Rothers still rooted to land where martyred priest and siblings grew up

IMAGE: CNS photo/Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick

By Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick

OKARCHE, Okla. (CNS) — Tom
Rother and his wife of 52 years, Marti, live on the farm where he grew up, less
than an hour’s drive from their five children and 15 grandchildren.

Though the farm, located three
miles from the center of Okarche, is now run by his oldest two sons, he still
spends days in the gently sloping fields, cutting hay alongside them and
raising calves. At first glance, his life seems exceptional mostly in its
rootedness: He attends the same parish and farms the same land where he was

He also is a brother to
the first U.S.-born martyr, Father Stanley Rother, who will be beatified Sept.
23 in Oklahoma City. He was gunned down in 1981 in the Guatemalan village where
he ministered.

Tom, like his older
brother Stan and their other siblings, grew up surrounded by farming, family
and faith.

They began their day with
farm chores and breakfast. Then, as Tom remembered, “We’d come in on the school
bus, put our things up, and go over to church where they had Mass every morning,”
at Holy Trinity Catholic Church and School, still a thriving community in the
Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, 30 miles northwest of the city.

After school, “we came
home and had cows to milk and chores to do,” he said. After dinner, “especially
during the month of Mary and in the winter time, we prayed the rosary,” Tom
Rother recollected in an interview for Catholic News Service.

“I would try to sneak upstairs
a little early,” he said with a shrug and a laugh. “But it didn’t work. They
were good parents. They pushed it.”

In addition to a strict
household order that centered on work and prayer, the Rother parents modeled
patience and love, “I hardly ever heard a cross word,” between my parents, Tom

The parish priest, Father
Edmund Von Elm, was a regular part of their family life, helping with the farm
work and staying for dinner. “One of my dad’s best friends was the priest up
here at Holy Trinity,” Tom said. “He loved to be around hay and cattle, ’cause
he was a farm boy himself. I think that was one of the motivations for Stan and
Sister to go to the religious life.”

Tom was 13 when Stan and
Betty Mae, now Sister Marita, left. “I was surprised. It just didn’t happen
very often,” he said. “I just remember when Sister told me she was going. We
were out digging potatoes. She told me that day, that come a little later in
the summer, she was going to Wichita to be a nun. I couldn’t believe it.”

Betty Mae left a few
weeks before Stan — leaving Tom and their brother Jim to take over many of the
farm chores. “We lost all of our help!” Tom laughed. “They just doubled up on
us, and worked a little harder too.”

Sister Marita is a member
of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ and lives in Wichita, Kansas.

A few years after his
ordination, when Father Rother volunteered for the mission in Guatemala, Tom
wasn’t surprised. “He was just a little different,” he said.

“It takes a special
person,” he said, especially in a time when many men were leaving the
priesthood altogether. In Father Stan’s class alone, five of the 11 men
ordained left within seven years. “It was really sad when these priests just
started dropping out. We had three at Okarche quit.”

His brother persisted,
following the model of a parish priest that Father Von Elm set for him. He worked
and broke bread alongside his parishioners. He was dedicated to them even when he
was in danger. “He was home just before [he was killed] and you could just see
it in him, he wanted to go back so bad to be with those people,” he said,
recalling when he heard the news of his brother’s death.

“We were in Tennessee,
that was our only vacation. When they told me that the phone was for me, I
says, well, I can tell you what happened. And, so, we took off in the middle of
the night, and drove,” he remembered. “Next morning, Paul Harvey come on and
said that there’s been a Catholic priest from Okarche, Oklahoma, who was
murdered in Guatemala. Now, that would have been our first news, if Dad
wouldn’t have got ahold of us.”

After Stan died, it
didn’t occur to him that perhaps his brother was a saint. “That’s a thing for
back in the 16th century, not to come to a little old farmstead like this, you
know,” he said.

Since then, he has heard of his
brother’s intercession in four situations and witnessed it in one, though it is
unlikely any are up to the Vatican standards for a miracle. His wife got
knocked down by a cow, hit her head, and was in danger of being trampled by the
50 cows in the lot.

“I said, Stan buddy, if you ever
help me, buddy, help me now,” he said, recalling his fear at how the cows were
moving around. Miraculously, “some of them went into the barn and stayed.”

Pointing, Tom said, “the other
ones stayed over in this corner, and there we were, and I was there with her,
and them cows could have run right over us. But they just instantly calmed
down. So, I just figured that was my miracle.”

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