It was beyond sundown, and two Oklahoma priests drove through from the city limits to the Guatemalan church. No streetlights were visible, but the Rev. Marvin Leven could see people everywhere. Everyone was talking about his traveling companion, the Rev. Stanley Rother.
"As we drove through it, I heard the word being called out from the people as we went through: 'A'plas,'" Levin said, repeating the word with a dramatic whisper. "That's his name over and over again as we went through. That was the last time I was there. It was right before he died."
The indigenous Guatemalans called Rother "A'plas" " which means "Francis" in the native Tzutujil (pronounced ZOO-too-heel) " in a symbolic gesture of the impoverished Mayan ethnic group accepting him as their leader. After arriving at the Oklahoma mission in 1968, he would serve Santiago Atitlán as priest, electrician, plumber and even linguist, helping translate the New Testament into their native language.
When three unknown gunmen assassinated the 46-year-old Rother in the rectory on July 28, 1981, a staff member of the United States Embassy in Guatemala said it was like their God had died. Rother's parishioners lobbied to keep the Okarche priest's heart to symbolize preservation of his spirit. Meanwhile, the rest of his body returned for burial in Oklahoma, where the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City eventually began canonization efforts in 2007 on a path to making Rother Oklahoma's first saint (see sidebar).
"A'plas," a new film written and directed by Guatemala native Diego Colombi, documents Rother's story. The documentary includes a recounting of how priests noticed that the blood surrounding his enshrined heart had not congealed in a container when it was moved during the 10th anniversary of his death.
Colombi said he is proud to bring more exposure to Rother's life and his selfless work, which provides an inspiring story of one person making a profound difference on the lives of others. "A'plas," which was filmed during three weeks in Oklahoma and Guatemala after more than six months of research, debuts at 9 p.m. Tuesday on OETA.
The filmmaker said his 30-minute documentary is about a great man giving everything to his people. Colombi, a 2009 graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, learned of Rother during a 2001 family trip to Santiago Atitlán, reading about the slain priest on a plaque.
Rother was on a death list, but chose to remain with his people at Santiago Atitlán. Guatemala was in the throes of a 36-year civil war between the right-wing government and left-wing guerillas. "Shaking hands with an Indian has become a political act," Rother wrote, according to "The Shepherd Cannot Run," a collection of Rother's Guatemalan letters.
Rother wrote that he was listed as No. 8 on an anonymous hate sheet in 1979. Bodies, shot and tortured, were discovered every day during the political unrest.
He wrote that he would "be accepted on the side of the Indian" and chose to stay serving his flock: "At first signs of danger, the shepherd can't run and leave the sheep (to) fend for themselves."
In correspondence two months later, Rother admitted some younger catechists were working with potential revolutionaries. The priest also quoted President Romeo Lucas Garcia expressing a desire to expel all those catechizing the Guatemalan people.
While Guatemalan security forces murdered thousands during a bloody civil war, the American government was involved intimately with training and equipping the army, The Washington Post reported citing declassified U.S. intelligence documents. The foreign policy dilemma was complicated for the Reagan administration because Guatemala was victimized by a Cuban-sponsored insurgency but the government blatantly violated human rights, according to Time magazine.
The CIA retained close ties and U.S. officials were aware of the murders committed as Garcia's scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign eradicated Mayan villages in the Eighties, documents obtained by the nonprofit National Security Archive show.
Colombi said piecing together Rother's story was difficult.
"(One) challenge was contacting people in Santiago Atitlán who were close to him, since everybody knew him, but not everybody was close to him," Colombi said.
Does he think Rother's killers will ever be brought to justice?
"It will be very hard, if not impossible, especially now," Colombi said. "Nobody knows for sure who were the killers, and nobody has evidence or anything concrete. Everything else is assumptions."
Anthony Taylor, bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., said he's confident that Rother's killers are now deceased.
"If it was a right-wing death squad, they generally would be eliminated," said Taylor, a former Oklahoma priest. "The military commissioner of the Department of Sololá was killed a month after Rother's death. He ... would have been a person of interest."
What's the latest with the Rev. Stanley Rother's canonization to make him Oklahoma's first official saint?
It's in the first stage of a lengthy, exhaustive process that had to be introduced within the 30th anniversary of Rother's death, said Little Rock, Ark., Bishop Anthony Taylor, a former priest in Central Oklahoma.
"We already believe him to be a saint," Taylor said. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be doing this. We're trying to get an official declaration that we are convinced he is a saint. The purpose of a cause of canonization is to build up the faith. It provides an opportunity to be inspired by his witness and to live our faith more fully ourselves."
Taylor, who serves on the historical commission, said he conducted interviews in Guatemala last summer and plans to return next year. Sources remain confidential, according to canon law, with hopes of finding the truth in matters related to Rother's life, memory, personal virtue and circumstances of his murder.
"People have to be free to say the truth without any fear of consequences," Taylor said.
A full account will be compiled during this process, he said. The historical commission will examine the history of the relevant period, while the theological commission will study the faithfulness and relevance of Rother's writings in comparison with the teachings of Christ.
When will Rother officially be declared a saint? Taylor said the Catholic Church needs to show the intent of Rother's killers. If his murderers were simply committing robbery, for example, the priest wouldn't qualify as a martyr. "Heroic virtue" would have to be proven if assassins killed Rother as a political statement.
"We need to show that he was killed out of hatred for the faith," Taylor said. "Rob Collins