‘They killed a man, but they created a saint’

| September 13, 2017 | 0 Comments

Archbishop Flynn, others describe Father Rother’s life, legacy and Minnesota ties ahead of Sept. 23 beatification

Archbishop Harry Flynn was rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, when he got a call in 1979 from an old friend from seminary, asking if he could visit for a week. That friend was Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and a missionary in a rural part of Guatemala.

Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese who was brutally murdered in 1981 in the Guatemalan village where he ministered to the poor, is pictured in an undated photo. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City announced the North American priest will be beatified Sept. 23 in Oklahoma. CNS photo/Archdiocese of Oklahoma City archives

He picked up Father Rother from Dulles airport and was appalled by the horrific situation the priest described in Guatemala. Members of his congregation had “disappeared” and were presumed dead, victims of a civil war between the government and guerilla groups.

“If they asked for a few more cents for picking coffee beans, they were considered communists, and a truck would come into the village that night, stop at the home of the man or woman who asked for a few more cents, take them out to the country, torture them, kill them, and then throw their bodies into a well to poison that well,” Archbishop Flynn said.

Father Rother described the situation “with a passion,” Archbishop Flynn recalled. “It was haunting him. He said, ‘If I speak, they’ll kill me, but if keep silent, what kind of a shepherd would I be?’”

The friends shared meals together that week, but Father Rother spent his days praying at the seminary’s historic Lourdes grotto, a place he had loved while he and Archbishop Flynn were seminarians at “the Mount.” At the end of the week, he told then-Father Flynn, “I know what I must do. I must go back and speak.”

“But,” Archbishop Flynn recalled, “he also said this: ‘They’re not going to take me out and kill me somewhere in the country and then throw my body into a well.’ He said, ‘I’ll put up a fight like they’ve never seen before.’”

Archbishop Flynn took Father Rother to the airport and said goodbye. He knew it would be the last time he would see him alive. Two years later, Archbishop Flynn opened a newspaper to read that an American priest had been killed in Guatemala. He didn’t have to read further to know it was Father Rother.

Archbishop Flynn will be among others who knew the priest gathering in Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center Sept. 23 for Father Rother’s beatification. In December 2016, Pope Francis officially recognized Father Rother as a martyr, making him the first U.S.-born martyr recognized by the Church. Also there will be members of the Rother family, including distant cousins from Minnesota.

Farm boy

Father Rother grew up on a farm near Okarche, Oklahoma. He was a farm boy with a knack for fixing things. After high school, he left home for seminary in Texas, but he was asked to leave after struggling with Latin. Undeterred, he transferred to the Emmitsburg seminary, where he met Archbishop Flynn, who was three classes ahead of him. Archbishop Flynn noted his friend’s deep prayer life.

Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of Father Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, making him the first martyr born in the United States. Father Rother is pictured in an undated file photo. CNS

“We could be downstairs in recreation, laughing and carrying on, and then the bell would ring to go up to chapel for night prayer and Stanley seemed to me to go right into prayer, which I found enviable,” Archbishop Flynn recalled in May.

The two were in seminary around the time that Pope John XXIII encouraged U.S. bishops to form partnerships between their dioceses and those in Latin America. The then-Diocese of Oklahoma City-Tulsa paired with the Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala. In 1968, Father Rother was asked to minister there in Santiago Atitlán, a mission established by Franciscans. The Mayan people there had been without a priest for nearly a century.

Given his earlier academic struggles, Father Rother accomplished impressive feats while ministering to the Guatemalans. He was instrumental in getting the Bible translated from English into Tz’utujil, the language spoken by his flock. He founded a small hospital, Catholic school and radio station. He worked alongside his parishioners in the field. His biographers surmise that he was well received by the Guatemalan people because of his humble, unassuming nature and willingness to engage in hard work — both physical and spiritual.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon, and I think it has a touch of the divine in it: Stanley Rother was dismissed from the seminary in Texas because of his inability with the Latin language. He goes down to Guatemala, he learns a very, very difficult Indian dialect, [and] he translates the New Testament into that dialect,” said Archbishop Flynn, to whom Father Rother sent one of the translated books.

People who knew Father Rother weren’t surprised that he returned again and again to Guatemala after the violence began, even with many opportunities to stay in the U.S. The Christmas before he died, he famously wrote to his archbishop, “A shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”

On July 28, 1981, three men burst into the parish rectory, demanding Father Rother. He was hiding, but when the men threatened the life of one of his protectors, he emerged. He was ultimately gunned down in his rectory, his knuckles raw from the fight, his spattered blood staining the wall. The Guatemalans left the stains, and to this day, visitors — many of them pilgrims — can see the aftermath of what the gunmen did to their priest. The fatal bullet remains lodged in the wall.

Minnesota cousins

Lee Rother remembers hearing at that time that one of his Oklahoma cousins — a priest — had been murdered in Guatemala. His mother went to the funeral in Oklahoma, where the area around Okarche included several sets of Rother cousins.

Father Rother is shown baptizing a child in this undated photo. CNS

Father Rother’s great-great-grandparents emigrated from Germany and settled in rural Minnesota, near New Trier. One of their sons moved to Oklahoma in 1893. Over the years, second and third cousins — including Lee Rother — would visit each others’ farms in Minnesota and Oklahoma. Despite the close friendship between their fathers, Lee never met Father Rother. To Lee’s knowledge, the priest never visited family in Minnesota, although his great-great-grandparents are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in New Trier.

“We’re all very proud [of Father Rother’s beatification],” said Lee, who plans to attend the Mass. He said it feels special that his family has a saint who can intercede for them, and now the whole world.

Lee, 78, has made a point to learn as much as he can about this third cousin, who was just a few years older than him. He keeps a thick file of news clippings, including a lengthy feature on the priest from 2006, when the canonization cause started to pick up steam 25 years after Father Rother’s death. Lee also keeps a copy of a report written about another Okarche cousin, Sandra Rother McGougan, who credits an unlikely deathbed recovery to Father Rother’s intercession. She was in a terrible car crash in 1992. The 22-year-old was pronounced brain dead and was being kept alive only for organ donation, but her mother begged for a second opinion, and doctors discovered some brain activity. It was later determined she had suffered a rupture in her brain stem. Doctors weren’t optimistic she would live, but the family prayed for Father Rother’s intercession. Sandra fully recovered, much to her doctors’ amazement.

Her story was among the documents sent to the Vatican to support the priest’s canonization. Not included was Lee Rother’s own story, which he also considers miraculous, thanks to his cousin’s intercession. In June 2016, Lee suffered a stroke. He prayed to Father Rother and experienced a full recovery within two days, he said.

“I think he helped me,” he said, “[but] I can’t prove it, you know.”

He regularly asks for Father Rother to pray for him and his family, he said. He’s presented on his cousin’s story at his parish, St. Joseph in West St. Paul. He’s also visited Father Rother’s former grave site in Okarche. At his last visit in April, it was covered with stones and mementos from people praying for healing.

Father Rother is pictured in an undated photo. CNS

Lee retells the stories from his Oklahoma cousins who knew Father Rother well. The last time his cousin Vince saw the priest, Father Rother told him, “Whatever happens, happens.” Lee said Father Rother’s father, Franz, was in the field when archdiocesan leaders arrived to share the news of his son’s murder. Franz knew immediately what had happened, Lee said. “It hit his parents hard — very, very hard.”

A younger cousin, Gary Rother, sees the priest as a fascinating member of the Rother family tree. Pouring over genealogy software, he deciphers the relationship web that links him to his saintly third cousin.

He first heard of Father Rother not from family, but from a 2006 St. Anthony Messenger article about the priest written by Minneapolis journalist John Rosengren. With the last name, Gary, 73, figured they must be related and began his homework.

Gary, who attends Holy Name in Minneapolis and St. John the Baptist in New Brighton, is struck by the fact that Father Rother “was a simple, ordinary man who became great,” he said. “He reached out to everyone.”

Local devotion

Along the way, Gary discovered that St. Ambrose in Woodbury has a clay relief of Father Rother in a prayer niche commissioned in 1999 for the new church. Father Rother was chosen with the input of the parish’s youth, who selected four “modern day people whose faith lives are an inspiration,” according to a parish bulletin. The other niches honor St. Teresa of Kolkata, St. Maximilian Kolbe and Dorothy Day.

Father Rother has also sparked the devotion of 12-year-old Harrison Gibbs, a parishioner of Divine Mercy in Faribault. His mother, Andrea, is on the advisory committee of Friends of San Lucas, which supports a Catholic mission across Lake Atitlán from Santiago in San Lucas Tolimán. Harrison has visited Santiago Atitlán twice, once when he was six, and again when he was 10. Both times he visited Father Rother’s shrine in the church and the room in the rectory where he was murdered.

Harrison Gibbs, a parishioner of Divine Mercy in Faribault, stands next to a presentation he created about Father Rather earlier this year. Courtesy Andrea Gibbs

Although the first visit didn’t leave much of an impression, he learned more about Father Rother before the second visit and felt a connection to the priest-martyr. He continues to be inspired by his brave witness.

“He still did extraordinary things, even though he was still normal, and anyone can do that,” Harrison said. “Just because they think, ‘I’m not like that,’ but you [Catholics] are. You could do something amazing.”

He recently chose the priest as the subject of a presentation for his homeschool group, and he may choose him as his confirmation saint. Harrison also plans to attend the beatification with his mother, grandmother, three of his four siblings and a family friend.

After her first trip to San Lucas Tolimán while in college and multiple trips a year since, Andrea, 36, said she feels a special connection to Father Rother — like she knows him, not just about him. She added that it feels somewhat strange to have him go from a seemingly little-known martyr venerated in her household, to a household name.

Her family has been influenced by the spirit of Father Rother and his contemporary, Father Greg Schaffer, a St. Paul native and priest of the Diocese of New Ulm who ministered in San Lucas Tolimán from 1963 to his death in 2012, and who was friends with Father Rother. Knowing Father Rother’s story and leading trips to Guatemala has changed “every aspect” of her family’s life, Andrea said, including the way they shop, travel and handle money.

“You cannot come into contact with Christ in the poor and those that have given their lives as martyrs and not be changed by this,” she said in an email.

Harrison and his dad, Jeremy, also plan to run two half-marathons next year to raise money for a San Lucas project.

Meanwhile, the parish of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings has organized a bus with 27 people to make the 11-hour trip to Oklahoma City for the beatification. On the trip will be Father Martin Siebenaler, a retired priest who grew up among Rothers in the New Trier area, as well as several Rother cousins, including Faith Siebenaler, 61, communications and stewardship coordinator at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. She said her parents stayed with Father Rother’s parents on their honeymoon, but she didn’t know anything about Father Rother’s story until his beatification was announced.

“It’s been an eye-opener,” she said. “I am so excited. … What a beautiful testimonial, in reading his writings … and how he so faithfully cared for the sheep and never batted an eye.”

In 1999, Archbishop Flynn traveled to Father Rother’s church in Santiago Atitlán, visited the room where he was shot to death and celebrated Mass in the parish church. Father Rother’s body returned to Oklahoma, but the missionary’s heart was left behind with the Guatemalans, who have since enshrined it as a relic.

Archbishop Flynn also prays for his friend’s intercession, keeping his photograph on his altar for Mass. He feels that he had a graced opportunity to be with Father Rother that summer while he was discerning his impending death.

“I’ll always remember sitting in the room where he was martyred, and sitting there and looking at his blood all over the wall, splattered, and experiencing anger in my heart with the people who did that to him — this gentle, gentle shepherd,” he said, “and then realizing what he would have said — something that Christ said, ‘They don’t even know what they’re doing,’ and they probably didn’t. … They killed a man, but they created a saint.

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