In 1962, Pope John XXIII asked the Church in the United States for help in Latin America. The Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa founded its mission at Santiago-Atitlan, Guatemala. The Church in Oklahoma, which the Catholic Church had removed from the official mission list in 1905, was now sending missionaries to a village where the church building was constructed well before the Mayflower touched the shore of North America.
To lead Oklahoma’s mission work, Father Ramon Carlin, a rotund, imaginative priest with a Pied Piper ability to rally others to causes, was appointed by Bishop Reed. For the Santiago-Atitlan effort, Father Carlin envisioned a team effort — priests, nuns, laypeople — who would pool their talents for a comprehensive development of the Tz’utujil Indians and mixed blooded Ladinos people in the Guatemalan village.
In concept and from afar, the missionary work was romantic. In actuality it was extraordinarily difficult. The Oklahoma team began to operate the mission in the spring of 1964. They found a place of stunning natural beauty populated by some of the most destitute people on earth. The missionaries divided their work into four areas — Worship (the Tz’utujil language was coaxed into written form for the first time), Catechetics (with native, trained catechists and a radio school), Health (a clinic was operated succeeded by a hospital), and Agriculture (efforts were made at model farming).
Father Carlin would eventually leave the mission to continue his work with the written Tz’utujil language, going to work in the new linguistic institute in Antigua, Guatemala.
Taking up the mission after Father Carlin was Father Stanley Rother, a native of Okarche, Oklahoma. Father Rother would finish the translation of the New Testament into Tz’utujil, winning the hearts of the natives. During Father Rother’s time at the mission, the political situation became volatile. Years of war, civil unrest and military corruption made its way to the Oklahoma Mission. After several of his parishioners were kidnapped, tortured and found dead along the roadside, Father Rother learned his name was included on a hit list. He returned to Oklahoma twice during that time — once, when he first learned he was marked for death and briefly for the ordination of his cousin, Father Don Wolf (now pastor of Saint Eugene Catholic Church in Oklahoma City). Despite the threat of danger, Father Rother told his family and friends that he had to return to Guatemala and his people, stating “the shepherd cannot run, my people need me.”
Father Rother returned to Guatemala and was murdered a few months later in his rectory on July 28, 1981. More than 2,000 Guatemalans gathered for his first funeral Mass with reports of them standing in the plaza after the Mass and silently looking skyward. It would be almost three years before another Oklahoma priest would again take the helm at the Oklahoma Mission.
In May of 1984, the first pilgrimage trip after Father Rother’s death was made to the mission by Archbishop Salatka, Bishop Beltran of Tulsa, Father Rother’s parents and 20 others, including Oklahoma priests. That trip inspired one of those priests to consider mission work, setting him on a path that would have him serve 17 years in Guatemala.
Father Thomas McSherry, a Tulsa native and priest for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, was on that mission trip. He felt called to serve the people of Guatemala but feared that many priests would want the position. He was shocked to find out he was the only priest to ask for the assignment. Throughout his tenure, he built churches, a memorial to Father Rother, memorials to the victims of the civil war that raged for 36 years as well as homes for the widows. He married and baptized thousands and served there longer than any other Oklahoma priest. In July 2001, the Oklahoma mission was returned to the local diocese, since it had enough priests to run the mission.
Father McSherry, in his final letter from Guatemala, put the mission work into perspective when he wrote: “Missionaries, I think are like good teachers or mentors. They give their best and move on.”
On December 2, 2016, Pope Francis officially recognized Father Rother as a martyr for the faith. He is the first U.S. priest to receive that designation and the first American-born martyr.
Blessed Stanley Rother was beatified on September 23, 2017, in Oklahoma City by Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome and representative of Pope Francis. Concelebrating and in attendance was Archbishop Coakley, Archbishop Emeritus Beltran, Father McSherry, Father Wolf, Father Rother’s brother and sister and their families, and bishops, clergy, religious and seminarians from across the United States.