On February 12, 2005, Sr. Dorothy Stang, SND, was murdered by some hired assassins in the Amazon rainforest. That basic fact still seems hard to state. Who would pump six bullets into a 73 year old nun who had devoted her life to living the Gospel’s call to take the option for the poor, to work for justice among some of the most marginalized people on earth?
Who would do such a thing?
Wealthy, powerful men who were so frightened of the grace and power of this singular woman that they felt compelled to take her life.
Several powerful Amazon ranchers were eventually tried and convicted of hiring the gunmen who killed Sr. Dorothy, but even justice for her murder proved elusive. Time and again, the murderers got their convictions thrown out of the Brazilian courts. Of the five men tried and convicted for Dorothy’s murder, only one is in prison. According to a story this week in the National Catholic Reporter, in the decade since Sr. Dorothy’s assassination, 106 people have been killed in land disputes in the Para state in Brazil where she died. A report by an organization known as Global Witness reveals that more than 900 environmental activists were killed all over the world in the last decade, with Brazil accounting for more than half of the murders.
Justice for Dorothy’s murder is elusive, but Dorothy’s work for social justice is enduring. Last Sunday at Trinity, we had the privilege of hearing her story portrayed by Sr. Nancy Murray, OP, author of the play “Rooted in Love” that depicts the key chapters of Dot Stang’s life and work in the Amazon.
Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Dorothy Stang entered the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1948 and spent the first part of her religious life teaching in elementary schools. But she had a profound call to work globally, and so when an opportunity arose in 1966 to join the SND mission in Brazil, she seized it with zeal. For the next 39 years, she devoted her ministry to teaching, building schools and advocating on behalf of the indigenous people of the Amazon basin. The lives and livelihoods of the people of the rainforest were increasingly disrupted by developers who seized and destroyed large parts of the rainforest. The environmental destruction has been enormous in the Amazon, and ruthless in the way loggers and ranchers obliterated villages.
The wealthy ranchers soon came to see Sr. Dorothy Stang’s work with the peasants as a threat to their plans to keep clear-cutting and seizing the forest lands. They put her on a “death list” but that did not deter her advocacy for the people who had become her extended family. Tensions escalated, and on the day that Sr. Dorothy was walking on a dirt road to a meeting to discuss the rights of the people who were being displaced, February 12, 2005, the hired gunmen stepped out of the forest and killed her.
On this 10th anniversary of Sr. Dorothy’s death, the best tribute we can pay to her memory is a renewed commitment to be advocates for environmental and social justice. The rights of people who are marginalized by power and wealth are severely harmed each day all over the world. At Trinity, with the inspiration of the mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to take action for social justice, we work hard to teach our students how to use the power of social conscience to stand up against oppression, to work to change laws and policies to achieve justice, to advocate for the poor and to be servant leaders for others. Sr. Dorothy Stang exemplified all of these values and more, ultimately paying with her life to stand up for justice. She is revered as a martyr today, but she is also remembered with fondness as a sister, friend, teacher and mentor to all who knew her.
The Trinity community extends our sympathy, support and solidarity to the global community of the Sisters of Notre Dame and in particularly to the family of Sr. Dorothy Stang on this 10th anniversary of her death.