Sister Dorothy's Legacy

“We are a global people – one family. A deep Christian value is sharing. I am an instrument to help them come together. I am a person free to do that.”
-Sister Dorothy Stang

After 40 years of working with the families of poor farmers in Brazil, Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered on February 12, 2005. The world is blessed by the memory of her life and death. Sister Dorothy did not know that she was among the “truly great.” Her life was lived in focused response to the grace of the ordinary – moment by moment, day by day. She traveled through the ups and downs of life with a vibrant hope.

In the Amazon, Dorothy lived among small farmers and encouraged them in community building, in home building and in crop and livestock development. She always taught with Gospel examples. The messages gave the people strength.

When she was among the children, worked with groups or confronted magistrates, her energy and strength was empowering to others. Her can-do spirit of love, humor and generosity drew people to her. They saw her dedication, felt her authentic spirituality and experienced her steadfast support for their wellbeing. Even when death threats came, her reliance on the Good God sustained her.

Dorothy worked to develop a new type of agrarian society that helped farm families from diverse cultures develop common bonds and learn how to use the soil to sustain themselves and the land. She also helped to foster small family business projects in the village, often creating, for the first time in many families, women breadwinners.

In the days preceding her murder on Feb. 12, 2005, Sister Dorothy was attempting to halt illegal logging where land sharks had interests but no legal rights. Authorities believe the murder was arranged by a local rancher for $19,300. Many believe that a consortium of loggers and ranchers had contributed to the bounty on Sr. Dorothy’s head in an effort to silence her. Ironically, their attempt at silence resulted in an opposite effect: an outraged world, well informed about the murder through persistent global media reports, sent Sr. Dorothy’s voice soaring to new heights.

A proclamation came quickly from Brazil’s president that the land in question, over 22,000 acres, would be reserved for sustainable development by the poor farmers whose cause Sr. Dorothy had championed.

“Our Gospel response calls us to take risks among our people. They don’t have this privilege or they would be killed if they resist openly – indeed, they are killed.”

-Sister Dorothy Stang

The small community schools she established, away from town and in the forest near the families of the farmers, continue, and with a strong agricultural curriculum. Because of Dorothy and the Sisters working in the forest today, there are now 85 farming communities in Anapu; there were only 35 when Dorothy died. Some have built brick houses and have electricity in their homes. They develop products from the cacao plant and acai trees and set up schools for their children.

The consciousness and activism on the part of the farmers regarding protection and replenishment of the natural environment remains rigorous, such that farmers are maintaining and replanting trees over up to 80 percent of their properties, and substituting forest-friendly crops such as cacao, black pepper and açai in place of corn. 

And perhaps most importantly, Sister Dorothy’s organization of the farmers into a cohesive and powerful force, where once they were isolated and distrustful of one another, had only grown stronger, allowing them to hold onto their land through initiatives of their own and through organizations of their own creation, such as the Anapu Defense Committee. 

We need people like Dorothy to encourage us to give of ourselves when it is hard to do so. To this day, she continues to inspire the communities she helped to build. Her spirit lives on in the people. 

Sister Dorothy, educator, pioneer woman and martyr, 
instill in us a fierce love for the poor and vulnerable. 
You who championed the right of poor farming families 
to possess a piece of land and to live in dignity on it; 
You who helped them organize and work cooperatively 
in creating an infrastructure in the forest 
of roads, schools, small stores, and pastoral centers; 
You who never gave up working for the people until they gained 
a legally recognized federal reserve in the rainforest; 
You who helped them live in harmony with nature 
through the Project of Sustainable Development; 
Give us HOPE for land reform, justice and peace, 
Give us respect for the poor, 
Give us HOPE for the preservation of the rainforest. 
-Sister Sandra Araujo dos Santos, SNDdeN

More about Sister Dorothy from our Ohio Province