It was 1998, and Sister Dorothy Stang was back in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest after a four-month trip to Dayton, Ohio. She had been home to celebrate her fiftieth anniversary with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
Upon returning to the jungle, Dorothy felt tired and weighed down. The harsh realities of poverty, infighting, and corruption continued to rage in northeastern Brazil. For more than thirty years, she had been on mission in Brazil, sleeping in hammocks and traveling on mud roads—all to bring spiritual and material support to indigenous farming communities.
In a moment of frustration, Dorothy penned a letter to the long-deceased founders of her order. “Why am I not strong enough, I no longer know what to do? . . . We need more than ever solidarity, companionship—community among us so as not to lose the vision.” Ever since they had arrived in Brazil in 1966, Dorothy and her companions accompanied the country’s poor and illiterate class, teaching them religious education and helping them in their uphill struggle for a better life. While they were meeting with some success, it was exhausting work. Dorothy knew she would need an outpouring of grace if her mission was to continue.
Intent on Justice. From a young age, Dorothy dreamed of being a missionary to China. She respected the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who taught at her high school and dreamily envied their mission to bring education and justice to the poor. As a freshman, she joined the sisters’ club to fundraise for Chinese missions. It was an early test of her ability to stretch limited resources. Without extra cash, Dorothy confiscated money her mother had given her and her siblings to take the streetcar to choir practice. She put the money in the missions box instead and made everyone walk to practice.
At seventeen, Dorothy decided she was ready to leave Dayton—and her boyfriend—to finish high school studies with the order. She started learning to meditate on Scripture imaginatively. One of her lifelong favorite passages was Mary’s Magnificat: “The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:53). Verses like these that focused on God’s care for the poor stirred her heart and deepened her desire to do mission work.
Soon after her twenty-second birthday, Dorothy’s first chance came. She was sent to help start a school in Phoenix, Arizona, where there was a large migrant population. For the next few years, she spent her weekends driving to nearby lettuce farms to deliver food, clothes, and encouragement to Mexican workers. She prayed and worked alongside them, always seeking to enter into their culture and community.
One day Dorothy heard a crop duster approaching to spray pesticides over the fields where the people were working. She suddenly realized why so many of them had cleft palates and missing limbs. Dorothy yelled for them to run to shelter, but many stayed, saying the boss would punish them if they left. Feeling helpless and angry, Dorothy wept. It pained her to see people suffering so that landowners could increase their production and profits. But she returned many times to the immigrant families’ crowded shacks and gradually gained their trust.
The Gospel of Human Dignity. In 1966, shortly after Vatican II ended, Dorothy applied for mission work in Brazil. She and four other sisters joined two priests serving the pastoral needs of 100,000 uncatechized rural farmworkers living on the border of the rainforest.
For these people, Church revolved around yearly visits of priests and religious to plantation owners. When the jeep carrying clergy arrived, firecrackers went off to signal laborers and their families to round up for Mass and group baptisms. With a Church stretched thin, there was little time for instruction in the faith.
Dorothy made it her mission to bring the gospel directly to the workers in their homes. They were surprised to learn that she was content to share a plate of yucca and sleep on the ground. In stilted but energetic Portuguese, she prepared people for the sacraments and taught Scripture, trusting the Holy Spirit to communicate what she could not. When possible, she brought isolated families together to form supportive Christian communities.
Dorothy’s passion lay on the periphery, with the families living in remote corners of her state. So when the Brazilian government began offering plots of land to anyone willing to settle inside the Amazon, she asked her superiors if she might go too. She knew that many of the homesteaders would be illiterate and destitute. They needed instruction in farming, reading, and writing—not to mention spiritual formation. She received permission, and so her friendship with the people led her deep into the wilderness.
Communion with Creation. At first, Dorothy traveled from one settlement to another, helping people construct one-room schoolhouses, roadways, and parish centers. By 1982, eight years in, the area was declared a municipality. Over the next twenty years, she established women’s associations, a farmer’s union, and dozens of ecclesial communities.
The need for civil organization and education, along with spiritual formation, became even more urgent when mining companies and cattle ranchers discovered the rich resources of the Amazon. They began hiring gunmen to drive small farmers off the land so that they could cut down huge sections of the forest and sell the timber.
Seeing this as an assault both on God’s creation and on the livelihood of her friends, Dorothy urged the farmers to pray for their attackers and to stand up for their rights. For those who didn’t know how, Dorothy wrote letters to government officials on their behalf. After all her years of living in the Amazon, respectfully reaping its bounty and caring for its natural resources, she knew she had to expose what was happening.
I Look at Jesus. As time went on, the land conflicts continued—and escalated. Meanwhile, Dorothy’s health began to decline. Her back ached, and degenerating eyes squinted from behind dark glasses. Friends and sisters in the US suggested she return home. But Dorothy insisted she couldn’t abandon the people.
By the end of 2004, destruction of the rain forest was attracting intense national attention, and Dorothy was called to testify before the Brazilian Congress. She appeared on public television to describe the plight of her friends. “The land is a living creation,” she said. “We need to treat her with great care and affection because she is the source of life for all God’s people.” She called for a tender, fraternal appreciation of the land that echoed St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creation.” Doing so, she stood in direct opposition to the ranchers’ profiteering, and they knew it.
One rancher called “Bida” issued open threats to Dorothy and one of her friends, a farmer named Luis. The next month, two of Bida’s ranch workers forced Luis and his family out of their house at gunpoint. They burned the house down and sowed weeds on the land. When Dorothy heard the news, she appealed to Brazil’s highest governmental officials, asking them to protect all the families in the territory. She wrote to her family and congregation in the US asking for prayers. Just as urgently, she appealed to God, telling one sister, “I look at Jesus carrying his cross, and I ask for the strength to carry the suffering of the people.”
Dorothy knew that without encouragement from her and the Lord, Luis and neighboring farmers might give up. So she invited them to a meeting at a local community center.
Not Buried, but Planted. On February 12, 2005, Dorothy arose from her bed on the floor. She said her prayers and started walking to the meeting. Suddenly, Bida’s gunmen stepped into her path. Dorothy called out “Good morning” and invited them to join the community meeting that day. The men brushed her invitation aside and asked if she had a weapon. “This is my only weapon,” Dorothy said, pulling the Bible out of her bag.
She began to read. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” The men ignored her. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:9, 10). Seeing their hostility, Dorothy turned to go on her way. Suddenly one of the men called out, “Sister!” and she looked back to see him pointing a gun at her. As Dorothy raised her hand in self-defense, he fired several shots point-blank, and she fell to the ground.
News of Sister Dorothy’s death quickly reached the Brazilian president, who flew two thousand troops into the territory to guard against further violence. Another two thousand people descended on the area for Dorothy’s funeral: farmers she had helped, young people inspired by her commitment to justice, and reporters from all over the world.
At the funeral, a refrain was repeated over and over: “We are not burying Sister Dorothy; we are planting her.” Dorothy’s death awakened many people to the cry of the poor and to the cry of the earth itself. As the Catholic Church was teaching about the connection between ecology and care for the poor, Dorothy Stang was living it out. She walked with the poor, embracing their sorrows as well as their joys, and shared God’s love with them. She took delight in creation as a source of life and a place where community can be built and where Christ can be glorified. She gave her life for these truths, and her message continues to stir people today.
Kathryn Elliott is an editor for The Word Among Us.