Personal Reflection on Blessed Brother James Miller

Lou Anne Tighe, Director of Campus Ministry
April 11, 2018

Br. James MillerBlessed Brother James Miller, a former teacher at Cretin High School who was martyred in Guatemala in 1981, was Beatified by Council in Rome this past March. Beatification is the second stage of three before being fully declared a Saint.

Lou Anne Tighe, Director of Campus Ministry at CDH, shares a personal reflection on the impact of Blessed Brother James Miller on her and her life's work. As a student at (then) Saint Mary's College in Winona, her connection with the Christian Brothers was strong and the stories of Brother James and his tragic killing were very real. Now at CDH, where Brother James taught (at Cretin High School) in the late 1970s, Ms. Tighe reflects on his story and the significance of his recent beatification. Read more: Former Cretin Teacher Brother James Miller is Beatified.  

"A Christian Brother Has Been Killed"

On February 13, 1982, I was home on winter break at (then) Saint Mary’s College in Winona. I remember my mom yelling up the stairs and telling me to come to the kitchen. She said a Christian Brother had been killed in Guatemala. 

His name was not familiar at all and honestly, I was pretty sure Guatemala was in South America! The media attention around Brother James Miller’s death was not what it would have been today. In fact, his death was given very little coverage. The hushed reference to his death and the one picture at his funeral at the Cathedral of Saint Paul occurred because of the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Guatemalan governments. The word, “complicated,” then would be the word, “complicit,” today. 

When I returned to Saint Mary's College after break, I had declared my major in psychology and wanted to focus primarily on psychopharmacology. A classmate, Bill, and I were developing a research study on the relationship between blood glucose levels and reading comprehension. Bill lived in Cotter Hall, an on-campus residence where male students and Brothers lived together in community. At Cotter Hall, the cookies were fresh and the Brothers were kind! 

One evening, a few days after Jim’s funeral, Bill and I were in the Cotter Hall living room when Brother Stephen Markham came home. He dropped onto the couch and Bill asked how he was doing. It was obvious that he was exhausted and I followed up and asked, “Why are you so tired?” 

Brother Stephen began to speak about the recent events and the killing of Brother James. The three of us were up most of the night. Brother Stephen was not only a classmate of Brother James but also the Auxiliary Visitor at the time. He spoke about Jim’s murder in plain daylight, how it took the police more than an hour to come to the school when the police department was just a few blocks away. He said that the Sisters there put his body in a wheelbarrow and washed him and put him in a clean white habit. He described how he was carried on the shoulders’ of the people of Huehuetenango to the plane that flew him to Guatemala City. 

And after a funeral mass in Guatemala, he was transported to Saint Paul. At the Cathedral, he explained how the Brothers were cautioned to keep his funeral and his death “low key.” And, at his family's request, Brother James was buried in the family cemetery in Wisconsin rather than the Brothers’ cemetery.  

"Why Would Someone Kill Him?"

Not unlike a Passover meal when the youngest asks the very important question: Why is this night different from all other nights? We pressed Brother Stephen, “What was James doing that someone would kill him?" 

He explained Guatemala was in the midst of a violent civil war. Young men were “drafted” via abduction and if they refused to become soldiers, the military said they would find and kill their families. 

When the Brothers’ students were taken, the Brothers routinely went to the station and took back their boys and said they must be in school. James was teaching the boys and young men important skills upon which they could make a living. Then, as it was at the beginning of the Institute and still is today, education is a very powerful thing. Education was a threat to the military in control. Brother James was killed in order to send a message to anyone involved with teaching the Indigenous people or obstructed the “draft” of soldiers. 

Martyred for His Dedication to His Mission

Brother Stephen's last comment stays with me today: Brother James had been home recovering from surgery and staying with the Brothers at Cretin High School, just two months before he returned to Guatemala. He knew he could possibly be killed. His family and his Brothers would have understood if he decided not to return to Huehuetenango. But Jim would have nothing to do with that: he wanted to return to the school and teach the boys.

As that night turned into dawn, Bill and I did not make any progress with our research project (yes, we did get it done later!), but I walked back to my dorm forever changed. 

Brother James committed himself to a mission dedicated to providing a Christian and human education, especially to those who are poor. And he remained faithful to that mission even with the possibility of death (which was also true for all the Brothers in Huehuetenango at that time). The mission of the Christian Brothers was more important to him than his own life. 

What is My Mission?

His story awakened within me a desire to live a life bigger than myself, to connect to a mission and vision for the least, the lost, and the last. I understood my purpose was to bring all that is blessed and broken about me and give what I can to others. 

For Brother James Miller, now Blessed James, was no saint, in a worldly definition of the word. He was a scruffy, loud farm boy who wasn’t interested in titles or pedigree. I would think he would just shrug off the title, “Blessed.” He taught Spanish, coached soccer, and cleaned the toilets after school. He was martyred in the midst of the holy prayer of work, simply repairing cracked plaster on the wall of a school. 

And maybe that is why he is now "Blessed"  because God’s grace typically works through common, natural, and ordinary people and things. 

He changed lives while he was living and he continues to change lives through his death. 

Blessed James “Santiago” Miller, pray for us.  Live Jesus in our Hearts, Forever!

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