By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
HILLS — The upcoming beatification of Father Stanley Rother, America’s first martyr, has personal significance for Laura Rother Westemeyer of St. Joseph Parish, who is his cousin.
Westemeyer teared up several times as she spoke Aug. 26 at her parish about her cousin’s ministry to indigenous Mayans during the brutal, 36-year civil war in Guatemala. Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of Fr. Rother on Dec. 2, 2016. Ceremonies for his beatification will take place Sept. 23 in his home archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Fr. Rother was murdered in his Guatemalan rectory on July 28, 1981. His slayers remain unknown, but it is believed they acted on behalf of their government.
Fr. Rother knew his life was in danger in those final months of his life, serving the impoverished people of Santiago Atitlán, but he told his family that a shepherd couldn’t abandon his flock. He arrived at the mission in 1968, five years after being ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, and died in the mission rectory the same day as Westemeyer’s birthday. Her father, Lawrence Rother, was the priest’s first cousin. “My dad talked about Fr. Stan a lot,” said Westemeyer, who saw the priest a few times when he returned to Oklahoma for visits.
Speaking to a gathering of the Iowa City Deanery’s Social Action Committee, she said her cousin’s service to others reflects a commitment engrained in the Rother family. “It was the way we were raised, to help our community,” she said. “Fr. Stan had his Guatemala. I have my Regency,” she continued, referring to Regency Mobile Home Park in Iowa City, where she volunteers.
She introduced the gathering of about 35 people to Robert “Chip” Burch, who produced a documentary on the life of Fr. Rother for Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA). He showed “Oklahoma Martyr” to the Hills group, and some of the viewers took note of the insights shared in the documentary. Historical film footage and photos showed Fr. Rother ministering in Santiago Atitlán, towering over, but always in the midst of his people. He became fluent in their language.
As a seminarian, the priest had struggled mightily to understand Latin, the language in which his classes were taught. He was dismissed from the seminary, but his bishop gave him a second chance. Years later, in addition to his pastoral duties to the Mayans, Fr. Rother assisted in the translation of the New Testament into their Tzutuhil language, according to an Archdiocese of Oklahoma fact sheet. In 1973, he began to celebrate the Mass in that language.
Stark images from the civil war, including those of slain Guatemalans, appear in the documentary. Fr. Rother’s parents, the late Franz and Gertrude, appear in file footage, reflecting on their eldest child’s commitment to the people he served. One poignant image shows the parents seated in chairs in the room of the mission rectory where their son was murdered. His body is buried in Oklahoma City, but his heart was returned to the mission where he served.
A young cousin, whose miraculous recovery 25 years ago from a rare brain aneurism is being attributed to Fr. Rother’s intercession, shared her story in the documentary. OETA will broadcast Oklahoma Martyr on Sept. 23, 24 and 25 ( www.oeta.tv/schedule).
“He was so connected to the people in their village,” Burch said of Fr. Rother. “He learned their language and became one with the people.” That is what made him a target of the government. “He had a real heart for the Gospel,” Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City said in the documentary.