Monday February 6, 2006

A Saint in Our Time

A standing-room-only crowd attended a Feb. 2 Mass and honorary degree ceremony that paid tribute to Sister Dorothy Stang, slain a year ago in the Amazon rain forest. "We gather to recognize a saint in our time," said the Rev. Paul Marshall, S.M., rector.

Sister Dorothy Stang, slain by hired assassins a year ago in the Amazon rain forest, has received the first honorary degree awarded posthumously by the University of Dayton.

"We gather to recognize a saint in our time," the Rev. Paul Marshall, S.M., rector at the University of Dayton, told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 people in the Immaculate Conception Chapel on campus Feb. 2.

"Sister Dorothy laid down her life so others could live in greater dignity … so the poor could melt the hearts of the rich, so that violence can be overtaken by compassion," said the Rev. James Heft, S.M., chancellor and professor of faith and culture, during the invocation.

A citizen of Brazil and the United States, Stang worked with the Pastoral Land Commission, an organization of the Catholic church that fights for the rights of rural workers and peasants. Born in Dayton, Ohio, she entered the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and worked as a missionary in Brazil for nearly four decades. For the last 23 years of her life she taught peasants sustainable farming techniques and fought illegal logging and ranching.

She was shot in the chest and head on a rural road near the town of Anapu, Brazil, on Feb. 12, 2005, as part of a land dispute over the displacement of peasants. Witnesses say the 73-year-old nun, who had previously received death threats, pulled out her Bible and began reading from the Beatitudes before she was shot. Two ranchhands were found guilty in December and sentenced to 27 years and 17 years in prison, respectively.

"She loved the people, and the people loved her," said Sister Joan Krimm, SNDdeN, during the ceremony after a Mass. "She became the voice of the voiceless in their unending struggle to protect the land against the illegal loggers. She knew she had a price on her head. … She would say, 'I'm a religious. I'm only an old lady. Who would kill an old lady?"'

Krimm said Stang spoke with her assassins the day before her murder "and tried to explain to them that the land they were on had been given to the peasants by the government. She shook hands with them and blessed them."

That night, the killers came to the hut where she was sleeping, "ready to kill her," only "she had given up her hammock to someone who needed one and was sleeping on the floor," Krimm said.

The next day, she was shot as she read the Biblical words, "Blessed are the peacemakers," Krimm said. "The shots resounded throughout the forest and the rest of the world."

In emotion-filled remarks, Marguerite Stang Holm, described her sister as "a woman of faith" whose "commitment to justice is Biblical. Her commitment to truth and justice is unwavering. Sister Dorothy truly is the angel of the Amazon."

Stang was awarded a doctor of humane letters during the ceremony, which was attended by family members from around the country and Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk.