The twentieth century was a century of martyrs, some well known like Monseñor Oscar Romero of El Salvador.
Among the lesser known is Father Ray Herman, an Iowa farm boy.
When he was killed in Morochata, Bolivia, on November 20, 1975, all his possessions, except for his books and clothes, fit into a cigar box.
Raised in Independence, Iowa, he studied at Iowa State University in Ames, getting a degree in farm management. But instead of returning to the farm, he went to the Dubuque archdiocesan seminary.
He was ordained in 1957 and after a few years in parish work he went to Cochabamba, Bolivia, first as a Maryknoll associate. When the Dubuque archdiocese established a mission in Cochabamba he moved to their parish and worked with catechists. During this time he learned Quechua.
In 1971 he moved to the rural parish of Morochata, where he taught religious education classes, helped organize cooperatives and helped build schools, clinics, sports fields, and nursing centers.
His bishop said that Fr Ray was known wherever he went for two things: a complete dedication to Christ and his Church, and an ever present cigar.
He found his home among the poor indigenous and there he preached and tried to help them live more like God’s people.
As he told one visitor,
“Ever since college I have wanted to give everything to our Lord and only since I have come to Morochata do I feel that I am really happy and, to some degree at least, successful in giving all to Christ.”
This was in the times of the repression of the military dictator Hugo Banzer in Bolivia.
Even though Father Ray did not take a political stand, it is quite probable that some of the powers that be felt threatened by his efforts to assist the indigenous.
In the two months before his martyrdom, he had led short courses for seventy catechists in his parish.
On October 19, 1975, he dedicated a ten bed hospital clinic in Morochata that he had helped promote.
The next day he was found murdered in the rectory of San Bartolomé parish, Morochata, Bolivia.
It was made to look like an ordinary robbery, but he had been strangled and beaten before he was shot with two bullets in the head. Many, however, believe that he was killed because his efforts to help the poor brought down upon him the wrath of the rich and powerful.
Last month, to help remember a local martyr, the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, Iowa, dedicated one of its rooms to his memory. Ray had worshipped int he parish as a student and its pastor, Fr. James Supple, had been a part of his discernment to become a priest.
Fr. Ray’s brother, a deacon, came and preached at the Masses and blessed the room.
Now the university students at St. Thomas can sit and study in a room dedicated to Cigar Box Ray – and perhaps learn from his example how to be a sign of Good News for the poor.