Life of Sr. Dorothy Stang celebrated at her California alma mater

Sr. Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, is pictured in a 2004 file photo in Belem, northern Brazil. The nun was 73 when she was murdered Feb. 12, 2005, on an isolated road near the Brazilian town of Anapu. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Sr. Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, is pictured in a 2004 file photo in Belem, northern Brazil. The nun was 73 when she was murdered Feb. 12, 2005, on an isolated road near the Brazilian town of Anapu. (CNS photo/Reuters)

by Sharon Abercrombie

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Ten years after the murder of Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dorothy Stang, her alma mater is honoring the beloved “angel of the Amazon” with a week of special events marking her ongoing legacy of service in the mission field.  

Stang, a 1964 graduate of Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., spent nearly 40 years in Brazil as an advocate for indigenous people and the rainforest. She was killed Feb. 12, 2005, by two hired gunmen while walking along a dirt road in Anapu, in Brazil’s Para state.

Angered by Stang’s involvement in helping the poor gain legal access to land, wealthy Brazilian loggers and ranchers engineered her assassination. Five men were eventually linked to the her death. A coordinator with the Brazilian bishops’ Pastoral Land Commission told Catholic News Service recently that only one remains in prison, while three are only required to sleep there, and the fifth has yet to serve prison time.

The Notre Dame de Namur celebration of Stang’s life and work comes during its Founders’ Week (Feb. 8-12). On Tuesday a panel of speakers -- family members, in addition to religious community colleagues and supporters -- will share memories of their treasured sibling and friend. Other events include a Wednesday screening of the film “They Killed Sr. Dorothy,” followed the next day by a tour of the campus garden and a candlelight prayer vigil that evening.

The Thursday events, marking the 10-year anniversary of Stang’s death, will conclude that evening with a concert, wrapping up the commemorative week.

The concert is an abbreviated version of Evan Mack’s 2011 New York opera, “Angel of the Amazon.” Mack, a music professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., will conduct, and Caitlin Mathes will reprise her role as Dorothy.

In an interview with NCR last week, Mack said Stang’s life “hit me in the gut and soul” when he first heard about her during a 2005 Faith Formation Saturday at St. Anthony Parish in Madisonville, Ohio. At the time, Mack was working as parish choir director at St. Anthony while pursuing graduate studies at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

“Her life sounded like an opera,” he said.

A particularly striking element for Mack was Stang’s bravery in the face of imminent death. According to reports, the 73-year-old sister began to read the Beatitudes from her Bible to the gunmen seconds before they fired upon her. Mack drew upon this incident as a basis for advancing the opera’s plotline by using a different beatitude to open each scene. 

Further research at the Notre Dame Motherhouse in Cincinnati, where the Dayton-native Stang went through the discernment process, revealed to Mack that the Brazilians were not initially impressed with her when she arrived in 1966. To become one of them, she and the other sisters ultimately had to exchange their habits for ordinary clothes and “get their hands dirty,” he said.

Marlene DeNardo can vouch for such transformations. She was part of the Notre Dame sisters’ mission to Brazil, which began in 1962.

Their venture proved to be a complete self-emptying process, said DeNardo, now a San Francisco Bay area spiritual director and one of the Founders’ Week panelists.

“We had to learn the language and the culture. We had to learn to listen to the people with our hearts,” she recalled.

DeNardo told NCR in an email that the sisters lived with the poor and witnessed for themselves how they had become thoroughly disenfranchised by a military dictatorship intent on enforcing land grabs, supporting corporations and perpetrating “systemic violence, imprisonment, killings, hunger, dislocation, and the persecution of peasant leaders and priests who were tortured, jailed and killed.”

Related: "Painting, dancing were Sr. Dorothy Stang's lesser-known passions"

Stang’s legacy as a servant of the poor is not lost on students and faculty at Notre Dame de Namur University, said Jim McGarry, director of the school’s Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement.

Founded in 2007, the center is a venue for continuing her work. Students volunteer in a variety of settings: soup kitchens, schools, medical clinics, Catholic Worker houses, habitat restoration areas, and homeless shelters. Faculty are incorporating concepts of community engagement and social activism in their courses.

“We are trying to reach out in solidarity with the poorest people on the margins of San Mateo County” where the Notre Dame de Namur is located, McGarry said.

The center uses Stang’s example as a springboard for students into a multitude of community engagement opportunities. Students offer tutoring and volunteer at youth programs, and work closely with the area’s immigrant population in securing safe housing, work and healthcare. The center also holds a campus-wide Call to Action Day, this year held on March 26, for further volunteering.

As for the “angel of the Amazon,” her accomplishments were many.

According to a summary of her work put together by the D.C.-located Trinity Washington University -- another Sisters of Notre Dame-founded school -- “Stang educated women about health and nutrition, helped them start small businesses to support their families, and showed the men which crops would grow best in the forest where they live. Sr. Dorothy and the people opened one-room schools to teach the children and adults to read and write.”

Before her death, she partnered with the Project for Sustainable Development, a Brazilian government-sponsored program to encourage sustainable farming systems among landless families. The 35 basic Christian communities she helped start for that purpose have since escalated to 85. In addition, the 39 schools in the hills and villages she and the people opened have grown to 115. 

DeNardo would eventually leave Brazil for other ministry work, losing ongoing touch with Stang in the process. But the two resumed their friendship in January 1992 when Stang enrolled in Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality Institute at Holy Names University, in Oakland, Calif., for a four-month sabbatical. By then DeNardo was on the faculty, teaching courses in feminism and ecospirituality.

“We reconnected in a wonderful way,” she said. “Dot’s stories were inspirational and the program in creation spirituality and cosmology gave her a chance to renew herself and to deepen and integrate her commitment to her people and the environment.”

DeNardo defines her friend’s spirituality and worldview as one “which saw the world, all people and all creation as sacred and good, filled with the numinous presence of the good God. Thus, the destruction of any of these was, indeed, in some way a desecration. A sacrilege.

“She befriended and defended the farmers, the forest and all its wildlife because, because for her, they and all creation were an expression and reflection of the Holy One,” she said.

Stang’s work was not so much about saving the souls of the poor, DeNardo said, but rather, “she took care of their material well-being so that they might live and flourish, have dignity, and a life. Their well being mattered to her. This was a spiritual matter.”

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