By Aaron Mayorga, Editor
35 years ago this week, on the afternoon of February 13, 1982, Brother James A. Miller, F.S.C. – known affectionately by the locals as Hermano Santiago – was repairing a wall just outside
“La Casa Indígena De La Salle” or “The Indian Center.” Standing atop a step-ladder, Miller echoed his everyman roots as he worked to patch the damaged wall. Having been born to a family of farmers near Stevens Point, Wis., it was emblematic of Miller’s character to find the 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound missionary working with his hands.
Amidst the violence and terror of the Guatemalan Civil War, the Indian Center was thought to be a sanctuary from all the bloodshed, which was tucked away in the picturesque highlands of western Guatemala. Located over 150 miles from Guatemala City, an 18-hour trip by bus, it seemed unfathomable that tragedy would strike Huehuetenango – the city in which the Indian Center was situated.
That is, until it did.
As Miller worked, an automobile carrying three hooded gunmen sped past. Unloading their entire magazines at the Christian Brother from point-blank range, Miller was struck and killed instantly. According to Sister Madeleva Manzanares Suazo, who worked in a nearby hospice and rushed to his side after hearing the gunshots, the 37-year old Wisconsin native was dead before he hit the ground.
As the news of Miller’s death reached America, the community was shocked. Brother Jack Curran ’80, vice president of mission, recalled that he first heard the news when he was still teaching at St. Raymond High School, an all-boys school in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx.
“It was just shocking because it’s something that doesn’t happen every day, fortunately,” Curran said.
At the time, however, violence against Christian missionaries – particularly in the Central American region – had reached a tipping point. In a statement released shortly after Miller’s assassination, the Christian Brothers said: “The murder of Brother James Miller brings to 15 the number of priests and religious workers who have been kidnapped or murdered in Guatemala in the last 18 months.”
Miller’s murder was also preceded by the killings of Father Stanley Rother of Oklahoma City, who was shot in his church rectory, and American Mennonite missionary John David Troyer, who was killed in his home in 1981.
Although no one was ever arrested for either of these three murders, many contend that the Guatemalan government may have been the culprit behind the attacks with the intent of sending a message to other missionaries in the area – including Brother Paul Joslin, F.S.C., who worked alongside Miller at the Indian Center at the time of the latter’s death.
In a 2002 speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of Miller’s death, Joslin recounted that Señor Gomez – a pseudonym for a mutual friend of Joslin and Miller – had overheard “two members of the infamous G-2 death squad in the local park plotting to ‘get rid of the sub-director’ of [the Indian Center].”
The Guatemalan Army’s desire to strike against the peaceful workers of the Indian Center stemmed from the government’s policy of forced conscription.
Required to meet certain conscription quotas, the government often rounded up the poor Indian boys of Huehuetenango – many of whom were also students of Miller’s and were enrolled at the Indian Center. Under the law mandating the conscription quotas, however, boys who were enrolled in school were to be exempt from military service, meaning that the government was compelled to release the boys and that their initial conscription was akin to kidnapping.
Having their students abducted by the government was unfortunately commonplace for Joslin and Miller, and it usually resulted in the reluctant release of the boys by the military upon showing proof of enrollment. However, on January 31, 1982 – two weeks before Miller’s death, a new student by the name of Epifanio Camposeco was kidnapped by four men and illegally recruited into the Guatemalan Army as he strolled through the marketplace of Huehuetenango.
With his parents living too far away, Joslin made the trip in their stead to the nearby army base to get Camposeco released. This time, the Army refused to comply. Between January 31 and February 10, Joslin made multiple trips and petitioned the department’s governor as well as the coordinator of the Guatemalan Christian Children’s Fund to aid in Camposeco’s release, but to no avail.
Three days later, Miller was shot dead in cold blood.
“The murder of Brother James was probably meant as a warning to the Brothers to cease interfering in government affairs,” said Paul E. Kotz, Ph.D., an associate professor at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota – one of Manhattan’s five Lasallian sister colleges and universities.
Prior to his service in Guatemala, Miller taught at Cretin High School in St. Paul, Minn. From 1979 to 1981, Miller taught English, Spanish and Religion to its students. It was during this time that Kotz, then a student, first encountered Miller.
“He was working on a light fixture near my locker,” Kotz said. “He asked me to hand him some tools. He started to call me Pablo. He told me it meant ‘friend.’”
While at Cretin, Kotz confirmed that it was common to see Miller fixing things around the school, recalling that Cretin students had bestowed upon Miller the moniker of “Brother Fix It” since he would often be seen carrying a wrench in his hand and would assist kids who forgot their locker combinations.
“He struck me as a man who understood the gravity of major issues in the world, but at the same time preferred to live a humble life of service,” Kotz said.
Miller’s service in Guatemala wasn’t his first time serving the poorest of the poor in Central America. Shortly after professing his perpetual vows in 1969, he was assigned to Bluefields, Nicaragua where he taught elementary and high school students. In 1974, he was sent to Puerto Cabezas, about 140 miles north of Bluefields, where he oversaw the construction of ten rural schools and saw enrollment more than double from 300 students to 800 students.
In July 1979, however, his time in Nicaragua came to an abrupt end as it became clear to his religious superiors that the Sandinista National Liberation Front was on the cusp of overthrowing the dictatorial Nicaraguan government. Out of an abundance of caution, Miller was ordered to return stateside.
Despite enjoying his time at Cretin High, Miller relayed to Kotz in a 1980 interview for the Cretin school newspaper “that the situation in Guatemala called him to be there. He was aware of the danger with the government and the citizen unrest, but knew he was destined to go back and serve.”
The sense of service was echoed by Miller in his 1981 Christmas letter that he penned to his friends and family when he wrote: “Aware of the many difficulties and risks we face in the future, we continue to work with faith and hope and trust in God’s providence… I am personally wary of violence, but I continue to feel a strong commitment to the suffering poor of Central America.”
Just hours before his death – on the morning of February 13, 1982, Miller entered Brother Paul Joslin’s office for the last time. Regarding their last meeting, Joslin said, in a 2012 interview, “Brother Santiago came into the office where I was working and said to me: ‘I’ll be going on a picnic with my class’ [to commemorate El Día del Cariño, which was the next day].”
Even on the day of his death, Miller’s commitment to his students had held strong.
On the 25th anniversary of his death, in 2007, the Indian Center was renamed to the “Centro Indígena Santiago Miller” as a way to honor Miller’s legacy, and inside the city limits of Huehuetenango, two murals exist that are dedicated to his life and to his work for the impoverished of Central America.
In 2009, the Diocese of Huehuetenango undertook Brother James’ cause of martyrdom; in July 2010, he received the Decree of Validity in Rome and was designated a Servant of God and a martyr of the faith. Both of these developments have introduced the possibility of beatification – the start of a process which may result in canonization and sainthood.
On how he sees Brother James Miller’s legacy exemplified at Manhattan College, Curran said, tearfully, that he would like “to try to encourage the entire faculty to see James Miller as their Saint – as an affirmation of who they are and what they do.”