Terry Werner was back home in early 1982, talking to his father, telling him about a priest who’d been murdered in Guatemala.
Werner grew up Catholic in Humphrey, one of 18 children.
He’d left home for college, become a Unitarian and had read about the priest in The Progressive, a longtime left-leaning magazine.
The one-page tribute to Father Stanley Rother included a letter, penned by the priest describing the kidnappings and deaths of friends and colleagues.
“For these eleven that are gone there are eight widows and thirty-two children among the group,” Rother had written to friends. “These people are going to need emergency help.”
Six months later, on July 28, 1981, the priest was shot and killed by three masked men in his parish in Santiago Atitlan.
Werner was struck by the heart this priest had for social justice. He’d been the fifth priest tortured and killed in Guatemala that summer, all of whom had spoken out for the rights of the poor and against the government’s repression of its people — a campaign that ultimately killed 200,000 at the hands of death squads.
“The name meant nothing to me,” Werner said Tuesday. “But my dad said, ‘Well, that’s your second cousin. I went to his funeral.’”
They’d buried the 46-year-old priest in his hometown of Okarche, Oklahoma — straight south of Humphrey on U.S. 81 — where one branch of Werner’s extended family had settled a generation earlier.
Werner’s dad is gone now, but on Saturday, Werner and dozens of members of Rother’s Nebraska family will drive south to honor the priest once more.
Rother’s beatification — the second step on the path to sainthood — will be held at the 10,000-seat convention center in Oklahoma City, with more than 50 bishops from the U.S., Guatemala and Rome in attendance.
It’s an exciting event, even for a Unitarian.
“He’s the first U.S. citizen who has been declared a martyr,” Werner said. “This just does not happen.”
Newspaper stories and books have been written about Father Stanley. Documentaries have been made. In Oklahoma City, there is a statue of the redheaded priest, a rainbow-colored shawl around his neck, his hand reaching down to a small Guatemalan girl.
Last December, Pope Francis declared Rother a martyr for laying down his life for his faith, a decade after the first appeal was made. After Saturday’s ceremony, the next step is canonization.
His story is both humble and heroic, said Nicole Barrett, whose father is also a second cousin.
She was 8 when the priest was murdered and became interested in his story as she explored her family’s genealogy as an adult.
The Lincoln woman has become close to Rother’s remaining siblings — Sister Marita, a longtime principal at the Catholic elementary school in David City now living in Wichita, Kansas, and Tom, who remains on the family’s Oklahoma homestead.
And this past year, Barrett has spread the word of her martyred relative with both religious and secular audiences.
“I think there’s a lot in his story that resonates with the average person,” she said. “Here was an everyday person who had his own personal struggles and said yes to God.”
Rother was a farm kid who felt called to the seminary, but he struggled with Latin and was sent home.
He persevered and was ordained in 1963, accepting a call to mission in Guatemala five years later, where he became part of the community, learning Spanish and Tz’utujil, the dialect of the indigenous people who called him Padre Francisco.
Rother used his farming skills to set up an irrigation system and experimented with new crops. He helped build a school and a hospital and started a radio station and baptized a thousand babies a year.
He drove a tractor and translated the New Testament and replaced stained glass windows and sat on dirt floors to share meals with the poor of his parish.
“He wasn’t just a pastor at this mission church,” Barrett said. “He was very much a part of the community.”
The priest knew the danger he faced.
“A shepherd does not run from his flock at the first sign of danger,” he wrote to the church in Oklahoma in 1980.
By the following year, government-backed death squads had reached his town. He’d witnessed kidnappings, seen executed bodies in fields and briefly returned to the U.S., before returning to his parish in May 1981.
He was sleeping in the rectory when the three masked men broke in. The priest fought, his hands bruised when they found him in a pool of blood, shot twice in the head.
Barrett and Werner will join the faithful throng in Oklahoma City before returning to Okarche.
“They are opening up the parish hall for a reception for the family,” Barrett said. “His sister said, we’ll get to meet the family we don’t know yet.”
The summer he died, when Rother’s body was returned to Oklahoma, his flock had a request — to keep a piece of their beloved Padre Francisco in his second home.
Werner visited Guatemala in 1997, and stopped at the church where, unbeknownst to him, his second cousin’s heart is buried under the altar.
And where a Bible verse is engraved in Spanish on a memorial plaque where he fell: There is no greater love than to give his life for his friends.