By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published November 27, 2017
CEDARTOWN—St. Bernadette Church, in Cedartown, along with its Guatemalan community celebrated a special Mass Sept. 16 in advance of the beatification of Father Stanley Rother.
Blessed Rother, the first American-born martyr and priest to be beatified, spent 13 years ministering to the people of Guatemala. He was murdered there in July 1981.
Father Timothy Gallagher, pastor of St. Bernadette, invited the priest’s cousin, Joe Rother, to attend the September Mass. Rother lives on a farm in nearby Rockmart with his two sons.
Father Gallagher attended the same seminary from which Blessed Rother graduated—Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
While many of Blessed Stanley Rother’s relatives attended the beatification Mass in the priest’s native Oklahoma on Sept. 23, Joe Rother was unable to do so. He was touched by the invitation of the St. Bernadette community to celebrate a week earlier.
“I was impressed. They were so good to us,” said Rother, who attended with his sons.
He said every person there came to shake their hands; even the musicians left their posts to come and welcome him to the church.
“It just about got me. I was so moved,” he said.
Rother, the only person in his extended family living in Georgia, understands the respect the people of Guatemala have for his cousin.
“He was martyred there,” he said.
Rother was raised west of Oklahoma City in rural Okarche, Oklahoma. He spent a lot of time with his cousins, including Stanley Rother, who was older.
“We all grew up out there together. We all rode the bus. I came from a family of 13,” explained Rother.
The community was agricultural, and all of the children came straight home from school and immediately started chores.
“It was all part of life. We knew how to do things,” he said. “We all grew up the same way.”
Sundays were days of rest, and holy days, Good Fridays and confirmations were important in their culture, which Rother described as “100 percent German.”
As Catholics, they were in the minority and sometimes were called names by other students. But Rother said the Catholic families all homesteaded together.
“That’s what kept them together,” he explained.
He recalled Blessed Stanley Rother as a leader.
“Stanley was the oldest son,” he said.
One day on the bus, Stanley’s younger brother, Tommy, started a fight with Joe Rother, who was just a first-grader at the time.
Joe Rother worried that the bus driver blamed him and that he would get in trouble with his own parents when he arrived home. But Stanley came to his cousin’s defense, shining a light on what had really happened.
Joe Rother said Stanley spoke up, saying to his younger brother, “Tom, it was your fault.”
At the Sept. 23 beatification Mass in Oklahoma City, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, recalled the courage of Father Rother.
“Formed in the school of the Gospel, he saw even his enemies as fellow human beings. He did not hate, but loved. He did not destroy, but built up,” Cardinal Amato said.
The cardinal was the main celebrant and was joined by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, of Oklahoma City, and retired Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran, who opened the sainthood cause 10 years ago.
Before Cardinal Amato read the apostolic letter declaring Father Rother “Blessed,” Archbishop Beltran gave remarks to the thousands assembled, saying that little did Father Rother know that his growing-up years on his family’s farm near Okarche “would mold him into the kind of man who would make great strides when he volunteered to go to Guatemala.”
He was nearly expelled from the seminary because he had such a difficult time learning Latin, but went on to be ordained for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City in 1963.
Pope Francis spoke about Blessed Rother after praying the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square Sept. 24. He recalled with love the “missionary priest, killed out of hatred for the faith, for his work in evangelization and the human advancement of the poorest in Guatemala.”
Once in Guatemala to serve in Santiago Atitlán, Father Rother learned the language of the Mayan descendants who were his parishioners.
He worked side by side with the people, “teaching them many of the agricultural practices he learned in Okarche,” Archbishop Beltran said.
The mission was 10 years old when Father Rother arrived in 1968 and had a staff of 10. The number of missionaries declined as the country’s civil war intensified. Eventually, Father Rother’s name appeared on a death list and he returned home.
On his last visit to Oklahoma, Father Rother reportedly told friends, “The shepherd cannot run. I want to be with my people.”
Joe Rother said a family member had sent a bulldozer down to Guatemala so that Father Rother could plow land and make garden spaces so that the people he served would have food. The priest also emphasized education to the poor people of Guatemala.
“The government couldn’t stand that,” said Rother about his cousin’s endeavors.
Within three months of his return to Guatemala, three masked men shot him at the rectory.
Rother, who is now teaching his sons, Ashton and Matthew, about farming, thinks often of his cousin’s cause for sainthood.
“I pray for him every morning,” he said.