Janice’s Review Blog

“The Greatest Gift” proves one person makes a difference

Posted on: March 15, 2009

"The Greatest Gift: The Courageous Life and Martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang"

"The Greatest Gift: The Courageous Life and Martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang"

Author Binka Le Breton follows the life of Sister Dorothy Stang from her birth in Dayton, Ohio to her untimely murder in Anapu, Para, Brazil in her book “The Greatest Gift: The Courageous Life and Martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang”.  Through interviews with friends, family and others, Le Breton follows Sister Dorothy on her incredible journey as she shows her true self during her quest.

Born on June 7,1931 to Henry and Edna Stang, Dorothy Mae Stang grew up as the fourth of nine children.  Growing up, Dot served as the primary caregiver for her younger siblings and a moral force.   She learned to be resourceful and self-sufficient by watching her father, who soled shoes using carved pieces of old tires, conserved water by building a cistern to catch rainwater and planted and harvested fruits and vegetables from their garden to eat and sell.

Henry and Edna followed the rituals of the church and the children all attended Catholic school.  While attending Julienne High School, Dot joined Young Christian Students.  This club produced activists of which Dot was one.  Her friend Joan also says, “A desire began to grow and deepen in Dorothy’s heart to give her life to God as a missionary.”

 On July 26, 1948, 17-year-old Dot entered Notre Dame de Namur with her friend Joan as a postulant.  Dot learned to live in a community operated on a strict routine in a state of poverty, chastity and obedience.  Sister Dorothy served her time and taught at a school in Illinois before arriving in Phoenix, Ariz. in August 1953 to teach and then serve as principal at Most Holy Trinity.  During her 13 years in Arizona, Sister Dorothy worked with the Mexican migrant laborers and their children.  This prepared her for the work that came in Brazil.

In August 1966, Sister Dorothy and Joan arrived in Brazil.  They attended the mission training school and then they began their work.  The sisters worked with the people, who were the poorest of the poor.  They lived with them, ate with them, taught them and helped them in any way possible. 

“We were to be the church of the poor,” said Joan.

The Brazilian people embraced the church and held their heads high.  The sisters went out and started to set up and organize communities with schools.  They worked with prostitutes to teach them other professions to support themselves and their families.

Landowners disapproved of the schools and tore them down.  They bought the peasants’ crops, but the peasants never got ahead.  The peasants feared the landowners, the police and the army.  As the sisters tried to help the peasants with human rights, they became labeled subversives, and Sister Dorothy was labeled a communist. 

Sister Dorothy worked to set up her “projects of sustainable development combining sustainable agriculture with conservation of the forest and a form of communal ownership of land.”

Journalist Carlos Mendes paid attention to Sister Dorothy and her plan because her project used sustainable development, and she and her people were making it work.  He said, “She was a visionary.”

Unfortunately, the greedy landowners became angry with Sister Dorothy and her success and put a price on her head.  A rumor surfaced that a group met in a hotel room in Altamira on January 2005 to discuss what to do about Sister Dorothy.

Over the more than 30 years that Sister Dorothy  spent in Brazil, she helped the poor and also worked to save the rainforest.  She continued to speak up even to the day of her death.

Finally in the book, Padre Nello, the rubicund Italian who worked with the Indigenous Missionary Council, summed it up best when he said, “And at the end of the day she’s achieving in death what she never would have achieved in life.”

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