To Rev. Thomas Connery, his old seminary classmate was "a big guy from a farming family" who loved music and worked hard.

To Rev. Alan Jupin, who was a year ahead of Rev. Stanley Rother at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland, Father Rother was "a nice guy, quiet," who struggled to learn the Latin, Greek and Hebrew required in studying for the priesthood.

To Rev. James Donlon of the Albany diocesan Tribunal, who visited the site of Father Rother's 1981 torture and martyrdom in Guatemala, the future saint was "one of us! A mere diocesan priest, who was called to ministry and mission, and responded."

On Sept. 23, Father Rother will take a step toward saint­hood when he is beatified in a ceremony in Oklahoma City, the archdiocese where he was raised. He is the first American-born martyr and will be the first U.S. priest to be beatified. Catholics in the Albany Diocese are among hundreds of thousands in several countries rejoicing that the beloved priest, who spent a dozen years ministering to native people in Guatemala, will be raised up in the eyes of the Church.

Father Rother was only 46 when he was assassinated July 28, 1981, for preaching the faith and defending the people he served.

Early days
"How come you came to Maryland to study?" Father Connery recalled asking the seminarian in the mid-1950s, when the two met at Mount Saint Mary's.

Father Connery, now a retired priest of the Albany Diocese, thought it made no sense for the native of Okarche, Okla., to travel halfway across the country for seminary formation.

The future Father Rother just laughed. "I wasn't good with languages, and [archdiocesan officials] thought I could do OK here," he confessed.

That must have been true: Father Rother and Father Connery worked together with other seminarians on building up a grotto at the seminary, and both completed their studies and were ordained in 1963.

Father Connery came home to the Albany Diocese and served at a number of parishes, most notably Immaculate Conception in Glenville. Father Jupin, who had been ordained a year before, spent much of his ministry in Colonie and Schenectady.

Father Rother went to the highlands of Guatemala. There was a mission in the town of Santiago Atitlan that was overseen by the Oklahoma City Archdiocese, and priests were needed there.

The massive St. James the Apostle parish in Santiago Atitlan became Father Rother's home, and its 20,000 Catholics his parishioners. The priest who had struggled with Latin learned both Spanish and the local dialect, Tz'utujil, even translating Scriptures into the dialect for the Mayan people.

He was instrumental in building a hospital. His Midwest background came in handy as he taught farming techniques to the locals.

Trouble brewing
But Father Rother's hope that the people would be allowed to privately own the land they farmed and, more significantly, his catechesis and support of the locals put the priest in the middle of a civil war between Guatemala's militarist government forces and guerrillas.

All Catholics were on the firing line. An estimated 250,000 people would be killed between 1960 and 1996 in Guatemala's civil war. Father Rother -- "Padre A'Plas" to his people -- was accused of advocating to overthrow the government because he preached in support of the local people. His name appeared on a "death list."

For a while, he came back to the U.S. Archbishop Harry Flynn, a native of the Albany Diocese who is now archbishop emeritus of St. Paul/Minneapolis, was rector of Mount St. Mary's at the time, and a friend of Father Rother's. The two had been writing back and forth for years.

Archbishop Flynn watched his friend agonize over leaving the Guatemalan people or going back.

"If I speak out, they will kill me. If I remain silent, what kind of pastor would I be?" Father Rother despaired. In the end, the priest said, "I know what I must do." He returned to Santiago Atitlan and continued his work.

A 1978 letter from Father Rother to Archbishop Flynn is one of several now enshrined at Mount St. Mary's Seminary. "My note in January for the persecuted Church in Latinamerica [sic] certainly has rung true in Guatemala," Father Rother wrote. "At the end of May, there was a massacre in the northern part of the country and about 115 men, women and children died. Then June 30, there was an activist priest (Guatemalan) cut down by submachine-gun fire just outside Guatemala City. Over the past few years, there have been numerous catechists killed in various parts of the country. Just last week another one was cut down who was helping organize a union among miners."

Did not run
A few months after the priest's return to Guatemala, on July 28, 1981, three men stormed into his rectory in the middle of the night. They beat him and shot him in the head. The men, thought to have military or government ties, were never prosecuted.

Father Connery celebrated Mass three years ago at Father Rother's parish in Guatemala, where the priest's heart had been left when the rest of his body was returned to Oklahoma City for burial.

Thousands of people attended the Mass. "It was incredible," Father Connery recalled. "This place is in the middle of no­where," but three decades after his classmate's martyrdom, the people's love for Father Rother has only continued to grow.

Father Rother's bedroom was turned into a chapel. Father Connery told The Evangelist that he'd never been able to get over the fact that men had tortured and shot his former classmate. So, at 1 a.m., the time Father Rother was killed, Father Connery went to the chapel and spent hours in prayer for the three assassins.

"It did help," he said.

During a 2010 pilgrimage to martyrdom sites in Guatemala and El Salvador, Father Donlon also celebrated a Mass at Father Rother's church, St. James the Apostle.

"It was overwhelming," he said. "The church was packed with native people. It was clear, the unbelievable devotion to this man."

Good wins
The reason, Father Donlon wrote in The Evangelist after that trip, was that in Father Rother's ministry, "faith trumped fear. The Gospel of Jesus trumped evil.

"The martyrs were not naive," Father Donlon added in that essay. "Father Rother had told others that he knew he would be killed, but he would not allow his killers to take him out to be tortured. He would fight -- and, indeed, he did.

"The martyrs certainly feared for their lives. They neither wanted nor sought martyrdom. They did not allow their fears, however, to overcome their faith and commitment to their people."

Father Rother's story continues to captivate Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Father Jupin compared his seminary classmate to the Jesuit missionary St. Isaac Jogues, martyred in 1646 by Mohawks on land that is now part of the Albany Diocese.

Father Rother "was called to martyrdom -- wow -- which he chose!" Father Jupin exclaimed. "I'd stay home. I don't think I could do that."

Rev. Michael Farano, director of the Albany Diocese's Pontifical Mission Societies, is similarly inspired by Father Rother's story.

"His dedication to the Gospel of justice cost him his life," Father Farano stated. "There is no dearth of martyrs for the faith from that troubled era in Central America. In and through their deaths, the Gospel triumphs, because it is incarnated in the lives of the people. The Gospel is transformative only when it is lived. Father Stanley Rother lived it to the full."

Going to ceremony
Father Jupin plans to attend Father Rother's beatification ceremony Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City. He wants to be there, he said, because he's absolutely convinced that his former classmate will be canonized a saint.

If that happens, Father Donlon vowed, "I will be in Rome" for the ceremony.

"Sanctity is when people do ordinary things well," Father Connery remarked. Father Rother "was a parish priest who did his ministry well. He was prayerful. And he was willing to face martyrdom. He is a wonderful model and example not only for priests, but for everybody."