Two days and eight hours after Theresa Hohenberger and Marilyn Freund climbed into a sedan in Atlantic, Iowa, they were standing among thousands of faithful waiting to join the dedication Mass of the Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine in Oklahoma City.
Beginning at 5 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 17, the first pilgrims arrived to claim a spot in a line that grew throughout the morning as people arrived from across Oklahoma, the U.S., and Guatemala where Blessed Stanley Rother served in a mission before being martyred during a violent civil war in 1981. The martyr's heart is still enshrined there.
While the shrine church filled with guests, those who waited outside for a seat appreciated the warm sunshine in 30-degree temperatures. Many expressed excitement and joy at being present for an historic event for the Catholic Church in the U.S.
"He's the first American-born martyr -- a blessed. It's a beautiful occasion," Hohenberger told Sooner Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
"We're blessed to see this," Freund added. "How often do you get to see a priest who will be a saint?"
Nearby stood Brian Stalford and other parishioners from St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Del City who contributed to the campaign to build the shrine, and the Hernandez family who watched construction of the shrine as they drove by on Interstate 35.
"I missed his beatification, and I was so upset, so this time I told my boss I'm taking off -- I didn't ask! I'm just excited. It makes my heart so happy. I am already tearing up and I forgot my Kleenex!" Olivia Hernandez from Midwest City told Sooner Catholic.
At 10:30 a.m., the doors opened, and the line of people filled the sanctuary, which accommodated nearly everyone. More than 2,000 faithful and guests filled the church and an outdoor space that broadcasted the Mass on large screens.
Before the ceremony began, representatives responsible for building the shrine symbolically handed over the shrine church to Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, and Father Don Wolf, rector of the shrine and pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Once the main doors were opened, the procession began and included more than 300 participants: 37 bishops, 147 priests, 93 deacons, and 12 seminarians.
The bishops, priests and deacons filled the transepts of the church. Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius Beltran, who launched the Rother Cause, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Pope Francis' apostolic nuncio to the United States, were seated in the front row. Members of the Rother family, including Blessed Stanley's sister, Sister Marita Rother, sat at the front of the main pews of the sanctuary along with invited leaders and dignitaries, including Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt.
Following the blessing of the altar and sanctuary with holy water, the presentation of the lectionary, and the Mass readings in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, Archbishop Coakley spoke in his homily about the true reason for the shrine.
"Today, we gather to dedicate a church. A church that has been built to give honor and glory to God. Yes, we honor Blessed Stanley Rother here, but none of this ultimately is about Blessed Stanley. It's not about the beautiful art and architecture that speaks so eloquently of God's goodness and mercy and beauty," he said. "We gather here to honor the God who created all of this and the God who is glorified in his saints. We honor Blessed Stanley because we are giving glory to God."
Archbishop Coakley said Blessed Stanley, "was an ordinary guy, an ordinary man from Okarche, Oklahoma, but God chooses the ordinary."
"He was a good shepherd," he continued. "Long before Pope Francis coined the beautiful expression, Father Rother -- or as he was known in Guatemala Padre Francisco or Padre Apla's – had already 'taken on the smell of his sheep,' learning the languages of his people. This man who had been asked to leave seminary because he couldn't master ecclesiastical Latin, mastered Spanish and a rather obscure and rare Mayan dialect called Tz'utujil. I wish we could submit that as a miracle!"
Archbishop Coakley used his homily to reach out to families and young men in Oklahoma and beyond who may feel called to a heroic, impactful and radical life as a priest, with Blessed Stanley's fidelity to his calling and the Holy Spirit as inspiration.
He reminded those in attendance that Blessed Stanley needs a verified miracle to be canonized.
"It is our responsibility; it's our privilege to work to make Blessed Stanley Rother better known ... to increase devotion to him. And it shouldn't be hard. The more we know about his life, (the more) we find in Stanley Rother a very attractive figure -- and so relatable -- a real every man," he said.
"I hope we will bring him all of our needs, those of our families, our parishioners, and ask his heavenly intercession in the presence of God, before the throne of Christ. Ask with confidence, ask with boldness," the archbishop said. "If you need a special favor, a healing, a miracle, remember so does Blessed Stanley."
As with all dedications of churches, the shrine's altar and walls were anointed with sacred chrism oil, the altar and the church were wafted with incense, the linens were placed, and the candles were lit. Communion was distributed throughout the sanctuary and to those gathered outside before Archbishop Coakley inaugurated the tabernacle with the new ciborium.
At the end of Mass, most of the faithful remained to pray and to visit the chapel where Blessed Stanley is entombed. The chapel was dedicated Feb. 13 with priests from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa.
Sister Raphael Marie with the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ Sisters from the Diocese of Amarillo told Sooner Catholic she was "moved to tears" by witnessing the dedication of the shrine and hearing "Blessed Stanley Rother's story and his love for the people."
"He's a saint of the people, a saint for modern day," she said. "It's so important to bring people into a personal relationship with Jesus and through the gifts of the Holy Spirit and that's what Blessed Stanley Rother did: he brought people the love of Jesus."
The shrine church provides Mass daily in English and Spanish, and the first pilgrims to the shrine arrived Feb. 18 at 9 a.m. from Nebraska. On Feb. 19, a special Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Gonzalo Villa of Santiago de Guatemala, for the Guatemalan people of Oklahoma City and for those who traveled from Santiago Atitlan, where Blessed Stanley was pastor of St. James the Apostle Catholic Church.
"Pilgrims will travel from near and far to visit this holy site to pray and to rededicate their lives to God," said Leif Arvidson, executive director of the shrine. "We pray that, through the time they spend here learning and praying, they will come to know and to love Christ even more."