Blessed Miller kept '28-hour days,' helped indigenous Guatemalans

Christian Brother Paul Joslin speaks with Poor Clare Sister Agnes Stretz at the Poor Clares' monastery in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Both recall breaking bread with Blessed James Miller in 1982, barely a week before he was martyred in Guatemala. (CNS photo/David Agren)

HUEHUETENANGO, Guatemala (CNS) -- Blessed James Miller used to wake daily at the crack of dawn. He taught and was vice principal at the local La Sallian school.

The U.S. Christian Brother also was co-director of a Christian Brothers' boarding home for indigenous students and oversaw its farm program. The former Wisconsin farm boy would accompany the indigenous youths for afternoons of farm labor. Evenings at the home involved study hall and prayer sessions -- and he often wouldn't be in bed until after 11 p.m.

"He really liked hands-on types of things when he wasn't teaching and just came up with one project after another," recalled Christian Brother Paul Joslin, who co-directed the Casa Indigena boarding home and lived there with Blessed Miller.

"'There were 28-hour days.' That's what he would say," Brother Joslin told Catholic News Service. "In his 13 months here, he really did reach out to people."

Blessed Miller was beatified Dec. 7 in Huehuetenango, where he was remembered as a martyr for education. He was praised for putting into practice the "preferential option for the poor," which had been called for by Latin American bishops.

Hiram Martinez, a professor and former governor of Huehuetenango department, said Blessed Miller "was persecuted" because the authorities saw his attempts at fomenting critical thinking among indigenous populations as "subversive" and "something gringo."

Former students and residents of the Casa Indigena, meanwhile, remembered a mentor who promoted the idea of educating indigenous leaders -- who would return to their villages as professionals and promote change.

"Hermano Santiago," as Blessed Miller was known, "was very committed to the poorest people and those most in need," said Epifanio Mejia Ramirez, a physician who lived in the Casa Indigena and credits the Christian Brothers with allowing him to pursue studies beyond the primary level.

"This is his legacy," he added, "all these professionals in indigenous communities."

Poor Clare Sister Agnes Stretz said of Blessed Miller's legacy: "He was a great example to the youth. He was young and he looked younger than his years -- and he had a great relationship with the youth. That's what attracts the young people."

She added, "You have someone religious, he was in his habit, they saw him like that: a man of God, but yet he was funny. A lot of people have a problem putting that together, thinking that if you're serving (God), you're a very serious person, not having fun."

Sister Stretz recalls breaking bread with Blessed Miller and his Christian Brothers in February 1982 at the Casa Indigena -- a rare time when the brothers' private dining room was used, because they almost always ate meals with the students.

A week later, Blessed Miller stopped by the Poor Clares' monastery -- home to five sisters, who had arrived from Memphis, Tennessee, just two months earlier -- to perform some maintenance work. That same day, he was shot dead.

"There was someone outside the monastery watching," Sister Agnes recalled. "We put it together later."

Blessed Miller's work had increasingly put him into conflict with the Guatemalan military.

Just two weeks before his murder, a student was abducted by soldiers outside the Casa Indigena. It prompted Brother Joslin to visit local military base three times in 10 days and demand the young man's release.

A threat also arrived Feb. 10: Members of a military death squad were searching for a vice principal of the Christian Brothers' school.

It's still uncertain who the gunmen were, but they acted brazenly and in broad daylight. The perpetrators fled through the narrow streets of central Huehuetenango, heading toward the police station, according to students sticking their heads out the windows of the Casa Indigena, Brother Joslin said.

Brother Joslin said U.S. Embassy officials showed little interest in getting to the bottom of the case -- "that's what I didn't expect," he said -- and he seldom spoke about it in much detail over the ensuing years.

"When I came to the United States (after the murder,) I had to act dumb, I had to act as if I didn't know who did it ... and that really bothered me," he said. "I thought, if I said something, someone else's life would be in danger."

The Casa Indigena was renamed Casa Santiago Miller after Brother Miller's murder. It closed in 2016 as Guatemala began offering secondary schools in rural areas, and changes in the education system made its work unnecessary. The La Sallian Christian Brothers are redeveloping the property and attempting to use the income it generates to create a scholarship fund name for Blessed Miller.

There's also the hope that his beatification promotes "historic memory" of the civil war, which ended in 1996, but has left scars and lingering sense of impunity.

"He represents what happened to 200,000 people," said Brother Joslin. "He's a voice for the voiceless."