Meeting a Martyr
Above left, Glenmary Father Frank Schenk interacts with a child. Above right, Father Stanley Rother, an American martyr scheduled to be beatified Sept. 23, 2017, does the same. The two met in the course of their ministry many years ago.
Illuminated by torchlight, the two priests processed up the aisle led by native Guatemalan women, their aprons laden with produce collected for the offering.
It was a rustic Mass even for Father Frank Schenk, a Glenmary Home Missioner with then-more than 25 years experience serving in rural parts of the United States and Colombia.
And Father Stanley Rother knew that every Mass could be his last. He had been warned that his name was on a “death list” for his work ministering to the native population.
Surrounded by mountains and abutting a lake, the mission church was an idyllic setting. The 40 acres of mission property owned by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City was fertile, and Father Rother – a farm boy from Okarche, Okla. – was teaching local Mayans how to cultivate the land.
“It was very primitive; there was no electricity, even in the rectory,” said Father Frank, now 101 years old and living in Cincinnati, Ohio. “But the attendance was impressive for a midweek Mass, and the collection was full of ears of corn and other items to be given to the poor.”
Less than a year after they concelebrated Mass together, Father Rother was assassinated in his rectory. As part of his mission work, Father Rother wanted to transfer the land around his mission to the indigenous people who farmed it. The Guatemalan government opposed Mayans owning property and killed many of those it viewed as sympathetic to the Mayans.
As a result of Father Rother’s sacrifice, Pope Francis named him a martyr in December 2016. Father Rother is the first American to receive the martyr designation. He will be beatified Sept. 23, 2017, in Oklahoma City. After beatification, the canonization committee must confirm a miracle attributed to Father Rother or have the requirement waived by the pope. Then, he may be formally declared a saint.
Father Rother and Father Frank first met by chance. In 1964, the priests served together as camp counselors at an Oklahoma diocesan youth camp. Father Rother was a newly ordained diocesan priest in the Diocese of Oklahoma City while Glenmary had recently assigned Father Frank to the Idabel, Okla., mission, St. Francis de Sales. Glenmary served the Idabel mission from 1957 until 2010. In total, Glenmary established 10 churches in Oklahoma.
Shortly after their meeting, Father Frank went to Glenmary’s mission in Colombia, and Father Rother headed to the Oklahoma City diocese’s mission in Guatemala.
Sixteen years later, on a trip celebrating the 25th anniversary of his ordination, Father Frank visited Guatemala. There, he saw Father Rother. The men reconnected, and Father Rother invited Father Frank to spend the night in his isolated mission parish in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
“I was only with him one day and one night, but I could tell that he was a very zealous advocate for his community,” Father Frank said. “He told me that he may be gunned down – that was no surprise to him – because he wanted to distribute land in parcels to the (Mayans) and let them be masters of their own land. He knew that was a dangerous thing to do.”
Father Rother had the opportunity to escape death, but felt a need to be with his people. After receiving a warning that he was on a government death list, Father Rother left the country. He returned briefly to Oklahoma in January 1981, but he could not stand to be away from his parishioners during Holy Week. In March 1981, he returned to Guatemala.
Walter Hamilton, a parishioner of former Glenmary mission St. Francis in Idabel, met Father Rother when he spoke at Walter's college, and it made an impression.
“Father Rother told us that his life had been threatened in Guatemala, but that the people there needed him, and he was not afraid to die,” Walter said.
In a letter written during his mission work, Father Stanley said, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”
On July 28, 1981, assassins threatened a night watchman protecting Father Rother, entered his rectory and shot him twice. He refused to cry out, because he did not want to endanger his parishioners. Before his remains were returned to the states, his parishioners were granted permission to remove his heart and bury it under the altar.
The holy site has now become a tourist attraction, said Deacon José Pineda, a pastoral associate serving Glenmary’s Holy Family Church in Lafayette, Tenn. The Mayan parishioners preserved the scene from Father Rother’s death and turned his rectory into a shrine. Visitors can see the marks from the two bullets that killed Father Rother and his toppled chair from when he struggled with the killers.
Deacon José grew up in Guatemala, living in the small town of San Ramon outside Guatemala City. Largely sheltered from the civil war, he moved to the United States in 1985. More than 25 years later, he visited Santiago Atitlan while working for the Nashville diocese. Members of the diocese wanted to visit Guatemala to learn more about the culture, because a number of Guatemalans had moved into the area. Deacon José translated on a tour of the country.
“(Father Rother) was like a good shepherd trying to help his flock,” Deacon José said. “He saw the government constantly trying to take away his people’s land and negatively affect their way of life, and he advocated on their behalf. But working for their civil rights was interpreted as subversive action.”
Being alone, with no support, may have made Father Rother an easier target, Father Frank said. When the Santiago Atitlan mission began, the Oklahoma City diocese sent a few priests, a medical professional, an agronomist and a few lay ministers to develop the mission. By the time Father Frank visited, Father Rother was the only one left. It made him seem more isolated and vulnerable.
Though much of the civil war in Colombia had ended by the time Father Frank arrived in the 1960s, he could empathize with Father Rother. He knew a woman who lost all of her sons to the violence and knew an indigenous man who became a priest, was given his own parish and then was shot, because the government did not want any indigenous people in positions of power.
“Anyone with native blood was seen as a rabble-rouser,” Father Frank said. The political atmosphere was similar in Guatemala during Father Rother's time there.
Father Frank's seminary classmate was a missioner in Guatemala and told Father Frank the story of a young priest who was taken to a safe house in the Benedictine Marmion Abbey in Guatemala. Soldiers had twice visited the rectory searching for the priest, but as night fell, the soldiers simply drove by the abbey and would not come in the gates. A large tree was near the door of the rectory, and the soldiers feared that Mayans helped by the young priest would be hiding in the tree waiting to ambush the soldiers.
“It was a really dangerous time,” Father Frank said. “You had to be careful where you went and when you went there.”
Father Frank can remember how alone he often was in his Colombia mission work. Many of the sites were only accessible by horseback, and he spent days riding around to the mountain communities.
“That was the nature of mission work, and Father (Rother) was very passionate about his,” Father Frank said. “He was an interesting man. It is not every day you get to meet a living saint – I also met (St.) Teresa when she visited Tulsa – but I was glad to have known Father (Rother).”
Special thanks: Photos of Father Stanley Rother courtesy of Archdiocese of Oklahoma City Archive.
This story first appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.