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Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

Community celebrates martyred nun's work and vision

Parkville, Md.

She had a vision of the world’s longest Christian base community. When she retired, Sr. Dorothy Stang would joke, she was going to open a coffee shop at the side of the 3,000 mile long Trans-Amazonian Highway. Instead, on Feb. 12, she was shot to death alongside it.

The Sister of Notre Dame de Namur knew a 450-mile section of that road the painful way. She had walked it, ridden in bone-shaking trucks over its dust and mud and occasional blacktop. Milepost after miserable milepost marked settlements where the poor people she accompanied were run off their newly cleared land by machine-gun toting henchmen working for “land sharks,” men who claimed legal title at gunpoint.

At the altar of St. Ursula Church in Parkville, a few miles from Baltimore, at a March 13 memorial service attended by almost 400 people, Notre Dame de Namur sisters held handmade wooden crosses. They bore the simple designation that marked those places along the highway where the people hoped to settle: “PA (for Pará state) Km 70,” “Km 110,” “Km 135,” “PA 150.”

Stang had continued to accompany the poor farmers farther and farther into the jungle as they moved repeatedly, their homes again burned, family members again threatened or killed. Always the land sharks, loggers and ranchers viciously enforced their message: Go.

Stang’s words were read at the memorial service by her colleague in Brazil for 16 years, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Barbara Ann English: “I have learned that faith sustains you, and I have also learned three things that are difficult: One, as a woman, to be taken seriously in the struggle for land reform. Two, to stay faithful to believing that these small groups of poor farmers will prevail in organizing and carrying their own agenda forward. And, three, to have the courage to give your life in the struggle for change.”

In 1966, Stang and four other Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur arrived in Coroata, in Maranhao, Brazil. English described those days when, after language immersion, they went to teach but instead, four of them opened a mission to the poor as an outreach. The sisters scrubbed and painted a small house, invited the bishop to visit. “At Mass,” said English, “he invited Dorothy to say a few words. And in her rudimentary Portuguese, she managed, ‘Thank you. We’re happy to be here. Thank you very much.’ ”

The sisters had arrived in Brazil during a repressive military dictatorship. The federal government was pushing for its version of “the Brazilian Miracle,” soon to be known by another name -- “Savage Capitalism.” Explained English, “The federal government’s massive propaganda was aimed at the poor in servitude as a slave labor to the rich landowners” of their towns and villages. The propaganda promised free land and title to homesteaders who would move to the Trans-Amazonian region, clear their own plots and settle, as the nation extended its living space frontier deeper into the Amazonian jungle.

From Coroata, people headed north, into the state of Pará. Stang, said English, “felt called to follow the farmers and their families.”

The work began as the émigrés first settled on their newly cleared land. Many of them had experience in local Christian base communities. Now, said English (quoting Stang from a 2003 taped interview), “the people were willing to work in community because they were all alone. [This new life] was of people from different cultures [all over Brazil] trying to come together and build a new church in that spot. We were hardly getting started when the land sharks became evident, claiming title to the huge tracts. The situation became bloody. The police were paid to scare people out with machine guns.”

The situation worsened, for by 1980, said English, “the Great Carajas project designated 10.5 million acres for development through three states. This sector held every imaginable mineral deposit, along with potential highways, railways, waterways for transportation, and for dams for energy. Goliath came in the form of national and transnational corporations, big businesses, ranchers and lumber companies. They began to devour the Amazon forest.”

Said English to a stilled church, “I remember this situation of lawlessness and violence. It forced people to be on the road in a constant search for land and space to live and work. Dot kept accompanying the people as they pushed deeper and deeper into the forest. Community leaders began to work with her and pastoral teams to seek legal protection. They appealed to every organ of government for their rights.

“Dot’s last migration had taken her to Anapu and her dream of acquiring land for the poor farmers through the designation of certain areas as a federal sustainable reserve,” English said. There, using sustainable methods, farmers would till the soil and establish their own income-producing businesses. Stang pushed hard for the idea, and the federal government began considering establishing two huge reserve tracts.

Continued English, “The ups and downs of Dot’s dream were evident to all of us as she was, on the one hand, accused of stirring up violence, and on the other, given an award for her work in defending the human rights of the poor.” Earlier this year she was warning the federal government that violence was coming to Anapu, but that federal police were nowhere to be seen.

On Feb. 12, said an eyewitness, when the two gunmen approached Stang, she pulled out her well-thumbed paperback Bible and began reading aloud Matthew 5: 3, 6 and 9, “Blessed are the poor in spirit …”

In Parkville, the Bible was carried in procession into St. Ursula Church.

Stang’s sister, Marguerite Stang Hohm, told of how she and her husband, Elmer (who was with the Agency for International Development), had lived in Brazil for a while and understood the threat to Dorothy. Of how many other family members had visited Dorothy and, for a short time, shared in her work and vision.

She told of Dorothy, fourth of five children, growing up in Ohio in a Catholic home. Her parents’ strengths, the family prayers, her father’s organic garden, and his work for others. “We learned service from him,” she said, and from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, whose school they attended. “We learned the poor were paramount.”

At the memorial service, Robert Abdenur, the Brazilian ambassador to Washington, said her vision of poor farmers settled on land for sustainable development would not be allowed to die. The nation understands the significance of Stang’s work and sacrifice, and the federal government takes her death seriously, he said. Her death “is not just episode or incident,” he said, “it was and remains a national tragedy.” Her work for sustainable development, like that of Chico Mendes, slain for his work in the western Amazon, was, said Abdenur, part of the people’s Abrahamic search for a better life.

Abdenur praised the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur for their commitment in Brazil to working with the people, and enabling the Brazilians themselves to become community and regional leaders. He assured those present that the search for Stang’s killers would be federalized and not handed over to state authorities. (Three suspects, the two gunmen and the intermediary, have already been arrested. The man suspected of ordering the killings has fled. U.S. FBI agents are working on the case with Brazilian authorities.)

Abdenur said he would request a national honor for Stang, but the listeners were more gratified, it seemed, by his promise that indeed the legislation guaranteeing the two enormous tracts for sustainable development was now going through at top speed.

The Notre Dame de Namur community remembers their sister, Dorothy, as an indefatigable pancake-maker at community gatherings, and a woman whose passion for justice was matched only by her passion for ice cream. Nine U.S. and four Brazilian Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur continue their work in various parts of Brazil.

There and here, they’ll be watching to ensure that Sr. Dorothy Stang, whom the sisters declared, “sister, pioneer woman, environmentalist, martyr” during the Litany of the Saints, did not die in vain.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

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