Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala: The Martyrdom of Blessed Stanley Rother
The story of Father Stanley Rother:
Father Rother was a priest in the Diocese of Oklahoma City, U.S.A. His call to the ministry was not without obstacles (he struggled with Latin, among other things) but he eventually graduated from Mount Saint Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland and was ordained a priest on May 25, 1963. Father Rother served as an associate pastor for five years in Oklahoma. Heeding the call of Pope John XXIII, he then sought and received permission to join the staff at the diocese’s mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
At this time in history a civil war raged between the militarist government forces and Communist guerrillas. Sadly, in its desire to halt the spread of Communism, the U.S. backed the military regime, which tortured and murdered thousands during the 1980’s. The Catholic Church insisted on catechizing and educating the indigenous people, which made it a target of the military dictatorship, even though many of these people were not involved in the guerilla movement at all . During this conflict, thousands of Catholics were killed. Eventually the violence spread from the cities to the highlands, including Santiago Atitlan. Catechists began to disappear, people slept in the church for protection and death lists began to circulate in the towns.
Eventually, Father Rother’s name appeared on the death list after a parishioner from an Oklahoma parish sent a complaint about Father Rother to the Guatemalan embassy, saying he was advocating for the overthrow of the government in his preaching by supporting his local residents. For his safety and that of his associate, Father Rother returned home to Oklahoma, but not for long. He was determined to give his life completely to his people, stating that “the shepherd cannot run.” Returning to Santiago Atitlan, he continued the work of the mission.
He had not been back long when, on July 28, 1981, three men entered the rectory in the early hours of the morning and executed him. He did not cry for help because he did not want to endanger the lives of anyone else in the church. No one was ever charged in the murder, although the Guatemalan government has, in recent years, begun to prosecute those accused of war crimes.
His body was sent back to the U.S. for burial, but his heart was kept here in the Church of Saint James the Apostle…a fitting tribute since you can say his heart was definitely here among the people of Atitlan.
The plaque in the church reads: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, John 15:13.
He became the first U.S.-born martyr, and was proclaimed Blessed in Oklahoma City on September 24, 2017 before a crowd of over 14,000, including his relatives as well as representatives of Santiago Atitlan. You can read about his tomb in Oklahoma City here.
The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City has produced a video detailing his life and death.
Traveling to Santiago Atitlan:
The town’s official name is Santiago de Atitlan, since there are several towns in this area with similar names, all located along Lake Atitlan, which is said to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. There is regular “chicken bus” service to and from Guatemala City…you can guess who some of your fellow passengers might be. There is not official website for the church.