching out to touch him in affection. "Stanley was a very outgoing, generous person, and one whose life was wrapped in that culture,” Marita Rother recalled. "He wasn’t going to change their culture. He wanted the people to find the Catholic religion … And I think that’s why they loved him, because he didn’t come and strip them of who they were.”
Violence storms inSuch 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 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 a fiesta. The usually quiet Rother — known as a humble servant who understated problems — 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 (teacher of the faith) 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 been murdered in Guatemala. In one parish, Rother said, "about 60 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.” 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. Grimly, Rother concluded, "The tactic of the government has been to kidnap those they think are leaders, torture them and then kill them.” Rother knew he was being watched. Over the next three months more than 20 parishioners would be abducted or murdered. Rother kept the faith. In a Christmas letter to Oklahoma, he told of his plan to continue God’s work. "We have to be careful where we go and what we say to anyone,” Rother said. "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 reluctantly fled for his life after being told he was on a government hit list. 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.”
Death at the doorShortly after midnight July 28, 1981, three armed and masked men broke into the rectory. Slowly, they moved about the building until they encountered Francisco Bocel, the teenage brother of the absent Pedro Bocel. They threatened to kill him if he didn’t lead them to Rother. Francisco led them downstairs and knocked on a door near the staircase. "Father,” Francisco quivered, "They are looking for you.” Rother firmly opened the door. A struggle ensued as Francisco retreated upstairs. Suddenly, he heard Rother cry out, "Kill me here!” Moments later, a shot rang out. Then another. Silence followed. Outside, villagers began running to the church. By sunrise, thousands stood in silent vigilance in the church plaza. "It was like their God had died,” noted Raymond Bailey, a U.S. embassy staff member based in Guatemala City. "It was a sight I’ll remember the rest of my life.” An inspection of Rother’s body told the story. One shot pierced his jaw. The fatal shot entered his left temple. Both of Rother’s hands were bruised. He went down fighting.
Heart of the peopleFranz and Gertrude Rother were among the first to hear. Franz Rother telephoned his eldest daughter, Marita Rother, in Kansas. "All my dad said was, ‘They got him.’” recalled Marita Rother. "I knew what he meant.” She hung up 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. They returned to Oklahoma. They buried Rother’s body 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.