Sister Dorothy Stang: Her dying shows us how to live

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Image: People carry the coffin of Sister Dorothy Stang at a cemetery in Para, Brazil on February 15, 2005. Her casket is draped in a Brazilian flag.

in 2005 in the middle of the Brazilian jungle, Sister Dorothy Stang faced a pair of hired assassins as she was walking to a meeting to discuss a recent spate of house burnings by ranchers meant to intimidate poor farmers into abandoning their land. “You men are armed," she said. “I am not. The only defense I carry is the Word of God." She began to read from scripture, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The two gunmen listened for a moment, took a few steps back, and fired. The 74-year-old Stang died quickly from six shots to the head and chest.
Sister Dorothy Stang, SNdeN
Sister Dorothy Stang, SNdeN

Stang, a Notre Dame de Namur Sister, had made powerful enemies during her nearly 40 years of ministry in Brazil. She and four other SNDdeN sisters from the Ohio Province were sent to Brazil in response to Pope John XXIII’s request that religious communities commit a portion of their members to service in Latin America.

During the 1960s and early 1970s the sisters taught and trained religious catechists. They became immersed in the peasants’ struggle for basic human rights against centuries of oppression from wealthy landowners.

In early 1970 the Brazilian government offered land in the Amazon interior to poor farmers willing to move there and farm in a sustainable way. Sister Dorothy moved into the rainforest to be with the farmers and instruct them in sustainable farming and recycling the resources of the forest.

Loggers and ranchers, hungry for the land the farmers were trying to protect, began an aggressive campaign of intimidation and threats against the farmers and their beloved advocate, Stang. Complaints were filed with the government and local authorities, but to little effect. Stang had no intention of going away. She said shortly before her death, “I am grateful to Notre Dame for not asking me to leave. This shows we are aware of the needs of the poor."

Profile in courage

Stang’s faithfulness to the gospel and commitment to her community’s mission to educate and stand with the poor is a profile in courage and true Christian discipleship. Stang is her community’s first martyr. They have pledged to continue the struggle for a world of justice and peace by pressing for:

  • The designation of the promised federal reserve for the small farmers in the Brazilian rainforest
  • Education in the effects of globalization on the poor of the world
  • Sustainable development
  • Commitment to fair trade
  • Respect for women

Thousands of mourners, including the very poor of the region, attended Stang’s funeral. Some Brazilians walked through 20 miles of mud to take part in the funeral Mass.

“I feel like a river without water, a forest without trees. It’s like losing a mother," said Fernando Anjos da Silva, whom Stang had he lped obtain medical care after a crippling logging accident.

Stang’s death was decried throughout the world. “This is a terrible, tremendous loss," said Paulo Moutinho, coordinator of the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon and an associate of Stang. “She was an extremely important person, a spokesman for the sustainable development movement with a capacity for leadership as big as that of Chico Mendes." Mendes was an internationally known rainforest defender killed in 1988.

Sister Dorothy Stang did not set out to be a martyr, but she was deeply committed to doing God’s work of defending human rights and promoting justice.

She will be remembered as a woman who knew how to live even at the hour of her death.

This article was compiled by the VISON editors from a tribute to Sister Dorothy Stang on the Notre Dame de Namur website,, and reports by Larry Rohter for the New York Times, Michael Astor for the Associated Press, National Public Radio (,, and Share the Word.




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