Saint of the Month: Blessed James Miller

Blessed James Miller was a religious brother, missionary, and martyr. James Alfred Miller was born in 1944 to a Catholic farming family at Stevens Point, in central Wisconsin. He was the oldest of five children and grew up in the small nearby town of Custer. He attended the local elementary school and then Pacelli High School in Stevens Point. Pacelli was the last name of the reigning pope at the time of its establishment, [Ven.] Pope Pius XII. There James met the Christian Brothers on the faculty. The Christian Brothers are a teaching order that was established in the late seventeenth century by [St.] John Baptist de la Salle.


James loved the farming life, but he was attracted by the dream of being a missionary teacher. At fifteen, he entered the Christian Brothers “juniorate” in Glencoe, Missouri. This facility was a high school for boys who were considering a vocation and was a working farm. Three years later, he was admitted as a postulant and then as a novice. In the fall of 1962, he received the habit and the name Leo William. Later, he followed what many of his religious brothers were doing and reverted to his Baptismal name, James. He earned his Master’s Degree in Spanish from St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, and was assigned to teach at Cretin High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. There, he taught English, Spanish, and Religion, and served in maintenance and football coaching duties. He professed his final vows in the summer of 1969 and was assigned to a mission in Bluefields, a rural area of Nicaragua. He taught sixth grade at the mission school. It didn’t take long before Brother James was also handling building maintenance. He later taught at the high school, operated a bookstore, and established a soccer team. In 1974, he was sent to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, where he was appointed as the school’s director. There, he established a facility for industrial arts and vocations and had a science facility built. He established a volunteer fire department, and trained the volunteers himself. Under his direction, the school flourished and grew from an enrollment of three hundred to eight hundred. Always with a mind to do whatever needed to be done, he was often seen sweeping the hallways and cleaning bathrooms. He also established ten badly-needed schools in remote areas.


By the summer of 1979, there was much violent conflict between the Sandanista forces and the Samosa government. Since Brother James had received assistance for the schools from the government, his superiors felt that he was in danger, and they recalled him to teach at Cretin, which was by then a co-ed school. Brother James obeyed this assignment with difficulty, for his heart was with the needy people of the missions. In addition to teaching, he carried on his usual handyman ways and the students nicknamed him “Brother Fix-it”.


In January 1981, he was sent to be subdirector of a mission in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. At the school there he taught English, art and religion to the indigenous Indian children, descendants of the Mayans. These unfortunate people were destitute after their lands were taken over by commercial expansion. Brother James also taught job, agricultural, and leadership skills to the teen boys. Sadly, Guatemala was also becoming a dangerous place for the missions. The teen boys were legally exempt from being drafted into military service. When the boys were taken for recruitment by revolutionaries, the Brothers would go and recover them. When the Brothers complained about the taking of the young military recruits, the school was peppered with bullets. On February 13, 1982, Brother James was on a ladder in the front of the school, patching the bullet holes. He sent one of his helpers into the school to get a tool. Within seconds, a car pulled up and three hooded men got out and shot Brother James, who died instantly. He was thirty-seven years old. The murder was witnessed by several students who saw it unfold through a school window. His assassins were never caught, despite a lengthy investigation. His funeral took place in Guatemala and another was held in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Blessed James Miller used his multitude of practical skills, learned on the family farm and in his juniorate high school to provide a unique form of service to the children he taught. His nickname “Brother Fix-It” was lovingly given because he was usually seen with one or another tool in his hands and because he could fix almost anything. He had a big, hearty laugh and was liked by all. He eagerly went to the missions, knowing how dangerous they were, which was shown by the letters he sent home to family. The process for his beatification was begun in Huehuetenango, Guatemala in 2009. Because his murder was “out of hatred for the Faith”, he was recognized as a martyr in 2018, and his beatification ceremony took place in Huehuetenango in 2019. His remains rest in Polonia, Wisconsin.