Sister Dot's Living Legacy

Maureen Coyle, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, reflects on the legacy of Sister Dorothy Stang, a member of her community who was brutally murdered ten years ago.

Archbishop Oscar Romero gave his life in the hope that peace and justice would one day become a reality in El Salvador. He now lives on in all who continue his non-violent struggle for justice and peace, and is in our thoughts as Pope Francis has intimated that he is soon to be beatified. The Church will publicly claim him as a Blessed Martyr, indeed, a champion of the poor and a prophet of justice.

Another such martyr is Sister Dorothy Stang who was murdered in the Amazon Forest ten years ago on 12 February 2005. Dot, as she was known, was an Ohio-born Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who served as a missionary in Brazil with the families of landless peasants for 40 years. Throughout her life, and in her death, she unleashed the poor and set them free. Her defence of the earth and the poor was a work of liberation. Like Romero, she is rising in the people and in the land. She can rise in us if we join her cause for the welfare and dignity of the poor.

Because of her outstanding work for justice and preservation of the Amazon, Sister Dorothy became a target for loggers and powerful landowners whose exploitation of the rainforest ignored the rights and needs of people who had lived in harmony with the natural environment for centuries.

For her stance in championing their rights, the 73 year-old advocate for justice was put on a ‘death list’. Her murder was carried out by two hired gunmen who confronted her on a dirt road and fired six bullets into her body. Dot’s only weapon against the gunmen was her bible which was opened at the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; they shall be satisfied…’

Her killing was intended to silence her, but her voice has risen to new heights and is now one of international repute.  Sister Dorothy's murder has focused attention on the plight of poor farmers and their fight against rapacious developers. At her funeral, which was attended by over 200,000 mourners, someone exclaimed: ‘Sister Dorothy we are not burying you, we are planting you.’

From the seed of the martyr new life has burst forth. Even in the midst of continued violence and threatening situations, hope abounds. The people of the Amazon, previously oppressed and repressed, now take on their own destiny. A people who were afraid of the loggers and gunmen, who threatened their land and families, have been emboldened to confront those who would deprive them of their livelihood.

People have been educated and now organise themselves into communities with a voice. They have created channels for communications where the official ones are denied them. Local media portrayed the Sisters, the farmers and the land pastoral team as the villains of the peace.

Although the murderers and those who hired them were found guilty and given long sentences, all are free thanks to corruption and intimidation. But more people are taking a stance, challenging such injustices, violence and murder. They are sustained by a profound and irrepressible hope and belief in a future which they reverence as Sister Dorothy’s legacy.

In Anapu, an annual pilgrimage has been established, travelling the road of Dot’s last journey. Hundreds take part, celebrating her life which was lived planting the seeds of justice for the poor and living out the Gospel values.

Sister Dorothy lives on in the people who pray to her, honour her memory and who imitate her values respecting all God’s creation.

Sister Maureen Coyle is a member of the Justice and Peace group in St Jude and St John Ogilvie, Barlanark, Glasgow. 

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