As Dorothy Stang walks down a path in the heart of the Amazon jungle, the rain forest blooms a deep emerald green. Primordial green.
The path is fresh-cut, an angry red scar in the virgin forest. An omen, perhaps, of the destruction ahead.
Stang passes the hut of a farmer named Cicero. “Are you coming to the meeting?” she calls out.
“You go on ahead,” Cicero calls back. “I’ll catch up with you.”
It is a lonely path, lush and peaceful. But it is an act of violence that brings Stang to Boa Esperanca, this small jungle village whose name means “Good Hope.”
Last month, wealthy ranchers had their henchmen burn down the huts of nine families, part of a continuing practice of seizing land belonging to peasant farmers. Stang is on her way to a meeting where the farmers will outline plans to rebuild.
Stang knows rebuilding is not what the ranchers want, and still she walks on.
The night before, a rancher threatened her with the words: “We’re going to kill you and build a house over your body.”
Threats are nothing new for the 73-year-old nun who first appeared on a “death list” in 1981. To her friends and family in Ohio, she minimizes the danger, all but laughs it off: “They won’t kill me; I’m too old.”
This feels different somehow, more real. But if she can’t take these risks, who can? She has lived a long life; she has no children to support. “I am the one who can do this,” she tells friends.
She is the go-between, the one who intercedes on behalf of the farmers with a government that is often too slow to defend their rights. The one who stands up to the ranchers who want to destroy anyone who dares to get in their way.
She climbs the path, accompanied by her most faithful companions — her maps and her Bible. She is going blind; she doesn’t know how much longer she will be able to read them.
Maybe that doesn’t matter so much. The words are engraved in her heart after nearly 40 years in Brazil, years during which her faith, her love for the people and her passion for the forest have become as deeply intertwined as the roots of the giant samauma tree. In her last letter to the Sisters of Notre Dame, her religious order, she writes, “You helped me to get in touch with this land of wonder — in myself and outside too.”
June 7, 1931
Dorothy Mae Stang was born in an era when good Catholic girls were so sheltered they never heard the word “pregnant” until well into high school.
As the fourth of Edna and Henry Stang’s nine children, Dorothy became something of a second mother to the younger siblings. “Dorothy was the moral force,” recalls her younger brother Tom. “She washed my mouth out with soap after I attempted usage of the ‘f’ word for the very first time.”
Home for the close-knit Stang family was a sprawling 1840s farmhouse at 5560 Markey Road in Harrison Twp. Dorothy organized baseball games in the half-acre backyard that was equal parts baseball diamond and vegetable garden. She grew into a typical, fun-loving Catholic teenager who would sneak into the boiler room at Julienne High School with her pals to smoke the makeshift cigars they plucked from the neighborhood catalpa trees. “We smoked them not because we wanted to, but to show the nuns we were independent,” said Stang’s lifelong friend, Sister Joan Krimm. “They tasted horrible.”
Despite that small, obligatory rebellion, the young women found themselves inspired by the vibrant Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. They joined the Mission Club and became caught up in the campaign to “ransom the pagan babies” — raising pennies for abandoned infant girls in China.
Stang danced the jitterbug at Club Cayoda, a Catholic youth group where Julienne girls mingled with the Chaminade boys. Bill Trick of Centerville was one of the boys Stang dated. “There were eight of us who ran around in a group, going to hayrides and picnics,” he recalls. “She was just a happy-go-lucky individual with not a care in the world.”
Krimm, a year ahead of Stang in school, wanted to enter the convent after eighth grade, a common practice at the time. But her mother was dying of pancreatic cancer and asked, “Would you mind waiting? I need you at home.” After her mother’s death, Krimm helped out with her younger siblings and threw herself into life at Julienne, where she and Stang became all but inseparable. When Krimm did enter the convent after graduating from Julienne in 1948, Stang insisted, “If you think you’re going to leave me behind, you are sadly mistaken!”
They were so gung-ho they found themselves disappointed that their humble convent quarters near Cincinnati contained a narrow bed with a straw mattress. “We wanted to sleep on the floor,” Krimm says.
Dec. 18, 1966
Sister Mary Joachim — Stang’s pre-Vatican II name — landed in Brazil wearing her heavy black serge habit and carrying a trunkful of illusions. “We had this romanticized notion of ‘I’m going to go down there and I’m going to save the world,’ ” Krimm recalls. “We had no idea what we were going to save or what the world was.”
In the sweltering heat, the nuns shed the heavy habits — six solid yards of serge — without so much as asking “Mother may I” of their Mother General. Practical short-sleeved shirts and lighter-weight skirts became the new standard. Other traditions, such as the church’s symbiotic relationship with wealthy ranchers, would die harder.
Once in Coroata, a cobblestoned main street intersected by dirt roadways, the nuns visited every family in the town. Throughout the year they traveled to 100 or more remote villages by Jeep, throwing off firecrackers to let the villagers know that Father was arriving.
The nuns ached for a more personal interaction with the people and wanted to make faith an everyday part of the villagers’ lives. They hated the huge open-air Masses in which the priest officiated at a wedding ceremony for all the couples who had gotten engaged that year. He would baptize as many as 50 babies at a time, anointing their heads and then moving on to the next task. “It was like herding cattle together, branding them and sending them back home,” Krimm says.
Around the same time, the Conference of Latin American Bishops held a historic meeting in Colombia. “They took a stand to be on side of the poor,” Krimm recalls. It proved an important first step in a country that still suffers the highest income disparity of any in the world. Stang once witnessed a rancher lighting his cigars with fistfuls of hundred-dollar bills.
The sisters told the villagers, “If we come back, we will come at the invitation of the people, and not the landowner.”
Most of the wealthy landowners in Brazil are Catholic. Many expected their nuns and priests to serve as their pampered lackeys, not as advocates for the poor. “That’s when we became the enemy,” Krimm recalls.
The nuns started developing small, faith-based communities to train leaders in prayer and in Scripture. They also formed teams to foster a system of lay ministry in the villages, providing them with consecrated hosts for Communion.
“We don’t have a lot of food,” the villagers would apologize.
“We’ll eat what you have,” the sisters replied.
Krimm and Stang, the inseparable Julienne girls, parted ways in 1974. Krimm stayed in Coroata, while Stang was called to a place that would be her home — and her passion — for the rest of her life.
In the early 1970s, the Brazilian government built the Trans-Amazon Highway, which ran deep into the rain forest. The government offered a plot of land to farmers who would settle along the highway.
It proved a tempting offer for the farmers of Coroata, who had no land to call their own. “Our people are all moving to the Amazon,” Stang said at the time. “One of us should move with them, to teach their children.”
Stang volunteered. So did Sister Rebeca Spires of Columbus. They settled in Abel Figueiredo, 90 miles from Maraba, in the state of Para.
As the settlers moved deeper into the Amazon, they awakened a sleeping giant. Illegal ranchers and loggers were accustomed to seizing land at will, without interference from peasant farmers. As Dorothy’s former housemate, Sister Jane Dwyer, reflects, “Where we look at the forest and see life, they see dollar bills.”
And so the killings started.
Jan. 8, 1981, A hideaway somewhere in the state of Para
The letter to the Sisters of Notre Dame at the motherhouse in Cincinnati offered an ominous heading: “Please use discretion in sharing the following letter with others.”
The letter was from Dorothy Stang.
“I’m writing again from a bit of a hideaway, as a peasant in one of the villages that we care for was murdered Friday,” Stang wrote. “He was murdered in front of his little shack because he is one who has taken an active part in resisting the crushing power of the rich landowners in our area.”
The victim, whom Stang identified only as “our brother Jose,” was hardly the first. Less than a year earlier, a peasant farmer and father of 10 was gunned down. No one was charged, as usual, but everybody knew who was responsible. It was a local “mandante,” as people call the wealthy loggers and ranchers who order the land-grab murders.
"He has threatened some seven or eight more,” Stang wrote, “and no one knows the day or the place his paid gunmen will strike.”
Constant setbacks, and small resurrections
In 1982 Stang moved to the remote rural village of Anapu, where she spent the next 23 years. There she organized a fruit co-op and helped the women build a factory that produces banana flour. Living in what she described as “our very macho culture,” she wanted to convince the women they could accomplish things on their own.
They had no better example than “Irma Dorothy.” She traveled the 25-mile radius of her territory in a white VW bug so partial to Stang it ran only for her. In the villages she built 30 chapels and 30 schools — not buildings of brick and mortar, but open-air huts with palm branch roofs and desks fashioned from tree stumps and crude blocks of wood.
To the ranchers she was a threat. To the people of the forest, she was a veritable angel of mercy.
Her younger sister, Marguerite Hohm, recalls from a visit in 1986: “She took us to several families in the woods, living among open sewers with flies everywhere, and you could just see the love in these people’s eyes for her, and hers for them.”
Stang survived dengue fever, intestinal worms, hepatitis and malaria — a fever so intense, Spires says, “it makes your hair hurt.”
She fell in love with the Amazon, this wilderness of 2,722,000 square miles known as the “lungs of the world.” She loved the lush canopy of the forest and the way the crocodile eyes glow red in the dark. She loved the growl of the wildcat and the screech of the howler monkey.
“The forest was never scary because it was like your mother,” Spires says.
And she loved the people of the forest — their resilience, their joy in the face of suffering. “When they listen to the music long enough it gets into their bones and they begin to dance away,” Stang once said. “If you listen to it for a while it begins to vibrate even in your blood cells.”
Once one of the farmers disappeared on a hunting trip. After many days people feared he had been murdered by gunmen in the woods. When Stang arrived for the memorial service, the “deceased” had come home in time for his own funeral. Alive. Safe.
The memorial service morphed into a celebration — and quickly became part of village folklore. The incident seemed symbolic of life in Anapu, of daily struggle, constant setbacks and small resurrections. “In the midst of all the violence there are many small communities that have learned the secret of life — sharing, solidarity, confidence, equality, working together,” Stang wrote.
‘Just another threat’
Hohm caught a glimpse of her sister’s bravery when she and another one of her sisters, Mary Heil, had lunch with Stang at a roadside cafe in Anapu in September 1986. A scowling, spur-booted cattle rancher approached their table and pulled Stang aside. “I know who you are and we’re going to get you some day,” he warned.
“What was that all about?” her sisters asked when Stang returned to the table.
Stang brushed it off: “It’s just another threat.”
Every day, it seemed, Stang was doing battle with loggers and ranchers who brazenly treat the land as if it’s their own, a slash-and-burn approach that destroys the soil. Stang worked with three communities consisting of more than 200 families each in a government-backed project to farm the land in a sustainable fashion.
The government initiated the project but provided neither the money nor the political will to preserve the land for the peasant farmers.
In one typical letter Stang wrote, “The big logging firms found our road in the forest, and some 20 are in operation tearing out our magnificent trees.”
A new word entered the lexicon of the land grab: Grileiros. The term — derived from the Portuguese word grilo, or cricket — refers to the practice of fabricating land titles by placing the forgeries in a box with crickets and other insects. The bugs gnaw at the documents until they grow discolored and antique-looking. Money changes hands, too, and often, government officials look the other way.
Stang’s environmental awareness deepened when she attended the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. “Tell all the family we must make great efforts to save our planet,” she wrote home to her sister. “Mother Earth is not able to provide any more.”
‘We knew they needed a Dorothy’
It is June 2004 and Stang has returned home for one of her extended visits to Dayton. She loves nothing better than drinking a cold beer and yelling at football games, as boisterous as any of her nephews.
But this will be her last trip to Dayton.
She has come back to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of her religious order. She has come back even as her troubles in Brazil begin to escalate.
The previous October she received a citation to appear in court, facing accusations of aiding farmers in an “armed rebellion.” The accusations were the furthest thing from the truth; in the past, in fact, Stang had solicited police aid in quelling violence among the small farmers. Dwyer accompanied Stang during the fivehour deposition. “The judge had nothing but admiration for her,” Dwyer says. “The case was something the civil police invented together with the ranchers, sawmill people.”
But Stang could face jail time. “What will you do if you go to jail?” her fellow nuns ask.
“I’ll just have a jailhouse ministry,” she replies.
Her friends and family notice that Stang spends less time on this trip socializing and more time in study and prayer. She has been diagnosed with macular degeneration, a condition that eventually would rob her of her sight. Stang asks Krimm to procure tapes of spiritual readings and Scripture so she can commit them to memory. “I need them so I can have the strength to go back and continue to fight,” she says.
“Dot, be careful,” Krimm urges.
“Would you stop worrying about my safety?” Stang asks. “It’s the safety of the people you should be worried about.”
In her frequent letters home, Stang yearns for her family, always signing off with a code her parents had used: KACCIYHFM. Keep A Cozy Corner in Your Heart for Me. But she is a Brazilian citizen now and makes no secret that she wants to be buried there.
“It seemed the Lord always put her home when we needed her,” says another sister, Barbara Richardson of Dayton. “I didn’t resent that the people of Brazil kept her away from us for so many years. We knew they needed a Dorothy.”
Late January 2005, Boa Esperanca
Dorothy Stang’s final stand comes over a tract of land known as Lot 55.
The remote tract 30 miles northwest of Anapu is part of Stang’s Project for Sustainable Development, which provides land for peasant farmers like Luis de Brito.
Amair Feijoli da Cunha — the rancher known to everyone as Tato — first offers de Brito a sum of money for his land. When he refuses, Tato fires bullets into the air outside the family’s front door. “I’ll give you until next morning to leave,” he shouts.
That night Tato and his men drink noisily around a bonfire and threaten to kill de Brito and his family. A providential downpour snuffs out the flames, and the farmer and his family flee. When they return, their hut and their farm — and those of eight other settlers — have been leveled.
Stang describes the situation in what will be her final letter to the Sisters of Notre Dame in Cincinnati, dated Jan. 27, 2005. Maintaining her usual blithe spirit, she writes: “We keep Hope alive. ... There are things you do because they feel right and they make no sense and they make no money and it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other (and to eat each other’s cooking) and to say it was good!”
In Stang’s eyes there is no question about what is right: She must stand with the farmers, no matter what the cost.
She pleads for protection with environmental officials and local and federal police. The situation is explosive, she explains; there could be violence. Stang brings blankets, beans and clothing to Lot 55.
No other help arrives.
Early February 2005, Anapu
Ten cows, two plots of land, and $25,000.
That’s the bounty Vitalmiro Moura — the rancher they call Bida — has placed on Irma Dorothy’s life. Tato, Bida’s middleman, has promised the sum to Rayfran das Neves Sales and Clodoaldo Carlos Batista if they kill the nun who has been causing the ranchers so much trouble.
It is an eye-popping offer for two young men who haven’t made it through grade school. But for Bida, $25,000 is a small price. Stang’s interference already has cost him $250,000 in fines from Brazil’s environmental agency.
“That old woman is getting up my nose,” Bida was heard to say after a previous attempt on Stang’s life was foiled.
Tato tells his hired guns: Whatever you do, don’t implicate Bida. He will take care of you. When the nun is dead, he tells them, come straight to Bida’s ranch, and he will pay you and arrange for a getaway.
After Tato leaves, Batista taunts his accomplice: “You don’t have the stomach for this.”
He taunts him again: “Do you have the courage for this?”
“I do,” Sales says. “I do have the courage.” Feb. 7, 2005, The motherhouse in Belem
“Why can’t you stay until Ash Wednesday?” Sister Julia Depweg asks Stang, who has come to Belem, the state capital of Para, to copy dossiers for 400 farm workers alleging violations of human rights.
“I can’t,” Dorothy insists. “I really have to get back and help the people fight for their land.”
In five days, the farmers of Boa Esperanca will meet to discuss plans to rebuild on land scorched by the ranchers’ hired thugs.
Depweg watches as her friend stares into the distance. She has rarely seen her so exhausted and dispirited.
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” Stang tells her.
Feb. 11, 2005: ‘This land is ours’
Stang is leaving an informal gathering of farmers on the eve of the meeting in Boa Esperanca when she encounters the two men who have been hired to kill her.
“This is Bida’s land,” they menace.
Stang sits on a log with Sales and Batista and spreads out the maps showing the land belongs to the government.
“This land is ours,” she patiently explains. “You can’t throw grass seed here for cattle. That’s an environmental crime.”
Bida’s bullies look like kids, really. Sales, 27, is slight, malnourishedlooking, perpetually hunched over as if averting a blow. Batista resembles a Brazilian James Dean, with smoldering dark eyes and an I-dare-you expression.
Before parting she blesses them and squeezes their hands, even invites them to attend the farmers’ meeting the next morning.
That night Sales and Batista pull black stockings over their heads, the disguise that Tato has provided for them. Amid the pounding sheets of rain and the slimmest fingernail of a new moon to illuminate the landscape, the hooded gunmen peer through the slats in the baha, the bamboo hut, looking for their target. They think Sister Dorothy will be alone in the baha, sleeping in the hammock, an easy target.
But as they peer through the bamboo slats they see more than one figure. They cannot tell which sleeping form is Sister Dorothy.
And there’s another problem: The nose of their .38-caliber revolver won’t fit through the narrow slats.
Tato, who stays up all night waiting to hear from Sales and Batista, angrily confronts his amateur assassins.
“This time,” he warns them, “you cannot fail.”
Feb. 12, 2005
“You go on ahead.”
Cicero, the farmer Stang invited to the meeting, promises to join her later. It is 7:30 a.m. and as Stang rounds a curve in the path, Sales and Batista block her way. Once again, Stang pulls out her maps and tries to reason with them. The men aren’t listening.
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