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Beatification Mass for American Priest 09/23 11:58

   OKARCHE, Okla. (AP) -- Few religious pilgrimages lead down a dusty, unpaved 
Oklahoma road past grazing horses, metal barns and towering wind turbines in 
the distance.

   But the unusual destination of this 2,000-mile (3,218-kilometer) trek from 
Central America to a farmhouse outside a one-stoplight town seems an 
appropriate honor for the Rev. Stanley Rother, a martyred Roman Catholic priest 
celebrated for his unassuming nature and hard work.

   Rother was beatified Saturday at Mass in Oklahoma City, moving him one step 
closer to possible sainthood. Thousands of people attended the ceremony at a 
downtown convention center to honor the church's first U.S.-born martyr and the 
first priest from the United States to be beatified. This is only the second 
beatification ceremony held in the United States.

   The native of Okarche was a 46-year-old missionary in Guatemala when he was 
killed in 1981, one of several priests slain during the country's civil war 
between a right-wing dictatorship and liberal guerrillas. His name first 
appeared on a death list, and then he was shot to death in his mission.

   Juan Pablo Ixbalan made the journey from Guatemala with his fellow 
parishioners and church leaders to Rother's childhood home. Setting foot in the 
house where Rother was born moved Ixbalan to tears, he said, and further sealed 
an inseparable connection.

   "I feel like his brother --- that we lived together, that we share the bond 
of brotherhood," Ixbalan said in Tzutuhil, which is spoken by a subgroup of 
Mayans, through an interpreter. "He became one of us. He learned the language."

   Ixbalan, 63, was a young teen when he first met Rother at his church in 
Santiago Atitlan, situated on a lakeshore between two volcanoes in the 
Guatemalan highlands where he grew up.

   Rother started a radio station, worked alongside farmers and pushed for 
locals to make and sell knitted clothing. In helping translate the New 
Testament, Rother is credited with helping start the written form of Tzutuhil.

   Language wasn't always Rother's strong suite. Early on in seminary, he got a 
"Cs" and "Ds", respectively, in Latin and English. Family lore tells that when 
Rother told his father he was going to become a priest, the elder Rother joked 
that he shouldn't have avoided Latin in high school.

   But farm work came with ease, and it served the eldest of the five Rother 
children well in Guatemala. He helped install an irrigation system and brought 
in crops such as wheat and soybeans, dissuading farmers from using chemicals. 
He brought in tractors to till the land, and repaired vehicles when they broke 
down.

   Rother was born in 1935, a descendent of German immigrants who homesteaded 
on the outskirts of Okarche, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of 
Oklahoma City. While much of the state remains largely protestant, Okarche --- 
population 1,300 --- has held to its Catholic heritage. It's still home to the 
Holy Trinity Church and school Rother attended.

   Although the beatification ceremony is in Oklahoma City, it's been felt in 
Rother's hometown. The delegation from Guatemala stopped for lunch at Esichen's 
Bar, which bills itself as Oklahoma's oldest bar, but is best known for selling 
whole fried chickens.

   Julie Kroener's family has owned the Okarche establishment for five 
generations. She was a child when Rother died, but she said grew up respecting 
him and his family.

   "This is a huge deal, and it's an amazing thing to experience," Kroene said 
Friday, just after the lunch rush. "It gives you a sense of pride knowing that 
somebody like that comes from such a simple town."

   The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, a sponsor of Rother's mission to 
Guatemala, opened his cause for beatification in 2007. Pope Francis declared 
Rother a martyr in December, and beatification is a step closer to potential 
sainthood. Francis, the first Latin American head of the church, has said 
priests killed during the region's right-wing dictatorships died out of hatred 
for their faith.

   Regular candidates for beatification need a Vatican-certified miracle 
attributed to their intercession, but the church makes an exception for 
martyrs. A miracle is still necessary to be declared a saint.

   Writer Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda penned a 2015 biography of Rother and helped 
submit paperwork that could lead to his sainthood. She said Rother's life 
became extraordinary because of his compassion and ability to help people carry 
on the everyday activities of life.

   "This guy could fix the tractors. He could work the land," she said. "I love 
that he's from Okarche, Oklahoma. It doesn't get better than that."


(KA)

 
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