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New book documents Sister Stang’s courage

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Friday, November 6, 2009

By Mary Caffrey Knapke

Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Dorothy Stang has become well-known around the world since her 2005 murder in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil. Now, Sister Dorothy’s story is being told in the book A Journey of Courage: The Amazing Story of Sister Dorothy Stang by Michele Murdock. The book was published last month by Sister Dorothy’s religious congregation.

The book chronicles Sister Dorothy’s journey beginning with her childhood in Shiloh, Ohio, and makes a strong connection between her upbringing and her work as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur in Brazil. As a child, she loved helping with the family garden, and her interest and skill in tending the earth would feed her passion for the environment later on.

(Courtesy photo)

In 1966 Sister Dorothy went to Brazil with other Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to build Christian communities there. She began working with landless peasants and became a well-known leader in environmental causes. Many wealthy ranchers in the area were opposed to her involvement with a government initiative to promote sustainable farming; in 2005 she was killed by hired gunmen.

In early 2005, Murdock — who would become the book’s author — was taking a mystery writing course and looking for inspiration for her fiction writing. As she read the newspaper one day to search for ideas, she came across a story about Sister Dorothy’s murder.

She couldn’t understand why someone would kill a nun, and she began to read more about Sister Dorothy’s work and the intricacies of environmental advocacy in the Amazon. Soon, Murdock had set aside her idea of writing fiction and set to work on telling Sister Dorothy’s story instead.

Her interest deepened when she learned that Sister Dorothy was a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. Murdock had attended Trinity College in Washington, D.C., which was founded by the order. Murdock’s own work in education and social services also contributed to her interest in Sister Dorothy’s life and mission.

She attended an event at Trinity honoring Sister Dorothy and was able to talk with members of the Stang family and other Sisters in the Ohio Province. They forged a working relationship, and in 2007, Murdock traveled to Brazil, where she spent time with the Sisters in Belém and attended one of the trials associated with Sister Dorothy’s murder.

“That was really a life-changing experience,” Murdock said, adding that with the book, she hopes to celebrate Sister Dorothy’s life and work. “It’s a seemingly simple story that leads to a discussion of complex issues,” she said.

Sister Elizabeth Bowyer was provincial when Sister Dorothy was murdered and now serves as congregational coordinator for information and projects relating to Sister Dorothy’s life and death. She says that in A Journey of Courage, Murdock has done extensive research about Sister Dorothy and “has captured the spirit of her life and mission.”

She adds that chapter notes and discussion questions in the book make it especially appropriate for reading groups — one way in which Sister Dorothy’s story can continue to be shared.

“She shows us how discipleship can be practiced and lived in modern times, and her story touches relevant issues of today’s world — standing up for the powerless and preserving the resources of the earth,” Sister Elizabeth said.

A Journey of Courage is available by contacting the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Ohio Province office at 513-761-7636.

Mary Caffrey Knapke can be reached at [email protected].

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