Worshippers surge into a church in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. Sr. Cecilia Fandel visited a martyred priest’s shrine in the town 20 years ago, and she recently returned from meeting the priest’s sister and visiting his hometown in Oklahoma. (Submitted photo by Sr. Ceceilia Fandel)

When Sr. Cecilia Fandel took a monthlong sabbatical to study Spanish in Guatemala in 1996, she didn’t know she would be visiting a shrine of a future saint, or that she shared a deeper connection with the priest martyred during the Guatemalan civil war.

“We … visited the place (Santiago Atitlan) where Fr. Stanley Rother, a missionary from Oklahoma, was martyred in 1981,” the Servite sister wrote in her reflections from the trip. “There is a memorial there now. The day we were there, the ‘grupos de ninos’ (children’s groups) had an outdoor procession with the Blessed Sacrament, ending up in church with much singing, prayer and celebrating.”

Fr. Rother was a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Five year after he was ordained, he was sent as a missionary to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. He was there for 13 years. Fr. Rother was very much a people’s priest and was much loved by children and adults alike, Sr. Cecilia explained. He used his farming background to help them improve their main crops of corn and beans. In 1975, he initiated primary health care for the people through Project Concern. He helped build a hospital, a school and the community’s first radio station.

He learned the local Mayan Tz’utujil language and translated the New Testament. The people called him Padre A’Plas, “Fr. Francis” – his baptismal name. Fr. Rother wanted to distribute land in parcels to the Mayan people, so they could be masters of their own land.

It was a dangerous thing to do, and soon the government had the priest on their hit list. When he realized the threat, he returned to the United States to his parents’ home in Okarche. But after two-and-a-half months, he decided to return to his beloved people.

“A shepherd does not run at the first sign of danger,” he said. “Pray for us, that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people.”

He returned in time for Holy Week services in 1981. On July 28, 1981, assassins entered his one-room rectory at the back of the church and killed him.

On Dec. 2, 2016, Pope Francis declared Fr. Rother a martyr, the first American-born person to be so declared.

The trip from 20 years ago, and the missionary priest’s fate, resurfaced in Sr. Cecilia’s mind this spring.

While working on her father’s genealogy in April, Sr. Cecilia noticed one of her third cousins, an Alig, had married a Rother. She needed to contact the cousin for a genealogy story she was writing, so the Servite sister called her newly found cousin, Florence Alig Rother.

In the course of the conversation, Sr. Cecilia asked if Florence had known Fr. Rother. Florence replied, “Why yes, he is my nephew, and grew up here in Okarche, Oklahoma. I knew him well.”

Sr. Cecilia discovered Fr. Rother would be beatified in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on Sept. 23, the last step in the process toward canonization. There would need to be a Church-approved miracle or a waiver of the requirement by Pope Francis for canonization.

Florence told Sr. Cecilia of a miracle that occurred to her daughter, Michelle.

A teacher in her 40s, Michelle was taken to the hospital where she lay unconscious for days. She had a blood condition caused by her kidneys in which all her extremities – fingers, hands, toes, feet – were turning black. Family, relatives and schoolchildren immediately began to pray for her, asking Fr. Rother to intercede for a complete healing.

Michelle was put on machines of every type for a week, but nothing helped. The doctor said they would have to amputate; she said no, so they sent her home after 35 days of hospitalization.

Some of her fingers were eventually amputated to the first or second digit, and then the black unexpectedly began to recede. The continued amputation of hands and feet was no longer necessary.

Doctors have dismissed her, and her condition is considered normal. Michelle has been back teaching for three years now. The family believes this to be a miracle attributable to Fr. Rother.

Michelle herself wrote up the documentation and submitted it to the Vatican’s investigative body for consideration. Florence said many other miracles have been submitted by people who have prayed to Fr. Rother.

Sr. Cecilia mentioned she and her sister, Margaret Ferry, had plans to visit Okarche after a retreat at the convent of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Wichita, Kansas. Florence said the nuns had taught at Holy Trinity School in Okarche from 1903 to 1989, and Fr. Rother had attended both grade and high school there. His sister, Sr. Marita Rother ASC, resides at the convent in Wichita.

While in Wichita, Sr. Cecilia and her sister visited Sr. Marita. They learned she had gone to the sisters’ mission in Santiago Atitlan to work with her brother for a number of summers.

In Guatemala, his sacrifice has not been forgotten.

“When I was there in 1996, I saw the bloodstain on the wall, and then we went into the church where a simple shrine was placed,” Sr. Cecilia said. “It (was) simply composed of a kneeler and a priest’s stole and a simple sign. I felt I was in a very holy spot, and still carry that feeling whenever I remember it.”

The people had asked the family if they could keep his heart with them. They were given permission, and it was placed in the shrine. The body was then sent back to the family and buried in the parish cemetery.

According to Fr. Rother’s aunt, in the late 1990s, the people removed the heart from the shrine and the blood had not coagulated, so much so that drops of blood fell to the ground, which were recovered by attendants. It was returned to the shrine.

Sr. Cecilia and her sister also visited Holy Trinity cemetery in Okarche and located the burial site of Fr. Rother. It was very simple, with the name Padre A’Plas on it. Visitors had placed memory stones on it. A sign in front of the grave said the body had been removed by the archdiocese to a site in Resurrection Cemetery in Oklahoma City. “Fr. Stanley does not belong to just us anymore, he belongs to the entire Church,” Sr. Marita said.

Sr. Cecilia and her sister attended Mass at Holy Trinity Church, Fr. Rother’s home parish. Outside, there is a large white marble statue of Fr. Rother and a Guatemalan child.

The parish deacon, Max Schwarz, opened the church so they could view the artifacts of Fr. Rother, including an ordination photo with his parents and siblings. He was indeed a simple priest – a martyr, soon to be proclaimed “blessed,” and hopefully someday a saint – from these United States.