After his martyrdom, Father Stanley Rother’s ministry inspired the Tz’utujil people to lead a peaceful revolt.
On December 2, 1990, soldiers murdered or wounded three dozen unarmed Tz’utujil Indians in Santiago Atitlán, a picturesque, mostly indigenous town of about 28,000 on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala’s Highlands. What followed was a revolt so unusual that it merits recognition in modern Guatemalan history. Never before had a Guatemalan town succeeded in ousting the army from its vicinity—and the villagers of Santiago Atitlán did so without resorting to violence.
This revolt is inextricably tied to another killing in Santiago Atitlán a decade earlier: that of Stanley Francis Rother, a priest from rural Oklahoma. Throughout his thirteen years as a missionary in their town, Rother had deeply impressed and influenced the downtrodden Tz’utujil by immersing himself in their lives, respecting the beauty and spirit of their culture, and committing himself to their struggle for dignity. In the process, communal and spiritual bonds were forged between the pastor and the people. The priest’s close-knit relationship with the villagers—and his murder—would ultimately play a significant psychological role in what took place in Santiago Atitlán in December 1990.
In 1953, a martyr’s death seemed unlikely for Stanley Rother, who struggled with his studies as a seminarian before flunking out. His bishop saw something special in this unassuming farm boy, however, and arranged for him to enter another seminary. Rother persevered and was ordained in 1963, but the ordeal left him feeling inadequate in his priestly ministry. When he was offered the opportunity to serve in Oklahoma City’s diocesan mission parish in Santiago Atitlán in 1968, he jumped at the chance. In Guatemala, he would find the fulfillment that had eluded him in Oklahoma.
The Tz’utujils were a poor people who survived by growing corn and beans. Rother, a farmer like them, gained their respect by getting his hands dirty while working alongside them. He was indefatigable and applied his considerable skills in carpentry, agriculture, mechanics, and design to benefit the villagers. More importantly, he treasured their culture and religious traditions. The fact that Padre A’plas, as his Tz’utujil parishioners affectionately called him, had actually learned their native tongue—no easy feat for an outsider—cemented their close bond. Soon he was accepted as a trusted and beloved member of their community and even was honored by the cofradía (brotherhood) elders.
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Donna Whitson Brett, M.A., is a retired academic advisor from the University of Pittsburgh. Her most recent book, Martyrs of Hope: Seven U.S. Missioners in Central America (Orbis Books, 2018), co-authored with Edward T. Brett, received an Honorable Mention in Biography from the Catholic Press Association in 2019.
Edward T. Brett, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in history at La Roche University, Pittsburgh. His most recent book, Martyrs of Hope: Seven U.S. Missioners in Central America (Orbis Books, 2018), co-authored with Donna Whitson Brett, received an Honorable Mention in Biography from the Catholic Press Association in 2019.
With thanks to U.S. Catholic, published by the Claretian Missionaries, a Roman Catholic religious community of priests and brothers dedicated to the mission of living and spreading the gospel of Jesus.