BY CAROL BAASS SOWA
SAN ANTONIO • Sister Rose Marie Gallatin, CDP, remembers listening to the evening news in 1981 and hearing that Father Stanley Rother had been murdered in Guatemala. Three men had broken into the rectory at Santiago Atitlán and shot the gentle priest when he refused to go with them. The announcer went on to report that hundreds of the indigenous people, whom he had sought to protect from a brutal military regime, had gathered around the mission, stunned and in abject grief.
Memories flashed through Sister Rose Marie’s mind. A few years before, in 1978, she and Sister Sharon Garcia, CDP, had set out by bus to visit Father Rother’s Guatemalan mission for three weeks. The idea had been hers but, not speaking Spanish, she had enlisted Sister Sharon, who did, as her traveling companion. “I knew that the Diocese of Oklahoma had founded this mission down there and I was curious about it,” recalls Sister Rose Marie, an Oklahoma native.
The pair embarked on the memorable journey from Laredo by bus, stopping for a short visit with their congregation in Querétaro, Mexico, then on to Mexico City, Oaxaca and the southern border town of Tapachula. Along the way, they were halted by “the Feds,” who had been tipped off smugglers with contraband were on board and wanted their “cut.” This, the sisters learned, was normal procedure.
A taxi ferried them across the Guatemalan border to Talisman, where the pair purchased bus tickets on the ironically named Transportes Rapido Del Sur. That long and arduous ride (shared with live goats and chickens) was notable for boards placed across the aisle to seat more passengers, who rode bent over so the police would not see their heads.
Eventually deposited at a muddy little crossroads called Cocalee, they waited under a coconut tree for the rickety, filled-beyond-capacity bus to Santiago Atitlán and MICATOKLA (Misión Catlica de Oklahoma). Here, they were graciously welcomed by the pastor, Father Stanley Rother, a farm boy from Okarche, Okla., who had been serving the indigenous Tz’utujil people, descendants of the Mayans, for ten years and was affectionately known as Padre Francisco.
“The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” Father Stanley Rother Missionary and martyr
“He is willing to stay as long as they need him,” Sister Rose Marie noted in an account of the trip written for her congregation back home. “He is priest, mechanic, farmer, welder, medical assistant, builder, linguist, etc.,” she wrote, and was fluent in both Spanish and Tz’utujil, a native dialect used only in that village. This was especially remarkable as his inability to learn Latin had initially kept him from becoming a priest as a seminarian at St. John’s-Assumption Seminary in San Antonio years before. He later succeeded in his studies at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland.
The first memory of Father Rother that comes to Sister Rose Marie’s mind today is of him standing over a huge pot of boiling water on the rectory stove, sterilizing baby bottles. “The Nestlé Company had sold Latin American mothers on the importance of bottle feeding,” she relates, which included using their product. However, the people in Santiago Atitlán had no knowledge or means of sterilizing the bottles, which soon reeked of stagnant filth.
The infant mortality rate was high, she recalls, and if a child survived past the age of five or six, they could expect to live to be 45, 50 at most. She was a robust 50 years old at the time and remembers Nicholás, a wizened, indigenous who had managed to make it past 50. His skin felt and looked like leather. Every day, for six years, he had been coming to the mission for lunch. “Father Rother always cut his meat,” she relates, “and the whole time, he spoke to him in Tz’utujil, the old man’s dialect.”
Another memorable regular was Tomás. At Mass, he would follow behind Father Rother in the entry procession. “He would bow to the left and bow to the right like he was part of the whole event,” she recalls with a smile. When he became ill, Father Rother came to him. “Even though Tomás was dying, he sat upright,” she says. “He put his hand on Father Rother’s head and sang to him a blessing in the Tz’utujil Indian dialect.” Not long after, Tomás died.
Assisting Father Rother was a native priest, Padre Adán García, whom Sister Rose Marie recollects waking them early one morning to borrow their window curtains. They were needed to decorate the village queen’s parade float, part of the week-long festivities honoring parish namesake St. James (Santiago). That week was also marked by 300 children making first Communion, 80 couples being married, dances performed by costumed natives portraying their history, and a procession of patron saint statues from nearby villages.
The land’s natural beauty was impressive, she recalls. The village perched on the shores of gigantic Lake Atitlán, surrounded by three volcanoes. Its ancient mission church was built in 1541 by the Franciscans. Existence was harsh, though, for the impoverished Tz’utujil people. In a village to the north, the men had come together to ask the government for enough land to sustain their families and were massacred. “Officials said the Indians came armed with machetes,” Sister Rose Marie relates. “The Indians have one tool by which they live and harvest, and that’s the machete. They weren’t out to kill anybody.”
A recurring terror was the periodic military sweeps through the villages, in which indigenous teenage boys were abducted by soldiers to fight in the ongoing civil war, with no opportunity to tell loved ones what had happened. “If word leaks out,” she wrote to her fellow sisters, “some head for the mountains. Some have sought asylum at the mission.” Sister Rose Marie thinks of that today when she hears of children trying to escape from Guatemala and countries where similar situations exist.
She also remembers Father Rother telling her it was believed a Maryknoll priest there, a relative of Sister Charlene Wedelich, CDP, in San Antonio, had been killed for trying to better conditions. A bomb had been put in his plane. Rumor also had it, he told her, Guatemala would not permit any more U.S. missionary foundations. The situation continued to worsen after the sisters left. “He would go and get people who had been murdered, catechists,” relates Sister Rose Marie, “and he would bring them to the mission and bury them.”
Still, Father Rother stayed at his post. He continued to do so even after his name was placed on a death list. “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” he wrote in a letter home. It became the title of a book of his collected letters, published after his death, The Shepherd Cannot Run: Letters of Stanley Rother, Missionary and Martyr, and used in the title of his biography by María Ruiz Scaperlanda, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma.
When the two Divine Providence sisters left for home, he was in the process of having native woodcarvers carve scenes to be inserted around the main altar in the church, depicting the Last Supper as if it had taken place in their village. He was also planning to print a New Testament with side-by-side pages in Spanish and Tz’utujil, a language first put into writing by Father Ramon Carlin, Oklahoma founder of the mission.
Concerned for the sisters’ safety, Father Rother arranged to personally drive them to the airport at Tapachula. When he took ill that day, Father Adán drove them instead. They left with fond memories of the mission and its people, but many sobering thoughts on the vast differences between our well-developed nation and the destitute state of persons in a country so close by.
In her account of their Guatemalan experiences, Sister Rose Marie noted that country’s “tremendous natural resources and beauty given by God,” but added that “wealth is in the hands of a few.” Her concluding words were prophetic. “Needless to say,” she wrote, “I am very impressed with the people serving there at the mission. They are giving their lives to help the poor.”