Tag Archives: Sister Dorothy Stang

Dorothy Stang, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a 2 part series.  Read part 1 here.

Enter the villains. The ranchers hire gunmen who shoot her to death on February 12, 2005. Seeing the gun, Dorothy doesn’t run or plead for her life, as most folks would. Fear would’ve been natural and understandable. Instead she pulls out her Bible and reads the Beatitudes aloud. The divine power transcends human limitations; in those final moments, she imitated Christ. She must’ve spent a lifetime preparing for that climax; now she teaches me how to live.

Breathing a deep lungful of piney mountain air, scented with sage, at home in the Rocky Mountains, I recall Dorothy’s joy outdoors. Without much institutional church, she finds God in the green canopy of trees, the cathedral of forest. Dorothy reminds me that when we lose our sacred connection to the earth, we’re stuck with small selves and petty concerns. In film footage, she proudly shows off a tree farm, exulting, “we CAN reforest the Amazon!”

Dorothy has encouraged me to stop eating beef, since intensive grazing requires destruction of the rainforest. I’m learning “green” alternatives to wasteful habits. Like most North Americans, I have enough stuff and now lean towards a simpler life. David explains, “she was so in love with what she was doing, she didn’t notice her dirt floor, primitive plumbing, no electricity.”

“Holy” once meant pious and passive. But Dorothy models how to raise Cain and act for justice. As we baby boomers age, Dorothy is patron saint for slow butterflies and reluctant caterpillars. She didn’t remain captive to her traditional upbringing. She probably could’ve hunkered down into the retirement center, counted her wrinkles and kept careful tabs on her ailments—as some older folk do. Instead, vivaciously, she tried new things, journeyed to new places. Her face is so youthful, it’s hard to think of her as 73. If I want to look that luminous at that age, I too must shed fears and take risks.

I want to love as gladly and fully as she did. It’s easy to get caught up in trivia: social commitments, work deadlines, domestic chores. But is this how we want to spend the precious coinage of brief lives? At Dorothy’s funeral, her friend Sister Jo Anne announced, “we’re not going to bury Dorothy; we’re going to plant her. Dorothy Vive!” If I want that immortality, I should examine what seeds I’m planting now, how I’ll live on in memory.

Dorothy has ruined my easy cop-out: how can one small person offset complex and apparently hopeless wrongs? Dorothy and I are the same height, 5’2”. Yet look what this giant accomplished: her killers’ trials, televised to every Brazilian classroom, have given children hope.

Her family and community won’t pursue canonization, preferring to give the poor the money that cause would require. Many already consider Dorothy a saint and martyr—in the early church, that’s all that mattered. As one biographer said about St. Catherine of Siena, “someone must’ve told her women were inferior. She clearly didn’t believe it.”

Environmental Warrior: Dorothy Stang

In a slightly belated tribute to Sister Dorothy Stang, who died 2/12/05, this essay is reprinted in two parts, from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC.

Dorothy’s brother David is always eager to talk about his martyred sister. “She whacked me around as a kid,” he admits. “A tomboy, she played the best football in the family.” That tenacity carried her through the Amazon, where she became a feisty defender of the poor and the rainforest. After her death, she’s still a role model in the arenas of the environment, aging and women’s roles.

Her story has the attributes of heroic legend, so let’s tell it that way. First, the setting(s). In Brazil, less than 3% of the population owns 2/3 of arable land. When the government gives land to displaced farm workers, loggers and ranchers burn poor settlements, sell valuable timber, then graze cattle (to supply our McDonald’s!) The consequent loss of the rain forest is tragic because it contains 30% of the world’s biodiversity. Some call it “the lungs of the planet.” As it shrinks, global warming increases.

It’s hard to imagine a place more distant from Brazil than Dayton, Ohio. Young Dorothy lives here, her backyard a model of organic gardening, where she learns composting and the dangers of pesticides. In 1948, she becomes a Sister of Notre Dame and teacher. You expect her to become a benevolent nun who dies of old age in a quiet convent, right? That’s where her story gets interesting.

Our heroine volunteers for Brazil when her order calls for missionaries. She accompanies families to Para, bordering the rain forest, to defend their land. She asked the right questions there: not minor matters of narrow denominational or territorial concerns, but “How do we preserve the earth’s treasures? How do we empower God’s beloved people who live upon this land?” Dorothy had the expansive spirit of Roman philosopher Seneca, who declared in 42 A.D., “the whole world is my own native land.”

She organizes people into co-ops: they learn crop rotation, read the Bible and worship with music and dance. (Because priests are scarce, she becomes their “shepherd.” In a contemporary version of Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), it didn’t much matter if she was male or female, ordained or not. What DID matter, burningly, was “no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.”

When her people are attacked, she tells them brusquely, “quit crying; start rebuilding!” Her old VW Beetle wobbles over bridges with rotting planks—while her passenger David makes a nervous sign of the cross. Dorothy takes the peoples’ case to the government. When officials deny receiving her letters, she burrows through their files ‘til she finds them. Persistently, she asks for protection of poor farmers, but nothing is done. Amazingly, she keeps this up for 38 YEARS. Dorothy starts fruit orchards with women and projects for sustainable development with 1200 people. The Brazilian Bar Association names her “Humanitarian of the Year” in 2004.

To be continued…