Sometimes when we hear the word “saint,” we envision someone who lived long ago in a place with which we are not always familiar. Then again, some saints are found much closer to home, and may even hail from the wheat fields of Oklahoma.

There was nothing about Stanley Rother that would have led anyone to think that he would one day be a martyr for the faith. Born in Okarche, Oklahoma, in 1935, he was the eldest of five children, the son of a farmer. Although from a Catholic family, he showed no particular inclination toward a religious vocation until after he graduated from high school, when he entered Assumption seminary in San Antonio, Texas. His plans for a vocation, however, almost came to nothing when he proved unable to master Latin, which was required for the priesthood in the pre-Vatican II Church.

However, his local bishop saw the young man’s potential and made sure he could enter instead Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He graduated and was ordained for the Diocese of Oklahoma City/Tulsa in 1963. For five years, Father Rother served his local Diocese and was known as a good, down-to-earth spiritual leader who never stopped working the land and fixing machinery.

In 1968, in response to a call from Pope John XXIII to send missionaries to Central America, Father Rother and 11 others, priests, religious and lay workers, departed for Guatemala, where they were to serve the Tz’utujil people, indigenous descendants of the Maya. For 13 years Father Rother ministered to these people whom he had come to love. Ever the farmer, he was not only their spiritual leader but worked beside them in the fields, sharing with them his own knowledge of the land. The seminarian who could not master Latin was able to learn both Spanish and Tz’utujil and preach to the people in their own language.

But all was not well. In Guatemala, a civil war was raging and the Catholic Church found itself caught in the middle of the hostilities. Father Rother’s work with his people, advancing their education and improving their lives, was seen by the government as a threat to their power.  People – particularly Catholic priests and catechists – began to disappear. It was soon apparent that Father Rother himself was in grave danger.

In early 1981, Father Rother returned to Oklahoma one last time to visit his family. Though warned not to return to Guatemala, he refused to “leave his sheep” and was soon back in his beloved parish to celebrate Holy Week and Easter. On July 28, 1981, three masked men broke into the rectory and shot and killed Father Rother. Shocked and saddened by his death, Father Rother’s parishioners enshrined his heart and his blood in their local church. Although his body was buried in Okarche, Oklahoma, his heart remains with his people in Guatemala.

Father Rother was beatified as a martyr in 2017.

His feast is celebrated on July 28.

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