It’s a simple stole, given as a gift and kept for years in the rectory of an Edmonton church, but it has a story rich in detail.
The long piece of cloth with vivid Mayan images was handcrafted more than four decades ago, by villagers in Guatemala. And now it may very well become a relic – a sacred item – because of its connection to Father Stanley Rother, a U.S.-born missionary who was martyred in Guatemala in 1981.
Last month, Blessed Father Stanley Rother was beatified by Pope Francis. Beatification is a step in the process toward sainthood.
“It’s a very beautiful gift,” said Father Patrick Baska, the pastor at St. Theresa’s Parish, who has owned the stole since June 22, 2006, when he received it as a gift after officiating at a wedding in Edmonton.
“It’s remarkable. I’m the one. At that time, at that place and on that date, I am the one.”
The stole is an ecclesiastical vestment, draped off the shoulders like a scarf and worn during sacramental celebrations as a symbol of a priest’s prophetic authority.
The stoles in Guatemala were woven and sold by the women of Santiago Atitilan, the rural village where Father Rother worked as a missionary. When a group of teenage girls from Father Rother’s home diocese in Oklahoma came to visit, he gave them stoles as gifts.
“The idea was that should they marry or have a religious vocation, they would present the stole to the priest who received their vows, whether they were marriage vows or religious vows,” Baska explained.
One of those teenagers was Catherine Mardon, now a retired lawyer in Edmonton, who kept her stole for years. In 2006, she gave it to Father Baska, then the pastor at St. Alphonsus Parish, when she married her husband Austin, a University of Alberta professor and a prominent mental health advocate.
This stole, about 2.5 metres long, is woven in various shades of green, aqua, turquoise and blue, with images of a cross on a hill, sheaves of wheat, an anchor, and a fish.
Baska said he was overwhelmed by the gift and its history, even more so now that Father Rother has been beatified.
Father Rother was shot when three men, who had been fighting the local indigenous people, broke into the parish mission. Rother refused to leave, as he believed that would have put others in danger.
“To want to spend his priesthood serving in Guatemala was remarkable to me,” Baska said. “It wasn’t that he was sent there, but that he requested to serve there. That’s fascinating to me. It’s humbling.
“He was martyred at the same age that I will be,” Baska added.
“I’ll be turning 46 at the end of the month. And he was 46 when he was martyred. I look at that as significant too. He was as old as I am now, going to work in the missions in Guatemala during the civil war there at that time.”
The stole may also qualify as a third-class relic, or sacred item, because it came into contact with a person who has been beatified or canonized.
“Father Rother’s family, friends, whoever knew him, could well have articles that belonged to him. They might already be collecting these items, holding them in trust and maybe eventually they’ll be declared relics,” Baska explained.
“It’s basically what the person has left behind as they detach themselves from this world. Their soul has now gone to God. And even their very body has been left to the earth. So it becomes a relic. We relinquish all, even our earthly body and all of our belongings. Everything we’re attached to in this life is left (behind).”
A first-class relic is an actual part of that person’s body, such as piece of bone. A second-class relic is an item that the beatified or canonized person has worn or touched. Baska said a bishop or an expert in canon law would have to determine if his stole is a relic.
Until such time, Baska is taking a fresh look at his personal ‘treasure.’ He admits he hasn’t worn the stole very often. It was packed among his personal belongings when he took up his new appointment as pastor at St. Theresa’s Parish in August.
“When I went to look for this, it was in the basement level of the rectory among a whole bunch of other boxes I still haven’t sorted out yet,” he joked.
“But I found it. It’s coming out of the box now for sure, where I can put it up or wear it.”