Blessed Stanley Francis Rother: The First American Martyr
In a world of superheroes, superstars and MVPs, it may seem inconceivable that an ordinary man from rural America could be officially recognized as a saint, let alone be the first U.S. priest to be beatified. But Stanley Francis Rother is precisely that, an ordinary man on the cusp of being canonized a saint—and a perfect role model for all of us who seek holiness in the midst of our ordinary lives.
In a farmhouse during a haunting Oklahoma dust storm on March 27, 1935, Stanley became the first of five Rother children, one of whom, a sister, died in infancy. The Rother (pronounced ROW-ther) family life centered on three things: faith, family, and farming. Their lives were invested within a five-mile radius of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche, a small farming community northwest of Oklahoma City.
Stanley and his siblings—Betty Mae, Jim, and Tom—attended Holy Trinity Catholic School from first grade through high school. At school, Stanley pursued myriad interests: basketball; drama, including a title role in Don’t Take My Penny; Young Christian Students, and the Sodality of Our Lady. Physically, Stanley’s high school transcript described him as 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighing a lean 162 pounds, with hair and eyes of brown.
At home, as the oldest, Stanley took the lead in farming duties, working alongside his father, Franz, from an early age. From his mother, Gertrude, Stanley inherited a devotion to our Lady and the rosary, a prayer the family observed every night after supper.
During high school, Stanley had only one low mark, a “D” in religion, in his sophomore year. He graduated sixth in a class of twenty-two students. Everyone expected him to continue the family’s vocation of farming. But the farm boy who had been elected president of the Future Farmers of America his senior year planned a different kind of harvest. Stanley had such resolve in his voice as he announced his desire to become a priest that neither Franz nor Gertrude Rother questioned the decision—except for his father’s prophetic comment, “You should have taken Latin!”
His sister, Betty Mae, a year younger than Stanley and finishing her junior year in high school, also stated her call to religious life. So in the summer of 1953, Franz and Gertrude drove Betty to the Adorers of the Blood of Christ Mother House in Wichita, KS (where she took the name Sr. Marita), and Stanley to St. John’s Seminary, a preparatory program in San Antonio designed for young men entering from high school.
Youngest brother Tom distinctly remembered that summer, when he turned thirteen. “It was hard on us when they left. Sr. Marita used to help me dig potatoes, and that was over. And Stan helped milk cows, so Jim and I had to take care of the cow milking and all the chores. Then my dad always had a hundred acres of alfalfa to put up, so that put the load on us, including the plowing and the combining.”
During those early seminary years, “Stan would always be home for harvest,” recalled Tom. “Dad would run one combine and Stan would run the other one.” One particularly busy harvest, Dad and Jim cut wheat with one combine while Stanley and their pastor, Fr. Edmund Von Elm, were binding oats at the same time.
By all accounts, Stanley seemed to prefer manual labor to book learning: working in the seminary bindery, building a shrine to our Lady, leveling the front lawn, repairing equipment, and picking pecans. If it needed doing, he did it. If it was broken, he fixed it. Looking back at Stanley’s actions during those years, his fellow seminarians noted, “His work was a way of meditation” and “I have a feeling, when he was riding on that mower he spent a lot of time praying.” Academically, however, Stanley struggled to stay afloat, in particular with Latin.
Decades later, reading Stanley’s journals from that time period, Sr. Marita learned that her brother developed his habit of smoking a pipe at seminary. Not surprising to her, said Sr. Marita, is how important Mass, prayer, and the sacraments continued to be for him. Reading over his journal entries, she noted, “it is obvious to me that prayer was an important part of his day, mentioning saying the rosary ‘during Lent after dinner,’ or ‘after supper every day.’ [Stanley also] noted at times about his daily meditation, sometimes how sleepy he was, and occasionally, how he thought he had a good meditation.”
Five years after arriving in San Antonio, Stanley flunked the first year of theology and was sent home, advised to pursue a different vocation. In his journal entry, Stanley succinctly noted, “Voluntas Dei [‘the will of God’]. It’s hard, but no emotions yet.”
When Stanley’s fifth-grade teacher, Sr. Clarissa Tenbrink, heard the news, she wrote Stanley a letter of encouragement. “He wanted to be a priest so badly. He was very discouraged. So I reminded him of the Curé of Ars,” making a reference to French priest St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney. Much like Stanley, Fr. Vianney struggled in his academic studies and was notably deficient in Latin. He is now the patron saint of all priests.
“I told Stanley that if he really wanted to be a priest,” Sr. Clarissa said years later, then he should “pray and trust, and God would take care of things.”
The day Stanley left San Antonio, the rector of Assumption Seminary wrote a letter to Oklahoma Bishop Victor Reed, concluding: “I deeply regret to inform you that we have had to ask Mr. Stanley Rother to discontinue his studies for the priesthood.…We have advised him to leave, and he seemed quite aware of the fact that he lacks the intellectual ability to continue on for the priesthood.”
In Oklahoma, Stanley’s pastor and the diocesan director of vocations took Stanley to Bishop Reed’s house to discuss Stanley’s situation. Even then, when asked by his bishop, Stanley reiterated his unwavering desire to follow the call to the priesthood—and his supportive bishop agreed to find him a new school.
After a summer working to improve his Latin at Conception Seminary in Northwest Missouri, in September 1959 Stanley entered First Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD—where he successfully completed his studies.
On May 25, 1963, Bishop Reed at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Oklahoma City ordained twenty-eight-year-old Stanley Francis Rother a priest forever.
The remembrance card for Stanley Rother’s ordination included one simple inscription: “For myself I am a Christian. For the sake of others I am a Priest.” In succinct yet accurate fashion, the statement reflected Stanley’s vision for life—and his attitude about his vocation.
Five years after ordination, Fr. Rother volunteered for Oklahoma’s mission in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. When he arrived in 1968, he immediately fell in love with the volatile and stunning land of volcanoes and earthquakes, but above all, he found his heart’s vocation as a priest to the Tz’utujil Mayan people.
Since “Stanley” is a foreign and difficult name, he became “Padre Francisco,” after his baptismal name of Francis, which in Tz’utujil translates to A’plas. It’s no coincidence that the same values Stanley learned growing up in an Oklahoma farming community—family first, hard work, kindness, generosity, and perseverance—are precisely the values that enabled him to become a missionary shepherd. Even his knowledge of farming and love for the land connected him in a special way to his close-knit Tz’utujil parishioners, also from a farming community.
Over the years, the priest farmer was never afraid to dig in and get his own hands dirty, fixing tractors or plowing the land. He also helped establish the parish’s first farmers’ co-op, a school, the first hospital clinic, and the first Catholic radio station, used for catechesis. While he didn’t institute the project, he was also a critical driving force in establishing Tz’utujil as a written language, which led to a New Testament in Tz’utujil being published after his death.
In one of his final media interviews, Fr. Rother explained, “Despite all this [hardship], you see happiness in the people. Their zest for life—to live and enjoy what they have—their friendliness, their spirit of cooperation….They are remarkable. I want to stay as long as I can.”
The same young man who couldn’t master Latin became not only competent in Spanish, but by the grace of God, a master of the challenging Tz’utujil dialect, a remarkable fact. It’s little wonder that his community claimed him as “our priest.”
His love for the people could not stop the violence around the peaceful mission. Once Guatemala’s civil war found its way to the villages surrounding beautiful Lake Atitlán in the late 1970s, many people, like Fr. Rother’s own catechists, began to disappear regularly.
“It is really something to be living in the midst of all this,” he described in a letter from 1980, a year before his death. “There was another priest killed to the North of us in Qui’che while I was gone. That makes three since the first of May. One was kidnapped, presumed dead. 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.”
Undeniably, Stanley Rother lived what St. Francis of Assisi commended to the members of his community, “Let all the brothers preach by their deeds” (Rule of 1221). With humility and love, he became one with his Tz’utujil parishioners to show them—not just tell them—how much God loved them. His gift of presence alongside their suffering spoke volumes about Christ’s redeeming love for them.
“The people treasure that he was, and is, one of them,” said Sr. María Victoria, who worked for five years at the parish in Santiago. “A’plas shared everything with the Tz’utujil. In spite of his different background, he embraced our culture and the poor and simple people. He ate with the people and drove out in the trucks to work the fields with them,” she added. “He shared everything with them.”
Each year the Guatemala mission sent a Christmas letter for publication in the two Oklahoma diocesan newspapers. On his final Christmas, Fr. Rother wrote, “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 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 kingdom.”
At 1:30 am on July 28, 1981, three Spanish-speaking Ladino men (non indigenous) snuck into the rectory of Santiago Apóstol (St. James) church, beating Fr. Rother and shooting him twice in the head. The forty-six-year-old Oklahoma priest was one of thirteen priests—and the first American cleric—slain during Guatemala’s thirty-six-year guerrilla war, a tragedy that claimed more than 200,000 lives. No one has ever been prosecuted for his killing.
In giving himself completely in his death, Fr. Rother modeled the challenge every Christian must face in life: how to faithfully and whole-heartedly live our call to holiness, even in our ordinary life. By his simplicity and heroism, Blessed Stanley Rother challenges us to believe that we can do the same—a message of good news indeed. A
Fr. Stanley’s Path to Sainthood
In December of 2016, Pope Francis declared Fr. Stanley Francis Rother a martyr, clearing the way for his beatification. On September 23, 2017, an overflow crowd of more than 20,000 people witnessed the beatification of America’s first martyr at Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center. The Oklahoma native thus became the first priest born in the U.S. to be beatified. The ceremony was only the second beatification to take place on U.S. soil.
Many Rother family members were present, including his sister, Sr. Marita and their brother, Tom, and his wife, Marti, who live on the farm where the martyred priest and his siblings were born and reared.
The next day in Rome, Pope Francis remarked: “May his heroic example help us be courageous witnesses of the Gospel, dedicating ourselves in supporting human dignity,” noting the graces of the “missionary priest, killed out of hatred for the faith, for his work in evangelization and the human advancement of the poorest in Guatemala.”
The feast day for Blessed Stanley Francis Rother is July 28, the day he was martyred in 1981. For more information, visit StanleyRother.org.