María Ruiz Scaperlanda remembers first hearing about Oklahoma’s missionary martyr priest from her then school-aged children.
The life of Father Stanley Rother, murdered in Guatemala in 1981 by a death squad during Guatemala’s civil war, was a story that her children brought home from their Catholic school religion classes.
Her family had recently moved to Norman, Oklahoma, where the story of Father Stan, who hailed from the same state, is held as an example of a modern day witness to Faith. “I was intrigued,” Scaperlanda told The Tidings.The Catholic author and writer of numerous articles for many Catholic newspapers recently published her sixth book, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run,” which tells the story of the Oklahoma farm boy who became a priest and then a missionary in Guatemala before dying for his flock after 18 years of service to the Church.
On June 23, 2015, the Congregation of the Causes of Saints of the Holy See officially recognized Father Stan as a martyr, a critical stage before beatification.
“I think the Church of Oklahoma has done a wonderful job of preserving and promoting and incorporating the story of Father Stan — his service, his sense of ministry to others — into the Church here,” says Scaperlanda.
The mother of four grown children never thought she’d be living in Oklahoma, but the move with her husband and family allowed her to discover the priest’s story while also sparking her first book, “Their Faith Has Touched Us: The Legacies of Three Young Oklahoma City Bombing Victims” (1998).
“I’ve been writing my whole life. When I was a kid I used to write under the covers — writing when I was supposed to be sleeping,” she says. “I’m very much an introvert and being able to put things down on paper was my way of clarifying my thoughts and my emotions even before I knew what they really meant.”
Scaperlanda was born in Cuba and moved as a teenager to Puerto Rico before attending the University of Texas for a journalism degree. It was at UT that she met her husband Michael. She also has an M.A. in English from the University of Oklahoma, where her husband is also a teacher of law.
She says that while getting her degree in journalism, she knew that she wanted to combine her knowledge and experience of being a Hispanic Catholic with her professional education. “I had that desire in my heart, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I knew how that was going to pass.”
Her career has been a gradual unfolding of events since she got married soon after graduating and began having children right away.
“I was a stay-at-home mom, so I did it very much in odd hours when the kids were in bed or when my husband [was taking care of the kids]. … I didn’t know how that was going to pan out. I can see now, looking back to how God allowed me to do more and more as the kids got older.”
As a Hispanic writer, Scaperlanda loves to emphasize the importance of Mary, something passed on to her from her culture.
“I think that’s one very direct gift that the Hispanics bring to the Catholic experience in the U.S. today. Overall, we have a very Protestant country in our understanding of faith, and how we talk about Jesus doesn’t always include Mary,” she says. “Somehow we dissect Mary out of the picture instead of saying, ‘Wow, what a perfect way of getting to know Jesus.’”
Scaperlanda places emphasis on the importance of prayer and religious education in her book on Father Stan. Raised in a Catholic community in Oklahoma, he attended religion classes, went to daily Mass and prayed the rosary every day with his family.
This strong prayer life was the foundation for his courage. “He really saw himself as the shepherd to this community. He knew he needed to be back there. He said, ‘I promised them I would be back for Holy Week, and I need to do that.’ He took very seriously being there with his people.”
Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius J. Beltran of Oklahoma City wrote in the book’s epilogue, “Father Stanley Rother was a very ordinary person. By his life and witness, he showed us that ordinary people can become saints. In fact, all of us are created for that purpose. Stan attained this goal by his ordinary daily dedication to our Lord.”