Cawker City — In the cozy rectory behind SS. Peter and Paul Church sits Father Don McCarthy, with a myriad of items relating to his friend, Father Stanley Rother. “It’s kind of like a shrine in here,” he said, looking around. At the window sits a framed picture of Father Rother with Guatemalean children. He has a box dedicated entirely to correspondence from his seminary chum. “He and I were close friends,” Father McCarthy said. The retired priest will be among the throngs gathered Sept. 23 in the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, Okla. to witness the beatification of Father Rother, a priest for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. The beatification begins at 10:30 a.m. and seating is open to the public; no ticket is necessary. Father Rother was gunned down in the rectory of his church in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala. He was considered a martyr by the church in Guatemala, and was formally recognized by Pope Francis as a martyr Dec. 2, 2016. The recognition by the pontiff cleared the way for his beatification.
Originally from Galveston, Texas, Father McCarthy attended seminary in San Antonio. “Stan and I were not in the same class in the seminary, but we got to be good friends, due to working together in the book bindery and visitations at each other’s homes in vacation time,” Father McCarthy said. Father Rother was two years behind him in the seminary. Eventually, Father Rother was asked to leave because of difficulty with Latin. “All of the philosophy and theology textbooks and canon law were all in Latin,” Father McCarthy said. “That was the way things were then.” Father Rother departed during Father McCarthy’s final year of seminary. “There were so many Oklahoma guys in the seminary with us,” he said. “Stanley was from Oklahoma. They were heartbroken when we found out he was asked to leave.” Yet Father Rother didn’t give up on his vocation. Bishop Victor Reed found another seminary in Maryland. “We kept in touch,” Father McCarthy said. “I used to visit in the summertime. I would stay at Stanley’s home and tried to help at farm work, but I wasn’t very good at it. “When I was ordained in 1959, he and his mother came to Galveston for my First Mass. He was thurifer for my First Mass.” In return, Father McCarthy acted as subdeacon for Father Rother’s First Solemn High Mass in 1963.
In 1968, Father Rother went to Santiago Atitlan on assignment from the Diocese of Oklahoma City-Tulsa (which is now the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City). Called “Padre Francisco” and “Padre Aplas,” he helped the locals build a small hospital, school and radio station. Father McCarthy said. He also taught the locals improved methods of farming and fishing. In spite of his difficulties with Latin in his first seminary, Father Rother translated the Mass and several parts of the New Testament into Tz’utujil, the language of his parishioners, Father McCarthy said. “He and I stayed in contact when he went down to Guatemala,” Father McCarthy said. “He was very much a part of the community for years.” The mission was about 10 years old when Father Rother arrived, with a staff of 10, Father McCarthy said. “But gradually over the years, he was the only one left,” Father McCarthy said. The Rother family and his friends knew the continued presence in Guatemala was dangerous. “He knew he was on a death list,” Father McCarthy said. “(His family) encouraged him to stay, but he went back. He always said ‘The shepherd cannot run.’ I was always edified by his attitude. He could have stayed home and been safe, but he said ‘I want to be with my people.’ ”
Father McCarthy remembers getting the call. “I was visiting with some people Sunday night and I got a call from Frans Rother and he said ‘They killed Stan.’ ” Father McCarthy said. As a friend, he was touched the Rother family thought to call him a mere 24 hours after the murder. “After Stanley was killed, they kept his heart in a shrine in his mission church,” Father McCarthy said. “It’s still there as a shrine.” The Guatemalean church wished to keep Father Rother’s body, but it was returned to Oklahoma and he was buried in Okarche in 1981. “I always regret that I couldn’t go to his funeral,” he said softly, adding he had obligations with members of his parish that could not be re-scheduled.
“I was not surprised to hear that he was up for sainthood,” Father McCarthy said. “The Guatemalean people considered him a martyr right away.” “Being a martyr was one way to become a saint. Once you’re declared a martyr, it cleared the way for his beatification, which is the next to last step to sainthood.” Once he is beatified on Sept. 23, Father Rother will be called “Blessed.” In order for a beatified person to become a saint, a miracle must be attributed to their cause. Because of their friendship, Father McCarthy was one of many people called to give a testimony for Father Rother on his road to eventual sainthood. Father McCarthy said his friend’s life serves as an example for everyone. “All of us are called to make sacrifices in life,” he said. “Maybe not the supreme sacrifices (Father Rother) did, but all of us need to realize we have duties and obligations we cannot run from.” Catholic News Service contributed biographical background on Father Rother to this story.