A Time to Speak – The story of a priest who died for his flock

Rother-wIn the early morning hours of July 29, 1981, two unknown assailants entered the parish house of the Church of Santiago Atitlan, Solola, in Guatemala. They found the room where the pastor, Father Stanley Rother, was hiding because of death threats. The assailants shot him and he died immediately.

This year, July 29, 2016, will commemorate the 35th anniversary of his martyrdom, the only U.S. priest killed in Guatemala, though hundreds of others — priests, catechists and church workers — were killed in Guatemala during the years of civil conflict between the 1960s and 1996, when peace accords were finally signed.

After his death, his body was sent back to his home town in Oklahoma to be buried. But the people of Santiago asked the Archbishop of Oklahoma to send Father Stanley’s heart back to them, so they could bury it in their church because parishioners considered him their martyr.

The archbishop agreed and today one can see the place in the floor where his heart is buried. A commemorative plaque hangs on the wall with a tribute to the martyred Padre of Santiago Atitlan.

We two, Maria and Father Jim, have visited this church and have seen the place where Father Stanley’s heart is revered.
We have also visited and seen the blood stains on a wall in the room where Father Stanley was martyred. It is a place reserved as sacred by the people of Santiago.

In 1968, Father Stanley arrived at the parish of Santiago from his diocese in Oklahoma. He came as a missionary speaking Spanish, though he did not know the language of the Mayan Tz’utuhil people of Santiago, only a few of whom spoke Spanish.

So he began to learn their language in order to identify himself more closely with the parishioners, a very difficult task for a North American. He also adopted the culture, and quickly fell in love with the poor and oppressed people of Santiago.

He also fell in love with the beauty of the area, with an enormous volcanic lake (Lake Atitlan) surrounded by three beautiful volcanoes where coffee grows in the rich soil.

The Tz’utuhil people had difficulties pronouncing his baptismal name, Stanley. So Father Stanley changed his name to Padre Francisco. Still, since many Mayans did not speak or understand Spanish, they named him Padre A’plas, a title of affection in the native Tz’utuhil language.

A short time after his arrival in Santiago, Padre A’plas began to develop cooperatives for the coffee farmers around the mountains. He also established a nutrition center, built schools and a health clinic and created a radio station to educate the people about their faith and where he could speak about their dignity as human beings, a dignity denied them for centuries as indigenous peoples.

Padre A’plas also began to translate the Mass and the Bible into the Tz’utuhil language.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, insurgencies began in many parts of Guatemala against the government. These insurgencies attempted to address militarily the injustices and indignities endured by the Mayan peoples.

Many insurgents operated in the mountains and the government suspected many indigenous peoples were helping the insurgents.

During those years many members of the parish of Santiago Atitlan began to disappear, including many catechists and farmers. The Guatemalan government accused catechists of being “subversives” because they promoted the dignity of Mayans, as Padre A’plas himself preached.

Padre A’plas publicly condemned the many injustices against his Tz’utuhil people, and for that he repeatedly received death threats from unknown sources.

People advised Padre A’plas to flee, but he wrote to his family in Oklahoma: “The pastor cannot flee from the flock”.

However as things worsened, Padre Francisco did leave and returned to Oklahoma where he stayed for a short time. Despite the threats, he felt he could not stay away from his beloved people and decided to return for Holy Week in April of 1981. Three months after his arrival, on the 28th day of July, Padre A’plas was assassinated.

He was one of 13 priests assassinated in Guatemala during the 36-year war, although he was the only U.S. priest killed. More than 200,000 people were killed between 1960 and 1996, when the peace accords were finally signed.

Presently, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is in a process with the Vatican to have Father Stanley Rother canonized. The people of Santiago already revere Padre A’plas as a “saint”.

One Maryknoll Sister, Bernice Kita, who knew Padre A’plas very well, commented: “He chose to ignore the death threats he had received and to remain with his people. No doubt he was afraid, but he overcame his fear in order to do what he felt he had to do, that is to remain with the people of Santiago who were also being threatened”.

Father Stanley Rother, Padre Francisco, Padre A’plas is a martyr of the Tz’tuhil people, joining many other martyrs of Santiago Atitlan.

Father James Flynn and Maria Scharfenberger minister with Hispanic and Latino communities in the Archdiocese of Louisville.

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