By Josie Logsdon

While parishes across Oklahoma are opening their doors to more Catholics every year, the percentage of Catholics nationwide is declining. Amid this growth, the Oklahoma native Blessed Stanley Rother, is in the process of becoming a saint. 

According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. fell from 24% in 2007 to 21% in 2014. While the Catholic population in Oklahoma stayed around a steady 4.6% throughout the 20th century, as of 2013, the percentage of Catholics in the state almost doubled to 8%.

The majority of the growth has been from Hispanics, said Diane Clay, director of communications at the Archdiocese of Oklahoma, as well as an increase of immigrants from Burma and Vietnam in the state. Conversion also accounts for the growth. 

“In other areas of the country – particularly the Northeast – they are closing churches; we’re building churches,” Clay said. The archdiocese broke ground on the 2,000 seat shrine for Blessed Stanley Rother in Oklahoma City last month. 

“It’s a wonderful challenge to have,” Clay continued, “and a blessing to have such diversity in the church in Oklahoma.” 

History of Catholicism in Oklahoma

The Catholic presence can be traced to the Indian Territory, modern-day Oklahoma, some 300 years ago. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma wrote that the French Benedictine monks established an official and permanent Catholic presence here in 1875.

At the time, the area was considered “inhospitable” and “unfertile ground for the Catholic Church,” according to the archdiocesan website. No Catholic clergy wanted the responsibility of the frontier land.

Isidore Robot founded the first Catholic Church in the Indian Territory in Atoka in the 1870s. He continued to establish churches along the railroads throughout the territory.

By the early 1900s, there were about 5,000 Catholics in the Indian Territory – one for every 14 square miles. In this era, many Catholics lapsed from the church due to mistreatment and ridicule. Nonetheless, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma was established in 1905, two years before statehood, with the creation of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City.

After the Great Depression, the Church grew in Oklahoma. During the time Bishop Eugene McGuinness was in office, 40% more parishes erected and 33% more priests were ordained; only three counties in the state did not have a Catholic church.

The Catholic population remained steady until the Second Vatican Council in 1962, which renewed the church across the state.

The diocese split in 1973, creating a separate diocese for Tulsa. Archbishop John R. Quinn of Oklahoma City started a movement of Catholic outreach for Spanish speakers and the youth of the state. The following bishop, Charles Salatka, furthered outreach for immigrants. He devoted himself at 68 to learn Spanish and celebrate the Spanish Mass.   

The Hispanic population continued to grow in the state, a group that is culturally very Catholic. Parishes adapted quickly to the needs of the Spanish-speaking Catholic community.

“About 25-30 years ago, the presence of Hispanic people [in Oklahoma] became more noticeable,” said Deacon Angelo Lombardo of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Norman.

In 1994, St. Joseph’s became the first church in Cleveland County to celebrate the Mass in Spanish. About 60 attended the first Spanish Mass. Today, there are over 700 Hispanic parishioners who attend Mass every weekend at the parish, said Lombardo.

Not only is the Catholic population growing because of the increase in Hispanics in the state, but the Catholic community is becoming younger. Lombardo said the Spanish-speaking families led to an influx of youth and vitality in his parish. Other parishes have seen the same effect. 

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Oklahoma City has had to move into the church gym during Mass for overflow space, despite celebrating nine Masses every weekend, Clay said. All but one of the Masses are in Spanish. Most churches only celebrate about four a weekend. 

“The shrine’s location will help alleviate the overcrowding,” Clay said. 

A saint for the state

Amid the growing Catholic population in the state, the first Oklahoma-born candidate for sainthood is going through the process for canonization. 

“Archbishop Emeritus Beltran asked me to come in his office one day,” Deacon Norm L. Mejstrik said. He thought he was in trouble. 

“He asked if I would be the coordinator for the Cause for Beatification of Father Stanley Rother.” Mejstrik took the role in 2007. 

The first thing he had to do was write a biography about Rother, send it to Rome, and have it accepted. Mejstrik’s team compiled everything written by and about Rother – interviews with witnesses, letters, documents – and created a book over 7,000 pages. They sealed it in a box with a wax seal and shipped it to the Vatican. 

Blessed Stanley Rother, born in 1935 in Okarche, OK, was a priest for five years in the state. He received permission to join a diocesan mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, in the late ‘60s.

Rother served the native tribe of the Tz’utujil. He devoted himself to learning Spanish as well as the indigenous language of the tribe so he could celebrate the Mass in their tongue.

Rother lived in extreme poverty in the midst of the Guatemalan civil war. When he became a target, he and his associates returned to Oklahoma.

But “the shepherd cannot run,” he said. He quickly returned to his community in Guatemala. On July 28, 1981, Rother was killed in his own rectory.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints reviewed Rother’s 7,000-page biography and passed it onto the pope, who declared Rother a martyr in 2015. 

The next year, Rother became the first beatified U.S. born priest and martyr. The ceremony, held at Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, was the second beatification ceremony on U.S. soil. 

Today, the Cause for Canonization continues for Rother. In order to become a saint, he must be attributed with a miracle.

Miracles are almost always medical because they are the easiest to verify, said Mejstrik, who is one of the first to examine an alleged miracle. 

They investigate what happened, what the diagnosis was, what the prognosis was, what therapy was provided and the end result. Was there a medical explanation?

“If there is, that’s good,” Mejstrik said, “it means the person lived because of the wonders of modern medicine.”

“If not – it could be a miracle,” he continued. Then they document the process – timelines, testimonies and medical records – and send it to the archdiocesan tribunal. From there, the documentation is sent to Rome, then to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, then the medical board. 

“If the medical board has any doubt there is a miracle,” Mejstrik said, “then it isn’t.” Once it passes the board, the pope gives a final review. 

Mejstrik has received dozens of calls of “favors”, or potential miracles, since the Cause opened. 

“There are a few that are pretty interesting,” he said. They are in various stages of information gathering. Some medical records have already been released to the Cause. 

“We actually got medical records last Saturday from a physician who said he was ready to release them to us,” Mejstrik recalled, “and we have the authorization of the person who was granted the favor, so we can continue.”

Mejstrik said being the director of the Cause for Canonization has been humbling.

“Who am I to be called to work on the Cause of a saint?” he asked. “To study about his life, to promote his cause – it makes me feel very blessed.” 

He also sees how Rother’s life has inspired others in the community. The same people who designed the Oklahoma Memorial Museum are taking on the project of creating the museum that will be at Rother’s shrine. 

“They are a really well-known organization and don’t take on every opportunity that comes along to tell a story,” Mejstrik said. “But when they heard his story, it was so compelling they couldn’t not tell it.” 

“Oklahoma doesn’t have anything like this,” Clay said about the shrine. “It will be something beautiful for the entire community.” 

Nestled between I-35 and Shields on S 89th Street, the 56-acre shrine will become a landmark in Oklahoma City. Both Clay and Mejstrik hope everyone – Catholics, non-Catholics and visitors – will come to learn about the life of Blessed Stanley Rother. 

“We’re all called to be saints,” Mejstrik conveyed. “Blessed Stanley Rother gives us an idea of what that means.”

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