When Catholic Extension donors in the 1950s and early 1960s helped to fund the seminary education of seminarians from the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, who could have predicted that one of their beneficiaries would one day become the first officially declared U.S.-born martyr?
In a ceremony in Oklahoma City this Saturday, September 23, 2017, Father Stanley Rother, a native son of a small rural Catholic parish in Okarche, Oklahoma, will be beatified. And Catholic Extension will again have lent a hand, this time providing some of the funding for the beatification event.
Father Rother began attending junior seminary in 1953 and graduated from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland in 1963. His path to beatification — and, God willing, eventual sainthood — is rooted in his missionary ministry among Tz’utujil Mayan Indians in the mountains of Guatemala.
The Oklahoma priest served 13 years in Santiago Atitlán among the Tz’utujil and was beloved for his selfless service and courage, for his humility and pastoral care as well as his farming and many other practical skills.
In 1981 he became a victim of the brutal violence of Guatemala’s civil war, shot in the head in his rectory. He had been targeted by government-connected death squads for standing by and defending his indigenous parishioners. Beginning in 1980 the violence of the death squads had come to his town, and several of his parishioners and catechists had been killed.
But Father Rother refused to abandon the community he so deeply loved. As the violence grew and his life was increasingly in danger, Father Rother, in a now-famous final letter he sent to the Catholics of Oklahoma, wrote, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”
At least 13 other priests, numerous catechists, and more than 200,000 Guatemalans lost their lives during the Guatemalan civil war, which lasted from 1960 until 1996.
Pope Francis officially declared Father Rother a martyr in December 2016. After September 23, he is Blessed Father Stanley Rother, and in order to be canonized as a saint, one miracle must be proven to have taken place through the intercession of the blessed and after the date of his beatification.
A day after the beatification, on September 24, Catholic Extension will also participate in the dedication of a new Blessed Stanley Rother Mission in the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. It is a small Catholic community of 17 to 20 Spanish-speaking immigrant families, the majority from Guatemala.