The big white stone in the distance by the bushes is the grave of Dorothy Stang.
Born in 1931 in Dayton, Ohio, Stang grew up a devout Catholic. She went straight into the nunnery upon leaving school in 1948. She became a member of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and professed her final vows in 1956. She was assigned to Calumet City, Illinois beginning in 1951. She taught elementary school at various Catholic schools in Illinois and Arizona for the next fifteen years. Then she decided she would be fulfilling God’s call (or maybe Mary’s, I dunno how people who go into nunneries think) more effectively by going overseas. She got a position in Brazil in 1966.
Brazil was changing rapidly during these years and it continues to change rapidly today. For one thing, the nation just rips through its forests like there is no tomorrow, an increasingly true metaphor. But it isn’t some planned state activity. It just lets cattle barons and miners do whatever they want out there, including cutting all the forest down, polluting, everywhere, and murdering anyone who gets in their way. Stang was shocked by all of what she saw. She decided that she could best serve the Lord by standing up for both the forests and the people who lived there, eking a living out of the rubber trade or whatever else they could do.
Stang became known through Brazil and beyond through her work. Like the rubber tapper and organizer Chico Mendes, she fought for people who could make their living in the forest without deforestation. But this became harder and harder to do as the ranchers wanted to expand their territory. The murder of Mendes in 1988 was a notorious moment in this history and received international condemnation, but the ranchers didn’t care. And even when the state has a leader in Brasilia who cares about these things, like Lula at least sort of did, the real power of the state all the way up in the remote parts of the nation is not that strong, certainly not on a daily basis. When the Brazilian president is a fascist like Bolsonaro, it’s game on out in the forests.
It didn’t take long for Stang to come under the hateful eye of the ranchers and others who would despoil the forest and kick all the subsistence workers out. She received plenty of death threats from these people, even though she was a nun. But of course, she is hardly the only North American nun who would go into a heavily Catholic country, defend the poor, and then be attacked by purported Catholics who were rich and evil. The four nuns murdered in El Salvador in the early 80s, attacked by the Reagan administration no less in the aftermath no less, demonstrated how right-wing states or other right-wing actors would rape and kill anyone who got in their way. Stang just had to deal with this. She could give in and flee or she could continue doing her work to protect the forest and the people who dwell within it. She stated,
“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.”
In 2005, the bastards finally got her. Two local ranch hands, probably at the orders of their boss, held her up while she was walking to a meeting. They asked if she had weapons. She said her only weapon was the Bible. She started reading it to them. One of them shot her. They then poured rounds into her. She was 73 years old.
For the next decades, the two killers and their boss were in and out of prison as the court system would find them guilty and then some court above that would order them released or order a retrial. One seems to be in prison today, but the boss was freed permanently after a single conviction. The other murderer eventually got out and then killed a couple of people in a cocaine deal. Good people here.
Stang has become something of a hero in her death. There’s a documentary about her (Martin Sheen did the narration for the English version) and there’s also an opera. In 2021, scientists discovered a new species of owl in the Amazon and named it Megascops stangiae after Stang.
Dorothy Stang is buried in Sisters of Notre Dame Cemetery, Reading, Ohio. The cemetery was locked the day I was there. I might have been able to jump the fence, which wasn’t that high, but that seemed disrespectful and I could see the grave, even if at a long distance. Here is a picture someone took when the cemetery was unlocked.
If you would like this series to visit other famous nuns of American history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Maura Clark, one of the nuns murdered in El Salvador, is in Queens and Mother Angelica, she of the legendarily terrible shows on the right-wing Catholic network that my father-in-law watches for hours every day, is in Cullman County, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.