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‘He was a good shepherd’: Shrine of Blessed Stanley Rother dedicated in Oklahoma City

Coakley noted that the dedication of the new sanctuary – which includes, among other things, anointing the walls with oil and sprinkling holy water – serves to remind Christians of the dignity they have as baptized persons.

“God desires each of us to become holy,” he said.

The archbishop encouraged all in attendance to strive to increase devotion to Rother, “a very attractive and recognizable figure,” especially to Oklahoma youth considering the priesthood.

“At a time when the priesthood of Jesus Christ is so little understood, or so little valued – due, it is true, largely to the sins of some of our brothers – we need heroic, faithful, generous witnesses who remind us of the dignity of our calling,” Coakley said.

‘by father Apla’

Rother was born in 1935 in Okarche, Oklahoma, approximately 40 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. He attended Holy Trinity Church and Catholic school before entering the seminary, where he struggled academically. He persisted in his studies, despite his difficulties, and eventually graduated from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland. He was ordained a priest of the then Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa in 1963.

Blessed Stanley Rother during a carnival. Courtesy of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese Archives.

While Rother was in the seminary, St. John XXIII asked the North American churches to send assistance and establish missions in Central America. Shortly thereafter, the Oklahoma Diocese established a mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, a poor rural community composed mostly of indigenous people, a group called the Tz’utujil, descendants of the Maya.

Rother accepted an invitation to join the mission team five years after his ordination and would spend the next 13 years of his life in Guatemala, serving the people of the parish during the country’s civil war (1960–1996). While there, despite his academic struggles in the seminary, he was able to learn both Spanish and Tz’utujil and even translated the entire New Testament into the Tz’utujil language. The locals called him “Padre Apla’s,” which means “Father Francis” (Rother’s middle name) in Tz’utujil.

Blessed Stanley Rother and a child in Guatemala. . Frankie Williams. Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma.

During the country’s civil war, fought between government militants and rebel guerrillas, many Catholics were killed due to the Church’s insistence on continuing to educate and assist the poor. Rother briefly returned to his home state of Oklahoma after his name appeared on a right-wing death list, but he soon returned, knowing full well the dangers of doing so.

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A famous quote is attributed to him: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger”.

A few months later, in the early morning hours of July 28, 1981, three men in ski masks broke into the mission rectory where Rother lived. The men attempted to kidnap Rother at gunpoint, but he refused and held on, fighting but refusing to ask for help lest he endanger others in the parish mission. Within 15 minutes, the men had shot the priest twice and fled. No one has ever been tried for Rother’s murder. He was 46 years old.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City opened the cause for Rother’s canonization in 2007, and nine years later Pope Francis recognized Rother as a martyr. More than 20,000 people attended Rother’s beatification mass in Oklahoma City on September 23, 2017, for which he received his current title of “Blessed.”

In 2019, Governor Kevin Stitt proclaimed July 28 as “Blessed Stanley Rother Day” in Oklahoma.

‘where is it now’

Located just off I-35 in southern Oklahoma City, the architecture of the new shrine — which sits on a former golf course — is designed in a similar style to the church in Santiago Atitlan, where Rother served in Guatemala. Construction on the sanctuary began in November 2019. Its first rector, Father Don Wolf, is Rother’s cousin.

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