The Pilgrimage

Juan Pablo Ixbalan left his home in the village of Santiago de Atitlán, Guatemala. He crossed the lago in a small boat, a panga. Other parishioners accompanied him, and when they reached the shores of Panajachel, they began to walk.

They walked through the highlands and the jungles of Guatemala and crossed into Mexico. They did not have to hide or sneak across. They were expected and welcomed, and then they began to walk some more.

The pilgrimage took them a bit east and then north. They walked past villages and towns and along the outskirts of cities until they got to Reynosa, Tamaulipas. Here they headed into the city to continue their journey to the US border.

Again, they were expected and welcomed. 

They persevered with their walk, knowing they’d already covered more than 1200 miles but had nearly 800 to go. At times they were joined by others for parts of the trip. Many who accompanied them were Guatemalans, but not all.

The pilgrimage continued to the small farming town of Okarche, Oklahoma. There they walked dirt roads, passing fields of corn, cattle, and wheat. Their walk ended, temporarily, in the birthplace of Father Stanley Rother who had been assassinated in the church rectory in Santiago de Atitlán in 1981.

Father Stanley Rother at a fiesta in Guatemala. Photo from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma.

Although the priest’s body returned to Okarche, he left his heart—literally—with the people of Santiago de Atitlán. The heart is buried under the church altar where Rother served the village he loved for so many years.

Juan Pablo and the others made the 2000-mile pilgrimage to honor Fr. Rother and to attend his beatification in September of 2017.

In 2015, thirty-four years after his murder, Father Rother was named a martyr by the Catholic Church.  He was the first US-born priest to be named a martyr. The following year, Pope Francis approved his beatification and the ceremony was held in 2017.

Ixbalan and the other pilgrims were honored and well taken care of while in Okarche, staying in homes of local parishioners and eating, for the first time, fried chicken.

While in Okarche, Juan Pablo and the others had the opportunity to visit Stanley Rother’s childhood home. This is where he broke down in tears.

The sixty-three-year-old man wept for the memory of the priest who’d come to his village in 1968, when Juan Pablo was a teenager. The teen took to the priest quickly, although the man could speak none of the village language, Tzʼutujil.

While Rother had done poorly studying languages when he was in school and laughingly claimed to know fewer than a dozen words of Spanish upon his arrival in Guatemala, he learned the village’s language.

Juan Pablo remembered the man who’d worked side-by-side in the fields with the village men and could even fix the broken tractors.

He remembered the Father searching for—and sometimes recovering—bodies of the village’s disappeared. He remembered the priest setting up a fund for the widows and children of the disappeared. He remembered when the man started a village radio station. He remembered when Rother’s name appeared on the army’s death list.

After resting for some days in Okarche, Juan Pablo and the others began the final leg of their journey: to the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, forty-one miles away.

This time the pilgrims were not alone. Some of Rother’s family and friends went with them and over time, hundreds joined them for the journey, especially on the last leg through the city to downtown.

Hundred walk through Oklahoma City to attend Father Rother’s beatification ceremony. Photo by Doug Hoke, originally published in The Oklahoman.

Over 20,000 people showed up at the convention center for Fr. Rother’s beatification ceremony. Juan Pablo and others from his village participated in the liturgy.

The Cox Convention Center was filled. Photo by Dave Crenshaw, originally published in Today’s Catholic.

Archbishop Paul Coakley conducted the ceremony. Of Rother he said, “Ultimately, if God calls a young man from Okarche, Oklahoma, to be a saint, to be beatified, to be a martyr, it reminds us that all of us, no matter our beginnings, our circumstances, are called to holiness as well.”

Juan Pablo Ixbalan who walked over 2000 miles to honor Father Stanley Rother and attend his beatification ceremony. Photo by Juan Pablo, published online by KGOV in Oklahoma City.

Published by Emilie

I'm a retired instructor from a community college where I taught Developmental English and Reading as well as English as a Second Language. I'm also now a published author of a bilingual children's book entitled. Luisa the Green Sea Turtle - Luisa la Tortuga Verde del Mar. It's available from me, through Amazon, and is in a few (more and more each day!) bookstores.

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  1. It is wonderful to see how people are honored, their memories respected. When someone makes such a difference in your life, they are with you forever.

    1. Thanks. Yes, Father Stanley honored the people of the village through his work, and they honored him through the pilgrimage and attending his beatification.

  2. Emily…this is an extraordinary post. I brought tears. Thank you for sharing this history reminding us that all can love, show compassion, give service, and create bonds. Borders can never change that.

    1. Yes, it is. He left once when his name first appeared on the death list. But he missed it and knew he had been cold there so he returned. And of course he died. I’m sure he knew he would.

  3. Tears. Very moving. Reading a book right now by Chilean anthropologist Beatriz Manz about the massacres in Guatemala during the US backed cold war era of war criminal Rios Montt. Met a man in Tacoma who was a witness at Montt’s trial as his whole family but him was massacred back then. He is a professor at the University of Mexico City. Such important stories. Thank you

    1. Yes, a lot of those massacres happened under Montt. I heard one one night when I was I was in Antigua. It was so very chilling. I kept wondering if it was any of the people I had seen the previous day. I’ve also been to places that were bombed and I’ve written on a bus through areas word mines in the roads. Guatemala spoke to me so very strongly and it’s probably my favorite area on earth.

  4. An enlightening story of a not so ordinary ordinary man. He listened and did what he was called to do. What a difference he made in his short lifetime. I wish we all had his courage, commitment, and compassion.

    1. So do I. The world could be such a beautiful place, such a kind place. He came back because of the death squad through it but he missed the people and he missed his calling, and he went back. He knew he would die.

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