Brother James Miller gave his life for God, and now the Roman Catholic Church has begun the process to make the Saint Mary's University graduate a saint.
Earlier this year, he was designated a "servant of God" and a martyr for the faith - beginning a journey that could end in canonization, the Roman Catholic process of sainthood. He is the only SMU graduate to be considered for the designation.
Miller was born prematurely - weighing barely 4 pounds - in 1944 in Stevens Point, Wis. But he grew up to tower over people, standing at 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing more than 200 pounds. He was a farm kid with a knack for language and boisterous guffaw that could startle some.
Miller's religious studies at SMU in the mid-1960s culminated in his career teaching indigenous Latin American Indians. Many of his contemporaries in the Lasallian order describe a man perfectly suited for life in Central America - an agrarian background and fluency in Spanish and English. But most importantly, Miller felt especially strongly about educating the Indians in the classroom and in the field, where he taught agriculture.
It was there, outside a Guatemalan school where Miller was repairing a wall in 1982, three assassins took his life.
Passion for education
Miller found his passion in 1974 when he was assigned to Nicaragua.
His work there included expanding a school for indigenous tribes, doubling the faculty and the student body to 800 people.
Though not necessarily sympathetic to the political aims of the Somoza family that controlled Nicaragua, Miller maintained a close alliance with the regime because he saw it as a way to expand the school, said Brother Francis Carr, a classmate and fellow Lasallian brother. But, as unrest wracked the country, many local residents took Miller's cordial relationship with the Somoza government as tacit support.
As the Sandinista revolution spread throughout Nicaragua and the rural countryside, Miller started receiving threats. In fact, the Sandinistas rebels put Miller on a list of people to be "dealt with" when they came into power.
Miller fell further out of favor as he and other teachers tried to keep students out of military service.
The rebel war drew closer to his school in Puerto Cabezas, and machine gun fire could often be heard outside. Realizing the threats, Miller advanced a planned vacation to Wisconsin in which he’d help celebrate the centennial of his home parish.
“Under the pretext of being the companion of an aged nun, he was able to fly to Managua on a Red Cross plane and obtain a flight to the United States,” wrote Brother Theodore Drahmann in
his book, “Hermano Santiago: The Life and Times of Brother James Miller.”
Miller was worried his departure would be seen as fleeing out of fear and wrote to several people emphatically telling them of his return.
“Keep the Institute going, all of you,” he wrote. “Students, teachers and workers have the responsibility to care for the school. I will be back in one month. Remember that building the new structure was hard; now that we have it, maintain it, keep it pretty. I will see you later.”
Shortly after he left, the Somoza government fell to the Sandinistas, and the religious superiors of the Lasallian order decided Miller would not return to Nicaragua.
Trip back home, then a new assignment
Miller spent a frustrating year and a half in America, first in Wisconsin and later in the Twin Cities.
“I’m bored up here,” he wrote. “I hate snow, even the little we’ve gotten this year. I guess it’s no secret that I am anxious to return to Latin America. I just don’t function to my best potential up here anymore,” Miller wrote to Brother Martin Spellman.
In January 1981, Miller learned he would be assigned to Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
The assignment in Huehuetenango wasn’t so unlike the assignment in Nicaragua. He taught and worked on a farm that helped support an Indian school. And he helped Mayan Indians study their own culture and trained them to be teachers so they could go back to the villages and educate. But there was another reason for the education: to keep the Indians from being conscripted into the army.
“The brothers (at the school) were all about the kids, and if the government got in the way of the kids, they’d stick their noses in it,” Carr said. “And the government saw that, and it didn’t like it.”
This caught the attention of the already embattled government, which was trying to stave off insurgents. The Christian brothers and the school were seen with suspicion. Rumors began to circulate that the school was sympathetic to — even harboring — some guerrilla fighters.
Those rumors weren’t true and were probably started by the army to arouse public sentiment against the school, Spellman said. Anyone not openly supportive of the government was believed to be working against it. Yet Spellman also said that unlike his time in Nicaragua, Miller refrained from entering the political fray and instead focused more on the agricultural and teaching aspects of the job.
Still, Miller acknowledged the risky political situation.
“The level of violence here is reaching appalling proportions, (murders, torture, kidnappings, threats) and the Church is being persecuted because of its option for the poor,” Miller wrote. “Aware of the many difficulties and risks, we continue to work with faith and hope and trust in God’s providence.”
As violence spread throughout the country, Spellman and other Roman Catholic religious workers were told by credible sources that someone in a religious order — somewhere in Guatemala — would be killed. But Spellman never thought the assassination would reach remote Huehuetenango.
And nobody thought it would be the big guy from Wisconsin.
“While all the other brothers were talking about the political situation, Brother James was asking about mops and buckets for the kids,” Spellman said. “He was apolitical, really.”
Gunned down, with no justice for his death
Accounts of Miller’s death differ, but this much is clear: On Feb. 13, 1982, Miller was repairing a wall on the 100-year-old school building. He sent a young boy who was helping him inside to get a tool or some other object as he continued to work, according to interviews in Drahmann’s book. Several children looked on from a second-story window when three men stepped forward, pulled guns at point-blank range and fired.
Miller was probably dead before he hit the ground. People standing on the street saw the three men run toward the military base in town.
Calls from the American Consulate and Roman Catholic Church to investigate the murder poured in to Guatemala City. Two months after Miller’s death, the Guatemalan government expressed regret the case had dragged on for so long. Miller was one of thousands of missing or murdered people in a country ripped apart by bloodshed and political upheaval.
The Guatemalan government eventually concluded that “subversive criminal elements” had probably murdered Miller. The government then closed the case, without naming the murderers and without justice.
Spellman is still shocked and angered by Miller’s death.
“It was a senseless murder,” he said. “It was done by a goon squad.”
Spellman said it was possible to learn who committed the murders, but doing so only endangered more religious workers and residents. So, it became a simple equation: Risk more lives for the justice of one, or pass on the opportunity to close a murder.
“We had to explain to the Miller family there wouldn’t be justice for his death,” Spellman said. “Mrs. Miller (James’ mother) was strong, and she understood.”
Today, nearly three decades after Miller’s death, Spellman doesn’t doubt it was a case of mistaken identity.
Years later, a close friend of his with ties to the military confided to the brothers that Miller was misidentified.
“He said the priest we killed was by mistake,” Spellman said. “Brother James would have been the last one (to be assassinated), but to them, we all looked the same.”
Hermano Santiago’s case moves forward
Carr, the Lasallian brother, believes the push to have Miller canonized has come late because the political climate in Guatemala had been so unstable. But now the bishops of Guatemala have pressed forward with the man they call “Hermano Santiago.”
Carr is quick to point out there were other lay members who also died in Guatemala teaching the faith.
“We wanted the others to be part of the movement toward canonization,” Carr said. “But that part isn’t moving (through the process). This isn’t just about Jim Miller.
“For those of us who knew him, he was ordinary like us,” Carr said. “But if you die for something you believe in, that’s something altogether different.”
The Vatican will continue to examine Miller’s case. For example, because he was a martyr, officials will look for just one miracle, instead of the customary two usually required for canonization.
“I suppose if we knew any saint, they wouldn’t always be the easiest people to live around,” Spellman said. “And you know, they weren’t born with halos on their heads.
“But he died in the order of sanctity, and not a lot of people realized his piety,” he said. “His letters are full of asking people for prayers. That impresses me a great deal.” Winona Daily News