by Loretta Shea Kline
Special to The Leaven
OKLAHOMA CITY — They knew the story of a priest from Oklahoma who lived and died with the people as a civil war raged in Guatemala, and they wanted to be present when he became the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified.
Supporters and staff from Kansas City-based Unbound were part of an overflow crowd of 20,000 that packed the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City Sept. 23 for the beatification of Father Stanley Francis Rother.
A priest of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese, Father Rother was serving as pastor of a mission parish in Santiago Atitlan when he was murdered in July 1981 at the age of 46.
Unbound was founded by lay Catholics in November 1981, and now works with more than 73,000 families in Guatemala, supporting them in their efforts to overcome poverty. Among them are families in Santiago Atitlan.
Paco Wertin, church relations director at Unbound, said Father Rother’s story must be told so that “we can remember how God is present in the midst of oppression and corruption, and that death is not the end, but an opening to new life.”
“It is important to tell the story of Father Stan so that others can be drawn to service, to the daily labor of love, to the quiet prayer that gives us strength,” Wertin said. “Father Stan’s story shows us that it is possible to be welcomed into a community, a stranger welcomed and cherished, who now is no longer a stranger but a brother on a journey.”
The beatification put Father Rother one step away from canonization as a saint.
Father Rother grew up on a farm in Okarche, Oklahoma. His dream of becoming a priest was almost derailed when he failed Latin in the seminary, but he persevered and was ordained in 1963. He went to Guatemala in 1968, eight years after the start of the civil war. As the war intensified, the Catholic Church became a target. His name appeared on a death list in early 1981, and he returned to Oklahoma briefly but chose to go back to Guatemala knowing the risk.
Chico Chavajay, coordinator of Unbound’s program in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, was a 1-year-old when Father Rother was martyred. He grew up hearing the story in his first language, the language of the indigenous Tz’utujil people, a language that Father Rother had learned.
Chavajay was among about 50 Unbound supporters and staff who gathered at a local hotel before the beatification, and about 30 of them walked together to the convention center to exhibit their solidarity with Father Rother and the people of Santiago Atitlan.
As he reflected on Father Rother’s life of service during the beatification Mass, Chavajay said he felt a closeness with his mother and Unbound’s co-founder Bob Hentzen, who taught in Guatemala from 1967-73 and made his permanent home there from 1996 until his death in 2013.
“I was telling myself there were three souls in heaven — my mom, Bob and Father Stanley — and I felt very connected to them,” Chavajay said.
Chavajay said he learned from them the importance of prayer, education and accompanying people on their path out of poverty.
Wertin said Father Rother remains present in Unbound, which works with people of diverse faith traditions in 19 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
“Our sisters and brothers who live in proximity to Santiago Atitlan gave witness to us [of] this life lived for others,” he said. “Grandmas and catechists who loved Father Stan and served with him have grandkids and children in the Unbound program in this holy place.”
Father John Goggin, a priest of the New Ulm, Minnesota, Diocese who has served at the parish in San Lucas Toliman for nearly 50 years, was among the 200 priests and 50 bishops participating in the beatification. He and the late Msgr. Greg Schaffer served as sacramental ministers in Santiago Atitlan after Father Rother was killed. Father Goggin is also the longtime coordinator of Unbound’s Atitlan program.
“Stan was a person who was very easy to be with, to converse with,” Father Goggin said. “He was a person who was at peace with himself and at peace with God.”
Loretta Shea Kline works as managing editor at Unbound’s headquarters in Kansas City, Kansas.