(OSV News) — Michael Cook was away from the Catholic Church for a while, but around 2017, he was “amazingly pulled back in.” Not coincidentally, that was the same year that fellow native Oklahoman Father Stanley Rother — the first U.S.-born martyr formally recognized by the church — was beatified.
“I would definitely put some credit for him helping me come back to the church, 100%,” said Cook, 37, who attends St. John Nepomuk Parish in Yukon, Oklahoma. “I just was led. I think I had someone helping me realize where I needed to be.”
Now Cook has organized a walking pilgrimage from Okarche, Blessed Stanley’s hometown, to the new Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine in south Oklahoma City. The group will begin walking Feb. 15 and arrive in time to attend the shrine’s dedication Feb. 17.
Stanley Rother (pronounced ROW-ther) was born in 1935, grew up on a farm and attended Holy Trinity Church and School in Okarche. After discerning a call to the priesthood, he flunked out of the seminary because he struggled with Latin. The bishop of Oklahoma at the time, Bishop Victor Reed, gave him another chance and sent him to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was ordained May 25, 1963.
Leif Arvidson, executive director of the shrine, said he hoped pilgrims would be inspired by Blessed Stanley’s faithfulness to God’s calling in his life.
“He felt called to the priesthood, so even when he was told he wasn’t cut out for seminary studies, he found a way to press on because he really felt called,” Arvidson told OSV News.
After several parish assignments, Father Rother accepted a missionary assignment to Guatemala, serving in the mission of Santiago Atitlán. Although he struggled with Latin, he would go on to be proficient in the Tz’utujil language used by the Indigenous people he served, even helping translate the New Testament into the language. The people called him “Padre Apla’s,” or “Father Francis” for his middle name in their native tongue.
Because of his work to improve the lives of the people he served, he was labeled an enemy of the state.
“Shaking hands with an Indian has become a political act,” he once wrote. With a price on his head, he returned to Oklahoma but wanted to return to serve his people, famously writing, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.” Father Rother returned to Guatemala despite repeated warnings not to do so.
“This shrine is dedicated to a faithful man, an average, ordinary man who chose to love Jesus as a missionary priest, and he did so with his whole being. That’s what we are called to do, to live fully and genuinely the life God gave us,” reflected María Ruiz Scaperlanda, author of “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Blessed Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma.”
“Father Stan, the shepherd who chose to face death rather than abandon his flock — the shepherd who didn’t run — continues to model for us how to make a difference in our world,” she continued.
He visited Oklahoma one last time to serve at the ordination of his cousin, Father Don Wolf, who is now the rector of the shrine, then returned to his mission.
On July 28, 1981, three assassins broke into the rectory in Santiago Atitlán and shot and killed Blessed Stanley. He put up a fight, but chose to do so quietly so as not to wake up sisters on the property and endanger their lives. He was one of 10 priests murdered in Guatemala that year. He was buried in Oklahoma, but his heart and a jar of his blood remain in Guatemala.
“We told him, ‘Father, if they come, yell, and we’ll come and defend you.’ But he said, ‘I’m not going to yell because if they kill me, they’ll kill all of you, too,’” said Sister Felisa Muxtaytum, a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who lived in Santiago Atitlán at the time. “I pray to Father Apla’s that there are more vocations and missionaries like him, because he wanted to be with a very poor people, materially and spiritually,” she told OSV News in Spanish.
Cook named the pilgrimage walk after Blessed Stanley, calling it the “Fearless Shepherd Pilgrimage.” Participants range in age from 22 to 70. One was flying in from Washington for the last leg of the walk, and another isn’t even Catholic.
“For someone to show love and how much passion he has for not just Jesus but for his people that were there in Guatemala, and going back knowing the risk he was taking to make sure he was there with the people who loved him, I think in my life, what can I do to not be scared?” Cook said.
At least 37 bishops have confirmed they will be present at the shrine’s dedication, including Archbishop Gonzalo de Villa Vásquez of Guatemala City. The archbishop also will offer a Mass for the Guatemalan community in Spanish Feb. 19. The dedication liturgy itself will be trilingual, with English, Spanish and some Vietnamese.
The shrine also has drawn the attention of the greater Oklahoma community. Arvidson said representatives from the city’s convention center and visitor’s bureau have expressed excitement about how it will highlight the city. Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt are scheduled to attend.
“He’s a hero for all Oklahomans,” Arvidson said. “It’s a sign of the Catholic community’s growth and continued expansion in the area that I believe will continue to expand over the coming decades.”
While most American saints have come from large Catholic strongholds, Scaperlanda noted that Blessed Stanley coming from the American heartland shows us that holiness can come from anywhere.
“Having a shrine named after a farmer from Okarche, Oklahoma, reminds all of us that God can do great things with ordinary people, people like us,” she said. “The Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine reminds us that we are all called to holiness — and that we need saints who are local, who come from ordinary places like Okarche and Santiago Atitlán. Their witness strengthens us, and it surely strengthens the church universal.”
The shrine itself is modeled on a Spanish colonial style, echoing the Santiago Atitlán mission. It will hold 1,800 people.
Blessed Stanley’s body will be moved from Resurrection Cemetery Feb. 12 and placed in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral — where he was ordained — for an overnight vigil, allowing people to venerate him. The next day, his body will be transferred to a small chapel in the shrine as his permanent resting place.
On the shrine’s campus sits Tepeyac Hill, a replica of the famed hill where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531. Atop the hill stands a statue of Our Lady and Juan Diego. Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City blessed the hill and statues Dec. 11 of last year, on the vigil of the feast.