In seminary, he struggled with Latin, had to repeat a year of philosophy and failed theology. One of his brother priests thought he was too “dumb” to have been ordained. Yet, he may be one of the Church’s next to be canonized a saint.
Over first two weekends of October, Arkansans in Barling, Bentonville, Little Rock, Benton and Jonesboro had the opportunity to learn about Blessed Stanley Rother, as representatives toured the state from the Oklahoma City shrine, pilgrimage center and museum being built in his honor. Attendees learned about the life of the Oklahoma priest and martyr and got construction updates on the new facility, which will be dedicated Feb. 17.
The $40 million, 60-acre campus will feature a 2,000-seat church designed in the Spanish mission style, recalling Father Rother’s church in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, St. James the Apostle Church. A 6,000-square-foot museum and pilgrim center will feature artifacts from his life, martyrdom and beatification; and a two-story event and education building will offer classrooms, administrative offices and space for receptions and retreats for pilgrims visiting the shrine.
Jason Spoolstra, director of pilgrimages for the Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine in Oklahoma City, said his team received a great reception in Arkansas, with as many as 80 people coming to hear their presentation at each stop .
“What I hope is achieved is that people realize he was just an everyday guy,” Spoolstra said. “He didn't come from a family of affluence. He was just a salt-of-the-earth guy. He struggled. He failed. But he got back up and said, ‘I'm not gonna let this deter me. I'm gonna keep pushing through.’ And that's a great example for us all. Saints are among us.”
Spoolstra said the shrine hit its original fundraising goals, but COVID-related building issues drove costs up unexpectedly.
“The cost of everything has gone up, beyond even what we had budgeted, so while we met the goal, we’re still short because expenses have gone up,” he said.
Father Rother was born to a Catholic farming family on March 27, 1935, in Okarche, Okla. The summer after he graduated high school, he felt called to the seminary. In 1953, at 18, he began two years of preparatory work at St. John Seminary in San Antonio before transferring across town to Assumption Seminary. While Assumption asked him to leave after he failed a theology class, his bishop, Bishop Victor Reed, sent him to Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri to study Latin for a summer before he transferred to Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. On May 25, 1963, Bishop Reed ordained Father Rother.
After serving as a priest for five years, Father Rother, 33, volunteered to serve the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa’s four-year-old mission in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, a parish founded by Franciscans in 1547.
According to the book “Blessed Stanley Rother, The First American Martyr,” by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor, by the mid-70s the military government was suspicious of Catholics like Father Rother, who started a hospital, school, co-op farm to help poor farmers and a radio station to preach and educate. Father Rother learned Spanish and the local unwritten indigenous language, Tz’utujil, and soon was preaching without an interpreter.
Priests and catechists were targeted by terrorist groups, and many left. Bishop Taylor wrote that “between 1979 and 1981 Guatemala lost half of its priests, 80 percent of whom were foreign missionaries.”
Father Rother, who was by then was the leader of the Oklahoma mission in Guatemala, was first included on a “death list” in May 1979. He stayed in Guatemala until Jan. 28, 1981, when he came home to Oklahoma for six weeks but returned on Palm Sunday, April 11, in order to celebrate Easter with his flock of 22,000.
He returned to Oklahoma to attend his cousin’s ordination on May 16, 1981. It was the last time his family would see him alive. At 1:25 a.m. on July 28, three men attacked Father Rother in his church and shot him twice in the head.
In 2007, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City opened the canonization cause for Father Rother. Pope Francis declared him a martyr Dec. 1, 2016, making him the first martyr from the United States. He was beatified in Oklahoma City Sept. 23, 2017, becoming the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified.
The next day, Blessed Stanley Rother Mission in Decatur (Benton County) became the first Catholic church in the world to be named for him.
Now, if a miracle can be attributed to Blessed Stanley, he can be canonized a saint.
Cynthia Aranda, the shrine’s executive assistant who gave the Spanish presentations, said many are already claiming Blessed Stanley’s intervention.
“I receive those phone calls,” she said. “The first time I got one I was just jumping up and down. So I went to the deacon who is collecting all of the information, and he goes, ‘Calm down, Cynthia. We get these phone calls all the time.’ Now it’s just the process of proving that they are truly miracles and getting the Vatican’s approval, but I think it's just a matter of time. He only needs one.”
For more information on the Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine, construction updates or to make a donation, visit rothershrine.org.
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