Father Stanley Francis Rother served in Guatemala at the mission in Santiago Atitlan starting in 1968. As the Guatemalan civil war raged between military and guerilla forces, the Catholic Church became a target. Determined to stay with the people, Father Stan remained in Guatemala and was murdered in July 1981.
In December 2016, Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of Father Stan, whose beatification (the final step before sainthood) took place Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City. Father Stan was a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, and is the first recognized Catholic martyr born in the United States.
Father Stan’s love for God and people has long served as inspiration for our work at Unbound. Former staff member and writer Barclay Martin recently traveled to Guatemala and listened to the stories of many who knew Father Stan, and he shared his reflection on that journey.
From the moment we arrived in Santiago Atitlan, we could feel the anticipation for the coming beatification of the town’s adopted son, Father Stan Rother. Though the beloved priest, who was fondly known as Padre A’Plas, has been gone for more than 36 years, on this day I was privileged to travel with Unbound staff to meet members of our community who knew him toward the end of his life.
Jeronimo met us in front of his home, just blocks away from the chapel where Father Stan served. I was struck by his gentle presence, salt-and-pepper hair, and the wrinkles that formed in the corners of his eyes as he smiled and welcomed us inside. He introduced us to his wife, Mercedes, and their three children, two of whom are sponsored through Unbound. We gathered in the tight quarters of their family home, and Jeronimo began to speak about the events that changed his life when he was just 18 years old.
On July 28, 1981, just before dawn, there was already commotion outside the church in Santiago Atitlan, Jeronimo recalled. Conflict in the region had intensified in recent months, and Father Stan had received threats to his life. Fearing the worst, Jeronimo made his way with two other young catechists through the crowd into the church. From there, they entered the small chapel to discover Father Stan in a pool of blood, with a bullet through his head and a knife wound in his back.
Though the three young men had arrived too late to seek medical help, they accompanied Father Stan’s body throughout the preparation for burial. Jeronimo said Father Stan’s body was stiff, and he and the others who tried to honor his memory by dressing him in appropriate funeral attire were unable to do so. They prayed, and as they did, Father Stan’s body eased, and they were able to dress him. Jeronimo looked up at Father Stan’s face and asked the other catechists if they’d seen the same thing. They had.
Dressed in funeral attire, Father Stan had a gentle smile on his face. Jeronimo considered it the priest’s parting gift.
From the home of Jeronimo, I walked with the Unbound team down a labyrinth of alleys and side streets to meet Diego, who credits Father Stan with teaching him to honor the gift of education. Diego was 10 years old when he served as a catechist in Father Stan’s parish, and there he began learning to read and write.
Diego remembers Father Stan teaching him new techniques of weaving textiles, which he continues to use today as a means of supporting his family. Diego’s daughter Rosario is sponsored through Unbound, and as we sat together in their family home, Diego reflected on the gift of valuing education that Father Stan instilled in him at an early age.
When asked what it meant to him to pass down the gift of education to Rosario, he held his face in his hands and wept.
Everywhere we went residents of Santiago Atitlan pointed out the legacy of their beloved Padre A’Plas. He drew out the creativity of an entire community, learned their language, and engaged their talents to bring a future of greater dignity and opportunity. At a time when violence and fear touched nearly every corner of Guatemala, Father Stan chose to return to his people, to accompany them, at the cost of his own life.
The type of enduring love for the community that Father Stan had continues to animate the work we do at Unbound. At a critical time, he provided us with an example of the truest meaning of a humble servant. (His passing came just months before Unbound was officially founded in November 1981.) It is in this spirit that we honor his memory and the blessing of his example as our work continues onward.
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