Blessed Stanley Rother was born in 1935 on a farm outside of Oklahoma City. His family came from German stock and were diligent in the practice of the Faith. They were hardworking farmers, and in his youth, Blessed Stanley was very interested in learning the family business. Before entering the seminary in San Antonio, his previous education did not include Latin, which made success in the seminary a difficult proposition. Eager to lend a helping hand with the various needs of the seminary’s physical plant, Blessed Stanley was taken advantage of in many ways by the seminary community. This, combined with a poor aptitude for learning Latin, created a perfect storm. He was dismissed from seminary only three years away from ordination.
Blessed Stanley’s Oklahoma bishop supported his vocation and believed he had potential. So he sent Blessed Stanley to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, the rector of which described him before ordination as “a very effective and valuable parish priest.”
As a priest, Blessed Stanley was close to his people. This was most evident, when after five years as a priest, he arrived to serve at a mission his diocese sponsored in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, among the Tzutuhil Indians.
It is amazing that despite his earlier difficulties learning Latin, that Blessed Stanley learned the difficult native language of the Tzutuhil — mostly unwritten at the time. It is clear that this was only possible on account of his missionary zeal and God’s grace that energized him. To accomplish this, he relied on immersion learning a tutor’s guidance. Mastering the language was essential for Blessed Stanley to be one with his flock. Additionally, he set out to learn Spanish.
In Guatemala, Blessed Stanley spent himself in the service of his people, truly becoming their shepherd — the one who nourished and protected them. He became known affectionately as Padre A’Plas — or, Father Francis — which used his middle since his first name was not very well translatable into Tzutuhil. Blessed Stanley put to use his skills from the farm by helping his flock learn to cultivate crops, counseled them, and even was even known to pull teeth when necessary. He spoke out for their rights and freedom when threatened by the Guatemalan government. This was in a time of great political unrest and turmoil in Guatemala that wreaked havoc on the country in the 1970s and 80s.
Blessed Stanley was more than a social worker or community organizer, though. He was the father of his flock — nourishing them in Word and Sacrament and teaching their children the Faith. Eventually, Blessed Stanley was regarded as an enemy of the Guatemalan government for equipping his people with the Gospel. Like many others, he knew his life was threatened. Many had warned him on multiple occasions. Even his own archbishop asked him to stay in Oklahoma while he was there to visit home. Despite knowing he was a target, Blessed Stanley willingly chose to return to Guatemala, continuing to defend and be a father to his flock.
Just months before his death, Blessed Stanley wrote “the shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we might 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.” On July 28, 1981, Blessed Stanley was killed for defending the rights and dignity of his people. His death was no less noble than his life had been. The Tzutuhil people asked to bury his heart in the parish church from which their father had preached and presided. In 2016, Pope Francis declared him a martyr, and in 2017, he was beatified as the first U.S.-born martyr and first ever native born American priest so designated.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.