Nebraskans take pride in Oklahoma priest-cousin declared martyr for faith
Dolores Wieser of St. Isidore Parish in Columbus is among relatives proud of Father Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, declared this month a martyr for the faith – the first martyr born in the United States.
The Vatican made the announcement Dec. 2. Recognition of his martyrdom – Father Rother was shot and killed in 1981 while serving the poor in Guatemala – clears the way for his beatification.
"We’re really proud of him," said Wieser, a cousin to Father Rother. "His parents used to come from Oklahoma to visit my parents. We were close to that family."
"We’ve been praying all along for his sainthood," said Wieser’s sister, School Sister of St. Francis Elizabeth Fuchs, who is retired in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Wieser said their mother was the sister of Father Rother’s grandfather. The two families settled in Nebraska and Oklahoma, with relatives now living in both states and elsewhere, she said.
Father Rother was born in 1935, on his family’s farm near Okarche, Okla. Wieser said she remembers his family’s visits to the farm where she grew up as a member of St. Francis Parish in Humphrey. She has a photo that shows Father Rother with her when she was 20 years old and he was 13.
"He was wonderful," she said.
Wieser said that 10 years ago, she, Sister Fuchs, their sister, the late Theresa Wemhoff, and Wemhoff’s daughter, Doris Horne of St. Bonaventure Parish in Columbus, traveled to Guatemala with now-Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius Beltran of Oklahoma City and others to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Father Rother’s death.
"When we went to the churches where he served, the people just packed the churches," she said. "The people loved him."
The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City has undertaken Father Rother’s sainthood cause, and if he is beatified, the ceremony could be held in Oklahoma City, Wieser said. If that should happen, she and Sister Fuchs would be among relatives determined to attend, she said.
Father Rother went to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, in 1968 on assignment from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. He helped people there build a small hospital, school and its first Catholic radio station. He was beloved by the locals, who called him "Padre Francisco."
But he was murdered July 28, 1981, one of many priests and religious in Guatemala who became targets during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war as government forces cracked down on leftist rebels supported by the rural poor.
Before Father Rother was killed, the bodies of some of his deacons and parishioners were left in front of his church, and he received death threats over his opposition to the Guatemalan military in the area.
He went back to Oklahoma for a brief period, but returned to the people he had grown to love in the more than dozen years he lived there. Father Rother was gunned down at age 46 in the rectory of his church in Santiago Atitlan. On the day he died, troops also killed 13 townspeople and wounded 24 others in the village 50 miles west of Guatemala City.
Father Rother’s body was returned to Oklahoma, but his family gave permission for his heart and some of his blood to be enshrined in the church where he died. A memorial plaque marks the place.
Catholic News Service contributed to this report