Martyred priest 'always served those most in need,' says Guatemalan

IMAGE: CNS photo/Steve Sisney, Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

By Tony Gutierrez

CITY (CNS) — Wearing a red and black traditional Guatemalan shirt that
had belonged to martyred U.S. priest Father Stanley Rother, Ronald Arteaga traveled
from his village of Santiago Atitlan to witness the Sept. 23 beatification of
the pastor he knew as “Padre Aplas.”

though Arteaga was only 10 when now-Blessed Rother was martyred in 1981, he
remembers “he was always with the people of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, and
more than that, he identified with our indigenous population.”

sleeves on Arteaga’s shirt had to be rolled up because, as he recalled, Blessed
Rother was a tall man.

learned to speak Tz’utujil, the language of my people, and he always served the
people most in need,” Arteaga said.

Blessed Rother was killed, Arteaga recalled, it “broke the hearts of the
entire village,” but “we had hope that he would receive this honor and thanks
be to God that this day has arrived!”

estimated 20,000 packed the Cox Convention Center from across the country and
throughout the world to witness the beatification of the native Oklahoman who
would become the first U.S.-born martyr. Ordained for the Archdiocese of
Oklahoma City in 1963, Blessed Rother went to the archdiocesan mission in
Santiago Atitlan. He was gunned down in his rectory by three masked men in

Francis recognized the priest’s martyrdom last December, making him the
first martyr born in the United States and clearing the way for his

amazed at the size of the crowd and delighted so many people are interested in
celebrating his life,” said Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City during
a media availability. “He’s a local hero whose reputation goes far beyond

Don Wolf, a cousin of Blessed Rother, made an appeal for continued support of
the missions the martyr served in Santiago Atitlan and Cerro de Oro.

the people of his parish in Santiago Atitlan and Cerro de Oro and all of us
here in Oklahoma, he has led our eyes unwaveringly to the kingdom of God,” Father
Wolf said.

was for Father Wolf’s ordination in May 1981 that Blessed Rother made his last
visit to the United States, which Father Wolf said is a distinction that links
his priesthood to his cousin’s.

ordination they invoke the saints … at my ordination we had one,” Father Wolf
said. “It’s an enormous inspiration and an enormous challenge — the kind of
service his priesthood embodied is the kind of service that I strive to.”

“Chico” Chavajay, program coordinator for Unbound Project in Guatemala, was
only 1 when Blessed Rother was killed, but grew up in San Pedro, which is near
Santiago Atitlan, knowing who “Padre Alpas” was and the impact he had
on the community.

family benefited from the hospital he founded because one of my sisters went to
the hospital when I was 8 years old, and we didn’t have access to a closer
hospital,” Chavajay recalled. “If it wasn’t for his work, it would probably
have been a different story for my sister.”

now works for Unbound, an U.S.-based organization founded in 1981 by five lay
Catholics, including one who had worked with Blessed Rother in Guatemala.
Unbound works with children and the elderly in poor and marginalized
communities throughout the world. In Guatemala, Chavajay is responsible for
serving more than 60,000 families.

us, he’s like an angel we have in heaven to support this cause,” Chavajay said.
“We feel that Padre Aplas’ hand and prayers in heaven are helping guide us in
this life to continue bringing the Gospel and salvation to our brothers and
sisters in need.”

Estevan Wetzel and Ian Wintering from the Diocese of Phoenix traveled to the
ordination with a group of fellow seminarians attending St. John Vianney
Seminary in Denver. They were introduced to Blessed Rother’s story through
their Oklahoma brothers.

ordinary ‘yeses’ came with a great faith that at the end allowed him to receive
a martyr’s crown,” Wetzel said.

from Phoenix typically complete their Spanish immersion program in Antigua,
Guatemala, which is near the Santiago Atitlan mission. Wintering hopes to visit
Blessed Rother’s shrine when he studies there next summer. He said he pulls
inspiration from the slain priest’s “humility and simplicity.”

know how broken I am, and how humble he was,” Wintering reflected. “I seek his
intercession because being a ‘nobody’ priest, he rose to glory by following
God’s will, and I hope to do that in my own nothingness.”

Gabina Colo, local superior of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist in
Houston, brought her community to the beatification.

was a missionary in Guatemala — he gave his whole life to the people of
Guatemala,” Sister Gabina said. “Since we’re from Guatemala, it encourages us
to be missionaries here in the United States, so we can follow his example.”

Guillermo Trevino traveled from the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, for the
beatification. Serving in an area that relies heavily on agriculture, Father
Trevino was impressed at Blessed Rother’s “ordinariness.” The future martyr was
raised on his family’s farm about three miles from Okarche.

thing is he was so ordinary, but he had great gifts. In Guatemala he’d be
working the farm,” said Father Trevino, finding inspiration in his example. In
particular, he pointed to a line the late priest uttered that illustrates the
devotion he had to his flock: “The shepherd cannot run.” “Can I
do this?” Father Trevino has asked himself.

Mendoza Cervantes knew Padre Aplas in Santiago Atitlan. Her father, Juan
Mendoza Lacan, helped him to translate the Bible into Tz’utujil, and was
himself killed less than a year later on June 22, 1982. Dolores came to the
U.S. at 16 because she had threats on her own life, but pointed out as a result
of their efforts, “all the newer generations can read the language.”

now lives in Danube, California, with her husband, Robert Cervantes. They said
the government at the time considered teaching the Tz’utujil to read a threat.

Stanley and my father-in-law were brave enough to stand up to them,” Robert
said. “They knew they were going to be killed someday, but that didn’t stop
them from translating the Bible into Tz’utujil.”

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is editor of The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Diocese of Phoenix.

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