Sister Dorothy Stang's Life

By the time she was a junior in high school, Dorothy knew she wanted to become a Sister of Notre Dame, in particular a missionary to China. She never made it to China, but her journey did take her far from Dayton, Ohio, home.

A few years after taking her first vows she applied to a new school in Arizona. She was just 22 years old. Amongst her many talents, Sr. Dorothy surprised the boys by how well she could throw a football!  In addition to teaching classes, praying and attending Mass each day, teaching religion classes to children in public schools, the Sisters were asked to minister to those living in migrant camps. It was in these camps that the Sisters saw the true face of poverty. People lived in shacks with dirt floors, no running water, no toilets and little food. Dorothy began to collect food and clothes for these workers and found that their plight would not leave her mind.

When Pope John XXIII appealed to North American religious communities to commit a portion of their personnel to Latin American countries, Sr. Dorothy immediately expressed her desire to go. In 1966 she went and served until her murder in 2005.

The Early Years

The early years in Brazil were years of language study, changing habits (shedding the heavy black wool) and learning the culture and people. Their first assignment was in Coroatá, Maranhão, where the Sisters soon saw the unhealthy relationship between the wealthy landowners and the poor workers… a relationship of domination and subservience, with landowners frequently extracting more fees than customary from the workers leaving many near starvation.

“We are only here on the land for a few decades. Use every day to bring joy and not greed to our tired land so full of anguish.”

-Sister Dorothy Stang

The Sisters knew that they had to help the workers understand their rights, but it wasn't easy.  So many had been beaten down for generations. And the landowners were angry with the Sisters for pointing out the injustices and helping the workers.

This theme would run throughout Dorothy's career.

Learn more about Sister Dorothy Stang from this video produced by The Columbus Dispatch.
Share your reflections about Sister Dorothy Stang with this video from our Ohio province.

Coroatá Years

Over a period of a few years the rural farmers in Coroatá began to understand that they didn't have to be victims to the landowners. Unfortunately, when they tried to regain some of their legal rights, such as having a school for their children, it was met with threats, assaults and jail time. As Sister Roseanne Murphy wrote in her book, “Martyr of the Amazon”:

“Tensions were mounting between the landowners and the police and anyone who was working for justice for the poor. The needs of the poor were simply ignored by the city officials who were working for the wealthy landowners.”

The Sisters also reached out to young prostitutes in the area, trying to help them learn to read and write and learn the basics of health and nutrition. Some Sisters took midwifery classes to help reduce the infant mortality rate. They taught Bible classes to adults and youth.

In the mid-‘70s, both Sr. Dorothy and Sr. Becky felt the urge to press deeper into the country. The government was offering poor people land along the TransAmerica Highway.  Droves of people wanting to escape their enslavement to wealthy landowners came. The Sisters went to help set up base Christian communities in the area and try to help the peasants understand their rights. The land sharks came too, claiming the land belonged to them. The poor were threatened, beaten and some killed.

Deeper Into the Amazon

Sr. Dorothy would eventually move to the state of Para, where the land struggles continued.  Besides the threat to human life, she saw the illegal logging and slash-and-burn destruction of the rainforest. It broke her heart.

She lobbied lawmakers and contacted human rights officials. She helped teach those living in the forest sustainable businesses, such as growing cacao. She set up a woodworking shop. She mentored younger Sisters. She prayed. She helped farmers with legal documents. She worked tirelessly and courageously, even though for many years there was a price on her head. When that price had risen to the equivalent of $25,000, two men agreed to kill Sr. Dorothy.

Not the End

On February 12, 2005, Raifran das Neves Sales shot Dorothy six times. She was killed while reciting the Beatitudes and lay on muddy jungle path for hours.

But Dorothy’s death was not the end.  Though her grave is in Brazil, the people say, “We have not buried Dorothy, we have planted her.”

Sister Dorothy still inspires those who continue the struggle for justice.

More about Sister Dorothy

Much has been written about Sr. Dorothy's life. For those seeking a more comprehensive account, three excellent books have been written about her life and work.

Martyr of the Amazon by Sister Rosanne Murphy, SNDDeN
A Journey of Courage by Michele Murdock
The Greatest Gift by Binka Le Breton