Marita Rother remembers how her big brother made fudge when her parents went shopping. Somehow, the 11-year-old Stanley Rother always managed to finish making the candy before their parents returned home – and the four siblings usually ate all of it.
Marita suspects her parents knew. After all, you couldn’t help but smell the fudge in the house.
Today, a small statue of Stanley Rother stands in the Wichita Center of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ alongside pamphlets describing his life and prayer cards bearing his face. The cards include prayers that he will be canonized as a Catholic saint, something Marita says “couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
“You don’t think of those things when you’re growing up, do you?” she said. “The trouble is we think saints are that way all their life, but they’re not. The one thing that has really been said a lot about him is he was a normal kid. There was nothing extraordinary, but it’s what he did with the ordinary things that make the difference.”
Marita, a nun who is a member of the Adorers, says she’s still surprised that her brother is on the path to sainthood. Stanley Rother was declared a martyr in 2016 and will be beatified this September – the final stage before canonization as a saint.
He is the first American-born martyr and first U.S. priest to be beatified, and Marita says she’s learned much from being the sister of a possible saint-to-be.
‘The shepherd cannot run’
When Stanley Rother decided to serve as a priest in Guatemala in 1968, Marita had to look up the country on a map.
She saved every letter her brother wrote her about his work in the country: helping farmers with irrigation, using his farm background to increase crop yield, starting a cooperative of weavers that still exists.
Stanley worked with the Tz’utujil people, descendants of the Mayans. He learned to celebrate Mass in the native Tz’utujil language, even helping to translate the New Testament into that language for the first time.
At first, his letters addressed her as “Sister Marita.” Later, he changed his greeting to simply “Dear Marita.” Finally, he wrote “Dear Sis.”
Yet all wasn’t well in Guatemala. The country was in the midst of a civil war between the right-wing government and the left-wing guerrillas. Working with the Tz’utujil was perceived as political, and Catholics were often targeted.
The December before Stanley died, Marita was supposed to visit Guatemala. She canceled the trip because of turmoil in the country.
Eventually, Stanley Rother’s name appeared on a “death list,” and he was urged to return home to Oklahoma.
He came back to Oklahoma, but not for long.
“The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger,” he wrote in a letter in late 1980.
In July 1981, three men broke into Stanley’s rectory in Guatemala, fought with and killed him.
Marita says she and her parents weren’t surprised by his death. They had known that he put his life on the line.
“I think I learned how to live and how to die in dignity,” Marita said. “He didn’t go back to die; we knew that. He went back to live, to live for his people.”
‘Love for the people’
Although Marita didn’t visit Guatemala that December before her brother’s death, she did visit two other times.
The Adorers had nuns in the area, so Marita went to work with them in the summer of 1973 and in 1977.
She got to know her brother as an adult, having meals with him daily and spending their day off on adventures like climbing a volcanic mountain.
“He was serious at times,” Marita recalls. “I knew when things were really heavy on him. Yet he responded well with others. He had a great love, great love for the people.”
Marita remembers an elderly man with no family who was a daily dinner guest at her brother’s home. Stanley would cut up the man’s food for him, treating him like a grandfather. It allowed Marita to see “the real, gentle part of Stan.”
When Stanley died, the Tz’utujil parishioners asked that his heart be kept in Guatemala, where it is enshrined today.
‘He didn’t give up’
Stanley Rother largely kept his interest in the priesthood to himself while growing up, just as his sister didn’t tell many that she wanted to enter a religious community.
The siblings, only 14 months apart in age, became interested in the religious life because they were surrounded by strong religious leaders, Marita said.
They grew up in the “solid German settlement” of Okarche, Okla., with sets of grandparents living only a mile away in two different directions.
Both brother and sister were taught by Adorers of the Blood of Christ, the religious order that Marita eventually joined. The parish priest was a good friend, often coming by to help with the wheat harvest on the family farm.
Every day after eating together, the family knelt around the table to pray the rosary together.
It was a simple childhood, with the family milking cows, raising chickens and growing wheat not long after the Great Depression.
In some ways, Marita sees similarities between her brother’s childhood and that of Father Emil Kapaun, Kansas’ potential saint. Both were farm boys raised in simple circumstances, and both were taught by Adorers of the Blood of Christ.
When Stanley Rother went away to seminary, he struggled because he hadn’t previously studied Latin. He was even asked to leave seminary.
“I thought that was the end of it, but he didn’t,” Marita said. “He didn’t give up.”
He enrolled in a second seminary, graduated and was ordained in 1963, spending five years as an associate pastor in Oklahoma before heading to Guatemala.
That same persistence defined his time in Guatemala as a shepherd who would not, as he put it, run at the first sign of danger.
“Sometimes we have to work for a better situation,” Marita said. “He taught me how to stay there and keep trying.”