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Jerry Costello

The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run

Stanley Rother was Oklahoma born and bred, a matter of some pride to him. So was his staunchly religious upbringing, typical of the German Catholic farm families he grew up with in rural Okarche, Oklahoma. And so was the extended family that formed a good part of his background. His grandparents lived within a mile of his home, and he was literally surrounded by other relatives.

                Not surprisingly, Stanley Rother became a priest, ordained in 1963 for the diocese which served all of the state at the time. The motto he chose at ordination was simple, and in a way prophetic: “For myself I am a Christian; for the sake of others I am a Priest.” He would have celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest a few years ago, but he never lived to see it. He was shot to death in 1981 in his mission parish in Guatemala. Stan Rother was a true martyr, dead at 46.

                His story is told by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda in a new book titled “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma,” published by Our Sunday Visitor. The front cover features a gently smiling portrait of Father Stan, which must have been familiar to the people he served in the Guatemalan village of Santiago Atitlan.

                He had gotten there as a volunteer in 1968, five years after the mission was founded. It had arisen as Oklahoma’s response to the famous call of Pope (now Saint) John for a “tithe”—for U.S. dioceses to send 10 per cent of their religious personnel to Latin America.

                From the start, Rother took to the work. He liked the simple farming lifestyle of his people—both the descendants of Hispanic settlers, the “Ladinos,” and the Tz’utuji Indians who formed the backbone of the parish. He loved them all, making sure he knew their language and their customs. He became one of them, and before long was running the parish. “Padre Francisco,” as he was known, had found his heart’s calling.

                Rother eagerly described his activities in letters to his sister, Sister Marita Rother, a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ community. Living among the people was key to his plans, and so was the building—in time a farm co-op, a school, a hospital, and a radio station used for catechesis.

                It seemed too good to last. And so, when signs of trouble began to appear, it was hardly surprising. Guatemala was in the throes of a civil war, and before long the conflict made its way into every corner of the country—including the village of Santiago Atitlan. Disappearances, killings and danger became daily occurrences, and soon the name of Father Stan Rother—“Padre Francisco”—turned up on a death list.

                He was fond of saying “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” and soon it was a byword for his life. After a brief sojourn in Oklahoma, he ignored warnings and returned to his adopted land. He was murdered there in 1981.

                “Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people,” Father Stan said. He is now a candidate for canonization, eagerly supported by the people of Oklahoma. It was there he was born and bred—but he made it clear that his heart belongs forever to Guatemala.

               

 

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