American Eucharistic Witnesses: Blessed Stanley Rother—The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run

The American Eucharistic Witnesses series is published in the Heart of the Revival newsletter and republished by Relevant Radio. This series highlights the holy men and women who lived, loved, and served on the very soil upon which we now stand. They all testify—in unique and powerful ways—to what it means to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist and go on mission with him for the life of the world. Old and young, men and women, representing different cultural families and vocations, these men and women show us—in living color—what holiness looks like. We are also thrilled to partner with American artist Connor Miller, who is creating an original woodcut print of each witness to help us visually engage with this creative new series.

Contributed by María Ruiz Scaperlanda

The remembrance card for Stanley Francis Rother’s ordination included one simple inscription, “For myself I am a Christian. For the sake of others, I am a Priest.”

Born in a farmhouse on March 27, 1935, in the middle of a haunting Oklahoma dust storm during the Great Depression, Stanley was the oldest of four children. The family worshipped at Holy Trinity Church, and the children attended Holy Trinity School from first to 12th grade in Okarche, a small German farming community northwest of Oklahoma City. Daily life for the Rother family was grounded in regular spiritual practices: Sunday Mass, Holy Hour, Benediction, daily Rosary at home, and daily Mass at the school, where Stanley loved to assist as an altar server. Everyone expected Stanley to follow his father into farming after high school graduation, but a special call had been quietly growing in his heart. So, instead, he entered the seminary for the then-Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa—eventually graduating from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD.

Five years after his ordination on May 25, 1963, Father Stanley volunteered for the Catholic Mission of Oklahoma in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. It was there that the 33-year-old priest encountered a call within a call—serving the Tz’utujil Mayan people for 13 years. And it was there that he ultimately became a living sacrifice in imitation of Christ the Good Shepherd, pouring out his own blood in martyrdom for his flock on July 28, 1981.

In December of 2016, Pope Francis officially recognized Father Stanley Rother’s martyrdom, making him the first American-born martyr and the first priest born in the United States to be declared “Blessed” on September 23, 2017.

The Shepherd

Watching Father Stanley make his way on foot around Santiago Atitlán was very much “like the stories in the Bible about Jesus,” remembered a mission volunteer, with people trying to touch him and a trail of giggling children following him and grabbing his hands.

Yet Father Stanley’s driving force was to be a faithful shepherd to his people, which meant bringing them to Jesus. He was the only one of the 12-member missionary team to become fluent in the Tz’utujil language. He celebrated Mass for his parishioners in their own language because he knew it was essential for them to experience the full beauty and mystery of the Mass, where they would encounter the depths of Christ’s love for them. Early on, he established the tradition of weekly home visits, where he blessed their simple dirt-floor dwellings and shared a meal—each time emphasizing his desire to be served the same food they ate. “[He] was one of our own. He ate what the people ate. If they ate weeds, he ate weeds. If they ate fish, he ate fish. He got sick lots of times,” exclaimed Cristóbal Coché.

In a letter to his sister, Sister Marita—a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ community—Father Stanley described these shared moments, which for him were truly Eucharistic: “It is quite satisfying and revealing: satisfying for the contact and interest, and revealing as to the poverty that exists so close to us here and the great faith and spirit they manifest. Maybe it does me more good than it does them.”

By the end, Father Stanley was the only missionary left at the mission, an icon of Christ the Good Shepherd for his people. Nowhere was this more evident than during his celebration of the Mass.

For Reno’s Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg (when he was still a college student), a chance encounter with Fr. Rother was life-altering. He had been asked to be an altar server for his aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary Mass in Oklahoma, to which he reluctantly agreed. “In March of 1981, I was in the sacristy and a priest walked in whom I had never met before. He had a spiritual presence about him which I had never before experienced. He was a quiet man, yet I could sense the peace, joy, and love which filled him. Throughout that Mass, I kept wondering why he had the qualities I so desperately wanted. It was in serving that Mass that I decided to be open to becoming a priest. When the Mass was over, I asked my parents who was that priest and they said, ‘That is Fr. Rother; he is the missionary in Guatemala.’ Four months later he was martyred. That’s when I began to learn about his life and ministry. If I was going to be a priest, then I wanted to be a priest like him.”

The Martyr of Charity

Once Guatemala’s bloody civil war found its way to the villages surrounding beautiful Lake Atitlán, Father Stanley began to regularly walk the roads looking for bodies of the dead—los desaparecidos—to bring them home for proper burial.

“Since the first of May 1980,” Father Stanley wrote in a letter to his superior, Oklahoma City’s Archbishop Charles Salatka, “there have been four priests killed here in the Country. All have been foreigners, but none have been from the States… The reality is that we are in danger. But we don’t know when or what form the government will use to further repress the Church… If I get a direct threat or am told to leave, then I will go. But if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it… There is still a lot of good that can be done under the circumstances.”

“It is really something to be living in the midst of all this,” Father Rother described in another letter dated a year before his death. “And what do we do about all this? What can we do but do our work, keep our heads down and preach the gospel of love and nonviolence?”

Father Stanley’s gift of presence alongside his suffering people spoke volumes about Christ’s redeeming love for them. What Fr. Stanley celebrated at every Mass, he lived faithfully every day. He became one with his Tz’utujil parishioners to show them—not just tell them—how much God loved them. In his final Christmas letter from the Guatemala mission written to Oklahoma Catholics in 1980, Fr. Stanley concluded, “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 1:30 a.m., on July 28, 1981, three masked men broke into the rectory, found and beat Father Stanley, shooting him twice in the head.

Fr. Stanley’s body was returned for burial to his hometown of Okarche in western Oklahoma, but his heart and blood are entombed in the altar at the Santiago Atitlán church, a request of his Tz’utujil community.

Five weeks after Father Stanley’s murder the local bishop, Bishop Angélico Melotto of the Diocese of Sololá, traveled to Santiago Atitlán to offer a memorial Mass in his honor. During the homily, Bishop Melotto spoke these words: “[O]n this very altar, together with the Blood of Christ, there was offered in a crystal container, the blood of this Good Shepherd [Fr. Stanely] who, the night before, had sacrificed his life for his flock. Those who witnessed that scene could never forget it… The presence of Father Francisco’s [Fr. Stanley’s nickname] blood in this church will be an efficacious sign that will remind coming generations of the great apostolic soul of this priest of Christ. He loved the community of Santiago Atitlán with all his heart.”

Our personal missionary journey to the peripheries of our lives will inevitably be different than the one encountered by Blessed Stanley Rother. But the question we must answer is the same: what is God asking of me today, in this moment, in this place? How can our reception of Christ in the Eucharist transform our lives to be of loving service to our neighbors?

If anyone can model this call to holiness in the midst of our very ordinary lives, it is the farmer from Okarche. He would say that it all begins with our willingness to say “yes” to whatever—and whomever—God has placed in front of us.

María Ruiz Scaperlanda is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Blessed Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahomaalso available in Spanish: El pastor que no huyó: Beato Stanley Rother, mártir de Oklahoma.


This story was originally published on October 5th, 2023 on the Heart of the Revival blog