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Archdiocese celebrates life and legacy of Sister Dorothy Stang

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By Eileen Connelly, OSU

It’s a long way from Ohio to the Amazon rain forest, but a young woman from Dayton courageously followed her heart and answered God’s call to become a missionary and outspoken advocate for the poor and the environment. This would ultimately lead to her death at the hands of those who felt threatened by her efforts, yet 15 years after her murder, the life and legacy of Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Dorothy Stang live on, and she is being remembered in the Archdiocese and beyond.

To her those closest to her, she was known simply as “Dot.” One of nine children born into a deeply religious farming family, Sister Dorothy was raised to put her faith into action and help those in need. Her father, Henry, gifted his children with a love for cultivating gardens that yielded healthy food, recalled her longtime friend and fellow community member Sister Joan Krimm.

“We were good friends at Julienne High School, and it was her deep desire to become a missionary,” Sister Joan said. “On her application to join the sisters, she wrote, ‘I want to be a missionary in China.’’

But, God had other plans for Sister Dorothy. After teaching assignments in Chicago and Phoenix, she and four other sisters went to Brazil in 1966. There, in the state of Para, deep in the Amazon rainforest, Sister Dorothy began working with poor farmers. Her dream was for the people to live self-sufficient lives and use the land in sustainable ways. Sister Dorothy also recognized and valued the rich natural resources of the rain forest and God’s hand in creating them.

“Dorothy was gifted in the way she understood the lives of the people and the land situation,” explained Sister Judi Clemens, who also served in Brazil. “She was passionate about equity and having space for everyone to live under God’s tent. She always believed there was goodness in everyone’s heart.”

Over the years, Sr. Dorothy’s ministry brought her into conflict with wealthy and powerful ranchers, loggers and land speculators who sought to profit from deforestation and the eviction of poor workers.“I was concerned, but not worried about her,” said Sister Joan. “She was doing what she wanted to do, what she had to do. She was living for the people. They were her heart. She had such a deep love of God and all God’s creation. She lived this.”

By the late 90s, Sister Dorothy’s work had made her a target for the region’s power brokers and she was named to their “death list.” In a letter home, she wrote, “I don’t want to flee, nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers who live without any protection in the forest. They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment.”

On Feb. 12, 2005, less than a week after meeting with Brazil’s Human Rights Secretary to report death threats against local farmers, Sister Dorothy was approached by two hired gunman on a dirt road at the Boa Esperanca settlement in a rural area in Para. As the gunmen drew near to Sister Dorothy, she took her Bible from her bag and began to read the Beatitudes. The men fired six shots, killing her.

“Dorothy loved the Beatitudes. She lived the Beatitudes…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,” said Sister Joan.

Sister Joanne Depweg, serving in Brazil at the time, vividly recalls the events following the beloved nun’s murder. As the ambulance bearing Sister Dorothy came into view near the morgue in Anapu, the locals who had gathered shouted, “Sister Dorothy lives forever! Sister Dorothy lives forever!”

Asked to identify Sister Dorothy, Sister Joanne also remembers that while her body was covered in mud and blood, her face was clean and she appeared to be smiling. “It was as if she was saying, ‘I’m okay. God is good all the time. I did what I could do. Now you carry this on.’ They thought they killed Dorothy, but she will live forever. Her smile was for all us to go forward and continue her work,” Sister Joanne said.

And continue it does. Sister Dorothy was posthumously awarded the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights. Following her death, then-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva put nearly 20,000 of the Amazon’s 1.6 million square miles, located in the Anapu region that was Sister Dorothy’s home, under federal environmental protection. Sisters ministering in Anapu today are steadfast in their support of poor farmworkers still struggling for land and better living conditions amid complex social, economic and political issues.

The region gained attention from the Vatican last Fall, with Pope Francis initiating a special Amazon synod in Rome Oct. 6-27,  focusing on land use, biodiversity and rights of indigenous people. The synod document “Querida Amazonia” (Beloved Amazonia), reads in part, “I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced. I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways. I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests. I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features.”

“It’s important for us to continue to lift Dorothy up, especially in the times we’re living in now,” Sister Judi noted. “She was a woman ahead of her time. Before the conversations about interconnectedness and care for creation, she recognized their importance. I think, for us as people of faith, her spirit lives on because of her great faith. We can still see how she lived it.”

“Dorothy’s legacy is that she left us with the understanding of a God who created each of us with great love to be in community and to have a place at the table,” Sister Judi added.

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur are marking the anniversary of Sr. Dorothy’s death and keeping her dream alive in a variety of ways. Earlier this year, the community hosted Samuel Clements whose film, “The Student, the Nun, and the Amazon,” documents his experience meeting Sr. Dorothy in 2003. On June 7th, what would have been her 89th birthday, a virtual prayer service provided the opportunity for people to share remembrances of Sr. Dorothy. On Feb. 13, 2021, at 3 p.m., a special Mass will be held in her honor at Mount Notre Dame Chapel.

The Spirit of Sister Dorothy Stang Award, created by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati five years after her death, is given annually to faculty members, parish ministers, parishioners active in social justice ministry and graduating seniors in local Catholic high schools and parish youth ministry programs. It is granted by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and the Archdiocesan Offices of Mission, Social Action, Youth and Young Adult Evangelization & Discipleship, and New Evangelization. To obtain a nomination form, email [email protected].

Other ways to celebrate Sr. Dorothy include: cultivating gardens of any size, anywhere, and sharing the harvest with communities that have limited access to fresh produce; planting trees, praying for all migrants seeking asylum and peace; advocating for comprehensive immigration reform; and advocating for simple and practical actions to protect the planet.

For more information about upcoming events, visit https://www.sndohio.org/sister-dorothy/anniversary-happenings.

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