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Phyllis ZaganoFebruary 04, 2008
The Greatest Giftby By Binka Le BretonDoubleday. 233p $21.95
Dorothy Stang, the American missionary murdered in Brazil three years ago, shines forth in two new biographies that join the growing network of materials about her life and work.

Roseanne Murphy, also a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and the biographer of their congregation’s founder, presents “Dot,” as she was known, from the inside out. Binka Le Breton, a British journalist who had access to the same materials, paints the story with a broader brush.

Facts are fluid in the rainforest, but this is what seems to have happened. On Feb. 12, 2005, on Lot 55 of the area in Brazil called Boa Esperança (Good Hope), deeded to settlers by the Project for Sustainable Development, which was in turn created through Brazil’s National Institute for Agrarian Reform, Dorothy Stang was killed. She knew her killers—Raifran das Neves Sales, who held the gun, and Clodoaldo Carlos Batista—and they knew her. She pulled her Bible from her plastic shoulder bag, and read from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the….” A bullet struck her Bible, then her stomach. She fell. Sales stood over her and fired five more times, hitting her shoulder, back, neck, head and hand as she lay on the red clay she so wanted for the poor. The two men ran into the forest, toward the ranch of Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, the land-grabbing thug known as Bida. His agent, Amair Feijoli da Cunha (“Tato”) had promised them $25,000 for the deed. Another rich rancher, Regivaldo Pereira Galvão, also seems to have been in on the deal.

The two biographies differ in detail, but begin with what we know: Dorothy Stang is dead. From there they digress. Le Breton traces more childhood stories and details of Dorothy’s life with her parents and eight siblings in northwest Dayton, Ohio. Murphy follows the trajectory of Dorothy’s religious life as it echoes the changes in the church. Dorothy makes her religious profession just after the last century turns the halfway mark, becoming Sister Mary Joachim, in long black serge dreaming of missions, but teaching third grade in Illinois. She continues teaching, next in Arizona, where she becomes superior. But then in 1966, in her early 30s and still in a habit, Dorothy lands with four other sisters in Brazil.

Murphy watches as the little band of sisters do pastoral work among the poor. By the early 1980s, Dorothy is on the Trans Amazon, the 3,000-mile highway running through the interior of Brazil, in T-shirt and jeans. She was in Pará, a state twice the size of Texas. Bishop Erwin Krautler, who had heard about her work in building base communities in Abel Figueiredo and nearby, told her the poorest of the poor lived east of the highway. Le Breton quotes the bishop at length: “The people worshipped her. If any decision had to be taken, they’d always say ‘Let’s ask Sister Dorothy.’…She got jobs for people. She helped them over the land issue. She set up a fruit processing factory. And she worked hard for the women.”

During a 1991 sabbatical in California, Dorothy studied creation spirituality. She attended the Rio Earth Summit the following year. Murphy and Le Breton have different takes on this phase of her life. Murphy views the sabbatical as a freeing event, leading Dorothy to see God as “Mother” as well as “Father,” internalize the connections between creation spirituality and liberation theology and reconnect with her Irish roots. Le Breton suggests in Dorothy a less theological and more political response to panentheism. Their differences reflect their outlooks and research: Le Breton, fluent in Portuguese, has published other books about land reform in Brazil. She interviewed many who knew Dorothy in Brazil.

But the books do not compete. Together they present what the fight is all about, describing the stunning ecological details of the rainforest. Central Brazil houses most of the biodiversity on the planet, and serves in large part as its lungs. All manner of flora and fauna coexist, until loggers backed by wealthy ranchers clear cut precious hardwoods. Rough grass soon planted serves for grazing cattle, and the ecostructure is destroyed. Poor settlers knew no better, so they farmed until soil turned to sand, and then moved on. Dorothy led replanting of thousands of mahogany and other trees, and taught sustainable farming. She also fought the bureaucracy whose inertia crushed the poor.

Since the books tell the same story, their parallels are many. Murphy’s careful analysis draws on the charism she shares with Stang. Le Breton presents long transcripts of statements by Dorothy’s friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, Le Breton sometimes suggests what people, including Dorothy, were thinking and doing where no record exists. Le Breton’s book, which begins rather like a movie treatment, ends more like a novel: “Drawing on reserves she didn’t know she had, Dorothy read in a level voice, “Blessed are the….”

Murphy, however, uses Dorothy’s letters to present her reactions to the gathering storm clouds of her final days. “All I ask of God is His grace to help keep me on this journey, fighting for the people to have a more egalitarian life at all times and that we learn to respect God’s creation.”

Dorothy’s earthly journey ended when Rayfran and Clodoaldo, both now in jail, tried to silence her—nemesis of Bida and Galvão—at Tato’s bidding. Bida and Tato also sit in jail; Galvão is on the loose. Dorothy Stang’s blood is forever commingled with the red clay of Boa Esperança, now reserved for sustainable development. Her memory is well served by these books, which no doubt will be followed by others. As a sign carried in her funeral procession—pictured in Le Breton’s book—proclaims: Dorothy Vive!

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