By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

OKARCHE, Okla. — Past the grain elevator and the bar famous for its fried chicken, Oklahoma Highway 3 leads to a century-old church where the Rev. Stanley Francis Rother served as an altar boy.

A tall, white steeple atop the red-brick Holy Trinity Catholic Church — which opened in 1903, four years before Oklahoma became the 46th state — points toward the slightly cloud-covered sky.

Yellowish-green grass and brown fields awaiting the planting of the next wheat crop in a few months adorn the prairie as men in western shirts, women carrying babies and children in shorts and dresses fill the pews.

They’ve come — a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 400 — to pay tribute to a hometown hero who could become a saint.

“It’s hard to really put into words,” said Marita Rother, a nun and younger sister of the priest who was shot to death on July 28, 1981, while serving as a Catholic missionary during Guatemala’s bloody civil war.

“I think the whole thing is beyond what any of us would expect to be happening,” she added.

Year after year, the slain priest’s childhood church celebrates a special anniversary Mass remembering the sacrifice Rother made to serve Mayan descendants in a poor, mountain village 50 miles west of Guatemala City.

But this year, the memorial service took on added meaning and drew a larger crowd: Last December, Pope Francis recognized the Oklahoma native as the Catholic Church’s first U.S. priest and martyr to be approved for beatification. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints declared Rother had fulfilled the requirement of having died due to “hatred of the faith.”

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Religion News Service is a national wire service with more than 100 secular and religious media subscribers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR.

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