Blessed James Miller (1944-1982) — better known among the Guatemalans he served as Hermano Santiago, the Spanish version of “Brother James” — was a De La Salle Christian Brother martyred in 1982. Blessed James was the first religious brother from America to be declared blessed.
The Wisconsin native became just the second native-born American so designated — the first was Blessed Stanley Rother of Oklahoma, who was beatified in 2017. Blessed James’ death came almost seven months after Father Rother was also killed in Guatemala.
Born prematurely in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, on Sept. 21, 1944, James grew up on the family farm. He was brawny in stature, kindhearted and had an animated laugh. He entered the Institute of the Brothers of Christian Schools, more simply known as the Christian Brothers, upon completing high school. Blessed James professed first vows in 1962 and took the religious name Brother Leo William, although he later reverted to using his baptismal name.
Initially assigned to high school ministry in Minnesota, he coached football in addition to teaching Spanish, English and religion. He also directed maintenance for the facility, earning him the moniker “Brother Fix-It.”
Blessed James professed perpetual vows in 1969. Shortly thereafter, Brother James spent time in Nicaragua, where he taught and directed a vocational school, which doubled in size under his leadership and constructed nearly a dozen schools on the outskirts. The Sandanista revolution caused great difficulty for the people of Nicaragua, and it was a time during which Brother Miller’s life was endangered. Later reassigned to Minnesota again, he longed to return to Central America.
In early 1981, Blessed James was assigned to Guatemala. There he taught in Huehuetenango, located in a mountainous area in the western part of the country. He was attentive to the suffering and oppression of the natives, and he focused on providing job-skills training among their youths. There was only one teacher for every 400 children in the country. He took on the most ordinary of tasks willingly, from sweeping floors to doing dishes. Or he would utilize his conversation skills to attempt negotiations with politicians, and he exhibited community leadership in organizing a fire department.
Blessed James was keenly aware of poverty and oppression among Guatemalan natives he served. “Many selfish, blind and hardened hearts must be converted to the love of Christ before a lasting solution can be found. Armed force will not solve the problems; only dialogue and mutual understanding can be viable solutions,” he wrote.
It is clear Blessed James’ love for the poor and his desire to serve them in the name of Christ ultimately brought about his death, a risk of which he was fully aware. “I am personally weary of violence, but I continue to feel a strong commitment to the suffering poor of Central America. ‘God’s ways are not man’s ways,’ says the Bible. God knows why he continued to call me to Guatemala, when some friends and relatives encouraged me to pull out for my own comfort and safety,” Blessed James wrote.
Similar to his time in Nicaragua, the political situation in Guatemala was disturbing. The Church was hated for its vocal opposition to the oppression of the poor and vulnerable. As a result, this left missionaries and other clergy and religious in danger of threats, torture, kidnapping and even murder.
Blessed James was shot and killed on Feb. 13, 1982, by three hooded men as he was atop a ladder repairing a wall of the school at which he served. Students of De La Salle Indian School in Huehuetenango were looking on. He was 37 years old at the time of his death. His assassins were never identified, and the investigation was closed after the government concluded “subversive criminal elements” were to blame.
After Brother James’ murder, the Christian Brothers deliberated leaving Guatemala. But they decided, “the greatest legacy to our Brother James Miller would be for the work of the De La Salle Brothers to continue.”
After funeral ceremonies in Guatemala and Minnesota, Blessed James was buried in his native Wisconsin. His cause of canonization was opened in 2009. He will be beatified Dec. 7, 2019.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.