Planting Seeds of Hope

Written shortly after Sr. Dorothy Stang’s death in 2005 by Rita Beamish. Rita is an author and a freelance journalist who covered the White House, politics and foreign policy for the Associated Press for 15 years. She is a 1970 graduate of Notre Dame High School, San Jose.


The headline sprang from the third page of the New York Times: “Brazil Promises Crackdown After Nun’s Shooting Death.” A nun shot to death? My Catholic-educated mind raced on. She was an American nun, an environmentalist. I thought of the churchwomen and the Jesuits killed in El Salvador in the 1980s. Her name was Dorothy Stang, a sister of Notre Dame. Notre Dame de Namur. What? MY Notre Dame? I couldn’t believe it. The horror of a missionary’s murder was shocking enough, but I had to read the words over again: Notre Dame de Namur. Yes, there it was. The sisters who taught me high school in San Jose were also missionaries who put their lives on the line around the world. It was news to me.

As I registered the transparent evil of this assassination, all but certainly at the hands of  greedy ranching and logging interests who opposed Dot Stang’s efforts to empower the poor, I was intrigued thinking about Notre Dame’s worldwide missions. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had somehow missed or forgotten this aspect of the Notre Dame congregation. But that one crashing moment in the Amazon rainforest when Sister Dorothy became the most famous of the Notre Dame missionaries, that moment when her eyes stopped twinkling and her generous heart stilled, shone a spotlight on the work of nearly 300 sisters in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

These are Notre Dame sisters in a Congo maternity clinic doing nighttime surgeries with the use of solar power; in Kenya, transporting 600 handicapped  children to needed services; in Peru, assisting and providing medication to the mentally ill; in Zimbabwe, ministering to children of the AIDS pandemic. Members of this second-largest Catholic missionary order have fanned out worldwide with the same resolve that motivated Sister Dorothy, a determination to stand up for those in need, to make a better world. For Dorothy, that fervor meant losing her life to the Wild West of the Amazon region in Brazil. She became the latest victim cut down by thugs who are bent on exploiting the forest that she fought to protect.

Sister Dorothy, I learned, was a hero and a martyr, her compassion matched only by her gutsiness. To learn about her life is to realize that the word bravery is overused. Bravery does not begin to convey the character of this woman whose very life in the Amazon was a metaphor for a transcendent courage, a life that screamed bravery in the face of daily danger. She spoke up for the rights of peasants even as they saw their homes and crops burned and their neighbors killed in an intimidation campaign by powerful interests seeking to drive them out and usurp the land for logging and cattle grazing. She wrote to friends about hooded gunman invading and seizing homesteads. Dorothy herself was targeted, her name on a death list, a bounty on her head. Corruption thwarted government protection, but Sister Dorothy never considered leaving her people.

It’s unlikely Dorothy envisioned it this way when she aspired to the missions as a girl. She entered religious life following her junior year at Notre Dame’s Julienne High School in Ohio, where friends remember a bubbly girl and avid athlete. She was sent to teach in Illinois and then to a missionary school in Phoenix. During a papal-inspired expansion of Latin America missions, Sister Dorothy jumped at the chance to go to Brazil in 1966. Her early work teaching religious instruction soon broadened to social action as she and her fellow sisters saw the oppression of poor farmers. When the government opened the Amazon region to small farmers, Sister Dorothy went along to support them. She ventured further into the interior as they were pursued by violence and the slash-and-burn techniques of large ranchers and loggers who left vast scars across the rainforest.

Photos show a small woman with dancing blue eyes behind wire-framed glasses, her wide smile radiating confidence and energy. She liked beer, peanut butter and ice cream, and delighted in filling her friends with her giant pancakes. At 73, Dorothy was lively and tough, her soft voice belying a steely will. Her brother said she was “like a Mack truck,” intensely political and relentless in her drive to help the poor. Her connection to the lush trees and flowers of the forest deepened her commitment to sustainable use of the resource, a goal that found her traipsing determinedly along dirt roads, her wooden SND cross hanging over her baggy t-shirt, her cropped white hair contrasting with the vibrant greens and reds around her. She would gather with villagers under leaf-covered structures to strategize on their stand against the aggressive loggers. She learned about the connection between deforestation and global warming, and helped the farmers develop sustainable projects–cacao, fruit, a wood shop, a banana flour factory – in hopes that a federal reserve would one day protect them from the aggressors. With hammer in hand, she helped build 23 one-room schools and a barn for storing the harvest.

Dorothy did not toil in obscurity. She lobbied lawmakers and human rights officials about the threats to local farmers, and worked with the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic organization defending land reforms and the rights of rural farmers. Last year, Dorothy was named Woman of the Year in the Brazilian state of Para, and Humanitarian of the year by the Brazilian Bar Association. Her prominence and leadership made her that much more of a thorn in the side of the monied land interests.

Did she know how much danger she faced? Clearly she had no illusions. Documentary filmmakers described her precautions to protect them when they visited the region. She told them not to speak English, and she kept a low profile when near residences of what she called “the corrupt and unpunished.” Sometimes she spoke almost with resignation about the danger, as if she had little time for such distraction, and other times she insisted to friends that no one would kill an elderly American nun.

Any protection her status had afforded slipped away on Feb. 12. The previous day she had called her brother David and asked for prayers. She would be going to a dangerous area. It was on a dirt road to Boa Esperanca that two gunmen blocked her path. She pulled her ever-present Bible from her bag and began to read to them: Blessed are the poor … They were close enough to touch her. They shot her point blank. Her body crumpled to the Amazonian earth that she loved.