Painting by Jim Effler
RAYMOND BAILEY, a staff member
at the United States Embassy, had
hastily departed Guatemala City
that morning upon learning about
the murder of an American missionary,
Father Stan Rother. Bailey
traveled 50 miles west to Father
Stan’s mission in Santiago Atitlán, a village of 20,000
Tzutujil [pronounced ZOO too heel] Mayans on the
shores of Lake Atitlán.
The diplomat was not prepared for the throng
crowded into the dirt plaza outside the colonial
church. Over a thousand dark leathery faces turned
toward the whitewashed church with the volcano
rising behind it, eyes imploring, beseeching the heavens.
Their silence thundered through Bailey. “It was
as if they’d lost their God,” he said.
Father Stan Rother so endeared himself to the Tzutujil
over 13 years as their parish priest that they still
feel his loss today, a quarter century after his murder
by a paramilitary death squad. Caught between the
revolutionary poor and the military government in
Central America’s longest and bloodiest civil war,
Stan refused to preach rebellion, but his pastoral
devotion to his people eventually cost him his life.
July 28 marks the 25th anniversary of his death.
Declared a martyr and since proposed for sainthood
by the bishops of Guatemala, Stan was an ordinary
man who found extraordinary courage in his faith.
Father Stan Rother arrived in Santiago Atitlán in 1968
without fanfare. The then-33-year-old diocesan priest
had driven his Chevrolet over 2,000 miles from his
native Oklahoma to the Guatemala mission sponsored
by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Ordained
four years earlier, he had avoided a near miss.
The farm kid from Okarche had flunked out of the
seminary on his first try, defeated by the Latin. Only
on a second chance from a supportive bishop did he
complete his training at Mount St. Mary Seminary in
Maryland, where he was more comfortable restoring
the school’s grotto than studying in the library.
After several brief pastoral assignments in his home
diocese, he accepted an invitation to join five other
priests, three religious sisters and three laypeople who
staffed the Guatemala mission. Once in Santiago
Atitlán, Stan lent a hand to the construction of a
hospital and set about the more difficult task of learning
By 1975, Stan had become the head missioner by
default. The others had left to marry, retire or pursue
other assignments. Stan worked hard, true to his German
heritage and farm roots, replacing the church’s
stained-glass windows, raising the altar, commissioning
the renovation of an elaborate altarpiece, overseeing
the translation of the New Testament into Tzutujil,
experimenting with different crops on the parish
farm and fulfilling his pastoral duties. That sometimes
meant as many as five Sunday Masses in four
different locations and up to 1,000 Baptisms a year.
He seemed to blossom with the challenge.
He endeared himself to the people with his unpretentious
style. The men who worked the fields
respected a priest who was as comfortable atop a tractor
as he was at the altar. Families appreciated his visiting their homes—often shacks no
more than 15 feet square—and sitting
on the floor to break bread with them.
The elders honored him with a traditional
scarf that he wore proudly on
special occasions. Perhaps most significantly,
Stan not only learned Spanish,
he also learned Tzutujil, a difficult
Mayan dialect spoken by the villagers
but not by many gringos.
By 1980, Guatemala’s civil war had
reached the highlands, including the
region of Lake Atitlán. In October, army
trucks rumbled into Santiago Atitlán.
Troops set up camp on the outskirts of
town, occupying a section of the parish
Land of the Disappeared
That week, community leaders started
to disappear. The night of October 23,
day three of the army’s occupation,
soldiers blocked the ends of the street
where Gaspar Culan lived. Culan, a
former deacon who left the seminary to
marry, ran the mission’s radio station,
using it as a platform for human rights.
Masked men entered his house, shot
Culan and dragged him out to a waiting
car. His wife and their baby daughter
watched the car drive off.
Culan’s kidnapping and presumed
murder followed the military government’s
counterinsurgency strategy to
criminalize and eliminate anyone working
to combat poverty, illness and illiteracy.
An anti-Communist group later
broke into the radio station, rifled files
and stole equipment. Rumors raged
about informants and names on death
lists. Two more community leaders disappeared.
Stan wrote to his archbishop, Charles
Salatka, “Anyone who has made an
advancement at all is being pursued,”
but resolved, “I still don’t want to abandon
my flock when the wolves are making
Stan reinforced the church and rectory
with fences and locks. He and his
assistant, Padre Pedro Bocel, avoided
going out at night. Hundreds of villagers
sought refuge in the colonial
church at night while catechists took
turns keeping watch. Stan slept in different
rooms of the rectory to confuse
possible intruders. The night following
the radio station break-in, he slept
with his shoes on, afraid that the same
group would attack the rectory.
Stan was not a political activist. Nor
was he swayed by liberation theology,
a movement catching hold in Latin
America in the early 1980s. He was
aware of the government’s abuses, but
his old-school faith swayed him to
respond pastorally rather than politically.
He set up a fund for the widows
and orphans of the disappeared men in
his village, knowing the danger of such
a charitable deed. “Shaking hands with
an Indian has become a political act,”
he wrote home.
When one of the mission’s brightest
catechists, Diego Quic, wound up on a
death list after openly criticizing the
army and asked Stan to shelter him in
the rectory, the priest knew the danger
but couldn’t refuse. His pastoral orientation
won out over prudence.
The evening of January 3, 1981, Stan
was listening to music in the rectory living
room, the way he liked to unwind
after a long day. Diego was returning to
the rectory, shortly after nightfall. Three
masked men ambushed him in front of
the church’s stone steps.
Diego fought his way to the rectory
porch. The thugs pried him from the
wooden banister, splintering the railing.
Padre Pedro, the assistant pastor, heard
the ruckus and called Stan.
The three masked men wrestled
Diego down to a car waiting in the
plaza. Stan and Pedro watched the men
shove Diego into the backseat. The
attackers had Diego’s head covered, but
Stan knew it was him. “¡Ayudame! [Help
me!],” Diego screamed. One of the kidnappers
tried to clamp his hand over
Diego’s mouth. “¡Ayudame!”
Stan and Pedro watched in disbelief.
The car kicked up dirt out of the plaza.
Stan feared they would torture Diego,
then murder him in some brutal way,
the way he had seen it happen to others.
He could do little more than phone
the police in the next village, the direction
the kidnappers had headed.
The moment shook Stan. Diego’s cry
haunted his mind’s ear. “¡Ayudame!”
For days afterward, Stan drove along
the roads outside Santiago, looking. He
checked fields the killers had littered with other bodies. He visited neighboring
village police stations and asked
for information about Diego and the
kidnappers. He searched the plaza for
clues. Nothing. Diego was desaparecido [missing].
In a letter to Father John Steichen,
chancellor of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese
and official liaison to the Santiago
mission, Stan described Diego’s
abduction in detail. He also described
his effort to raise funds to support the
eight widows and 32 fatherless children
of the 11 men disappeared since
the army’s occupation began less than
three months earlier.
'I PRAISE YOU, LORD, FOR YOU RAISED ME UP'
Almighty God, Lord of the Universe,
We raise up to you your priest Stanley Francis
and all the martyrs of Central America.
Honor them with Sainthood in Your Church.
May we be empowered by Your Holy Spirit
to so worthily fulfill our part of your plan
of Salvation. We pray in the name of Jesus.
—Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran has requested that Oklahoma Catholics recite
this prayer at all Sunday Masses throughout 2006, “The Year of Father Rother.”
“Since helping these people,” Stan
wrote, “could very easily be considered
as subversive by the local government,
we have asked that the money be
deposited directly in the bank there,
and that there be no direct communication
between the donors and me....Be
careful about sending letters here mentioning
relief, etc. We never know when
the mail may be intercepted and read.
This letter is being hand-carried to the
States and I can say things that I ordinarily
wouldn’t, using the local mails.”
The New York Times printed this letter
after Stan’s death. It had been circulated
by human-rights groups and some
speculated that it had been seen by the
wrong eyes, which may have made
Stan a marked man.
Four days after Diego’s
kidnapping, in retaliation
for a guerrilla attack, the
gunned down 17 civilians
near the Chacaya coffee
plantation in the Santiago
Atitlán area. Stan surveyed
the bloody corpses
laid out in the plaza under
the watchful eyes of his
Tzutujil parishioners and
the army soldiers. He
ordered the bodies of the
dead Catholics to be carried
to the church for
pastoral duty that could be viewed as
public defiance of the military’s terror
Marked Man of God
On January 12, friends stopped Stan on
his way through the neighboring
village of San Lucas Toliman, where fellow
American missioners Father Greg
Schaffer and Father Pat Greene warned
Stan, “They’re on the streets to get you.”
Stan refused to leave the country
without Padre Pedro, whom the death
squads had also fingered. Father
Schaffer smuggled Pedro out of Santiago,
wrapped in blankets in the back of
his car. Stan and Pedro hid for 16 days
in Guatemala City until Stan could
secure special clearance for the Guatemalan
priest to enter the United States.
Stan languished three months at his
family’s farm in Okarche, where he
grew up. He lent a hand to the spring
harvest. He helped his mother clean
the house. But his thoughts were in
Guatemala. His family would find him
sitting in a darkened room, gazing out
He knew the danger, but he could
not stomach the thought of abandoning
his people. He told a friend about
some nuns in Nicaragua who left during
the fighting and later wanted to go
back. The people asked them, “Where
were you when we needed you?”
“I don’t want that to happen to me,”
he wrote. “I have too much of my life
invested [in Atitlán].”
Another priest invited Stan to preach
at his suburban Oklahoma City church in late March. In response to the
new Washington administration’s
spin on the Communist threat in
Central America, Stan commented,
“Don’t believe everything your
government tells you.” His remarks
upset the patriotic sensibilities of
at least two parishioners, one
of whom wrote the Guatemala
Embassy in Washington, D.C., “I
feel obliged to warn your nation’s
government of the Church involvement
within the leftist organizations
attempting to establish a
socialist (or Marxist) government in
In April, word arrived that Stan’s
name was no longer on the death
list. At the time, he did not know that
his source for this information was no
longer reliable. The archbishop counseled
Stan that he might not come back
to Oklahoma alive, but Stan insisted
he must return to his people. He
belonged back with them. He told
friends that whatever happened to him
would be God’s will. He returned in
time to celebrate Holy Week with his
parish. Padre Pedro remained in hiding.
Stan plunged back into his ministry.
In the early morning hours of July 28,
three tall men wearing ski masks and
civilian clothes sneaked into the rectory
and moved directly to Stan’s upstairs
bedroom. Not finding him there,
they startled Francisco Bocel in
the room across the hall. They
demanded that the assistant pastor’s
brother, who had been staying
at the rectory, lead them to Stan.
Francisco noted that they spoke a
Spanish dialect unlike that of the
local villagers. He also felt a gun
pressed against his head.
He led them to the downstairs
study that Stan had converted into
his bedroom. “Padre, they’ve come
for you,” he shouted, before slipping
Stan had told friends that he did
not want to be tortured like those
whose bodies he had found with
eyes gouged, skin peeled off their face,
cigarette burns over their flesh. Francisco
heard thuds and furniture tumble.
The fight rubbed Stan’s knuckles raw.
Francisco heard him yell, “Kill me here!”
The killers pinned Stan into a corner.
One fired a shot into his face. Stan
crumpled to the floor. The assassin bent over him, placed a handgun against
his left temple and fired another shot.
Francisco heard the shots from where
he hid in his bedroom. He heard rummaging
in the rectory office for several
minutes, then quiet. He finally worked
up the nerve to wake the Carmelite sisters
in the adjoining convent and an
American nurse staying in the rectory.
They found Stan lying in a pool of his
blood. The nurse pronounced him dead.
The nuns knelt to pray.
Parishioners Without a Padre
Word of the priest’s murder raged
through the village and summoned the
Atitecos [residents of Santiago Atitlán]
to the town’s heart. They grouped on
the church’s stone steps and clustered
throughout the plaza. They had already
lost over 30 of their brothers, fathers,
uncles, sons and neighbors. Now their
priest was gone.
The crowd alarmed Father Greg
Schaffer, who had driven over from
San Lucas early that morning. How
much longer until the mourners
morphed into a mob that marched out
to the barracks to avenge their beloved
pastor’s murder? Their blind anger
would turn a murder into a massacre.
With the help of others, he ushered
them into the church, where Sister Ana
Maria Gonzalez, one of the Carmelite
sisters, comforted the crowd with
hymns of resurrection.
Inside the church, Schaffer came upon
a Tzutujil woman, shriveled by age
and curled up in the corner of a pew.
Sobs racked her frail body. Schaffer
placed a hand upon her shoulder. “They
killed our priest,” she said. “He was our
priest. He spoke our language.”
Meanwhile, back inside the rectory,
Sister Linda Wanner, an American nun
who lived and worked in San Lucas,
preserved the slain priest’s blood. Just
three days earlier, Sister Linda had spent
Saturday afternoon with him in that
very room. He had sat in the red plastic
chair now splattered with his blood.
His generous and patient hospitality
had impressed her.
She thought of this while she ladled
his blood into a mason jar. She thought
of the terror he must have felt fighting
his attackers. She thought of the senseless
brutality behind the bullets they
fired. She saw his life poured out on
these tiles. She sensed that his faith,
his courage had seeped into the very carpet.
On her knees, she reverently
scooped Stan’s blood into the jar. “I
sensed what the blood of martyrs really
means,” she says.
Sister Linda found a bullet slug on
the ledge of a bookshelf. It must have
struck the floor and jumped there. She
brought the inch-long bullet to
Schaffer, who turned it over to the U.S.
embassy officials. The slug came from
a nine-millimeter shell used in a Smith & Wesson. This wasn’t the type of gun
that fell into the hands of guerrillas or
bandits; it was the type used by the
army and government-backed paramilitaries.
The Guatemalan police arrested three
men from Santiago Atitlán and charged
them with killing Stan during a botched
burglary attempt—despite the fact that
they did not match Francisco Bocel’s
description. The three men were convicted,
though later acquitted by an
appellate court under pressure from
the U.S. State Department.
Archbishop Salatka and U.S. Senator
Charles Boren of Oklahoma, among
others, called for a thorough investigation,
though none occurred. Stan’s
killers were never brought to justice.
Where He Found His Treasure, His Heart Remains
Stan’s Tzutujil parishioners believed
Stan should stay with them. His parents
wanted to bury their son in the family’s
Okarche plot. They struck a compromise:
The Tzutujil enshrined Stan’s
heart in the church along with the
mason jar of his blood, and Stan’s body
returned to Oklahoma. In death, as in
life, Stan was of Oklahoma, but his
heart resided in the Mayan church.
His memory burns strong in the
hearts of those who knew him. “I think
he’s a saint,” Father Schaffer says, voicing
the thoughts of many, “because of
his complete and total dedication and
care and giving to those people. That
was built on his faith and love of God.
He is a good example of what a martyr
'The Memory of the Just Will Be Blessed'
FATHER STAN ROTHER died 25 years ago,
but his memory lives large in his native
Oklahoma and his adopted home of
Oklahoma City Archbishop
Eusebius J. Beltran has declared
2006 “The Year of Father
Rother,” encouraging Oklahoma
Catholics to pray for the
native martyr’s canonization.
The archbishop plans a memorial
Mass in Rother’s hometown
of Okarche on July 19. He will
also lead a weeklong tour to
Santiago Atitlán in late July,
where the local Guatemalan
bishop will preside at a memorial
Mass on July 28, the 25th
anniversary of Rother’s death.
Rother is remembered with plaques, prayer
cards and homilies throughout Oklahoma but is
perhaps most visibly memorialized by a statue
outside Holy Trinity Church in Okarche, where
Rother served Mass as a boy and attended the
parish school. The nine-foot
statue, which depicts a tender
moment between Stan and a
small Guatemalan girl, was dedicated
in October 2003.
In Santiago Atitlán, the room
where Stan was murdered has
been converted into a chapel
visited annually by hundreds
of people from as far away as
Japan and Kenya. The church
fills to capacity every year on
the anniversary of his death for
a memorial Mass attended by
many children named after
him. His heart rests in a shrine
inside the church, part of a memorial to all of the
Atitecos who have died for their faith.
John Rosengren, who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota,
with his wife and two children, has been published
in nearly 100 national or regional publications.
He is working on a full-length biography of Father
Stan Rother and has traveled to Guatemala.