by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
On a rain-soaked Saturday in February 2005, Sister Dorothy Stang was making her way along a muddy Amazon jungle road. She was headed to a village near Anapu in the northern Brazilian state of Para. The region is known for its wealth of natural resources and the violence that boils over from land disputes. Waiting for Sister Dorothy that morning was a group of peasant farmers whose homes had been burned to the ground which the federal government had granted to these farmers. In Para, legal title to land does not always end disputes; logging firms and wealthy ranchers find assistance from local politicians and police in procuring and commandeering property from indigenous peoples and small farmers.
Along the way she heard taunts from men who had stopped alongside her. She stopped and opened her Bible and said: “The only defense I have is the Word of God. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven…’” They fired six shots at point blank range, killing her instantly.
Sister Dorothy Stang of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur began her adult life like many young American Catholic women of the 1950’s. At age 18 she entered religious life and taught in elementary schools for fifteen years. Then Dorothy volunteered for her congregation’s mission in the Amazon region of Brazil.
Like so many American missioners of that era, her eyes were soon opened to not only the need for religious instruction and social services among the people but to a new dimension of missionary work: “action on behalf of Justice and participation in the transformation of the world” (from the 1971 Synod on Justice in the World #6). Her dedication to this ideal was complete: she became a Brazilian citizen and famous for her statement, “The death of the forest is the end of our life” (surely the overriding concern of Pope Francis and his Amazonian Synod of 2019).
The tool of so many American missioners of that era, social analysis, brought Dorothy to understand ever more clearly the terrible injustices being imposed on the natives in Amazonia. Specifically, in Anapu, Para. It is a region of “Querida Amazonia” with vast possibilities in the rich natural resources of the rain forest and outside interests began capitalizing on them. Loggers, ranchers, land speculators and agribusiness became the dominating forces in the region, victimizing the poorer farmers and destroying what is called the “lungs of the world”.
Dorothy went about getting to know the forest, teaching the Indigenous peoples their rights and responsibilities, and advocating for them at higher levels of government. Predictably, her activities and those of her sisters came to represent a threat to loggers, land speculators and agribusiness concerns in the region. In the late 90’s she was on a “death list” publicized by the power brokers of the region.
So it was that on a rainy February morning in 2005 Sister Dorothy experienced what her Lord Jesus did when powerful interests of his time decided that “it was better for one man to die…” (John 12:50)
Immediately afterward the courageous Brazilian Bishops’ Pastoral Land Commission, of which Dorothy was a member, declared: “Although threatened with death, Dorothy never failed in her life’s mission to fight for the poor of the land, so that they had their rights guaranteed and a dignified life” (Bishops’ Pastoral Land Commission, Feb. 12, 2005).
Clearly, Sister Dorothy Stang is a martyr. She stands with that modern “cloud of witnesses” who have given their lives for the Gospel. While she is not officially canonized by the Catholic Church, she is revered as a saint throughout Brazil and far beyond. Significantly Pope Francis chose February 12, 2020, the 15th anniversary of Dorothy Stang’s martyrdom, to issue his reflection on the Amazonian Synod.
Sister Dorothy Mae Stang, SNDdeN – PRESENTE!
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.