Four years ago after Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Dorothy Stang was murdered by hired gunmen on a lonely road in the Amazon rainforest, Marlene DeNardo was invited by the Sisters in Brazil to spend a study week with their novices and younger Brazilian Sisters. The invitation was a welcome one for Marlene, who, while an SNDdeN, was one of the founding members of Notre Dame in Brazil and a mentor and friend of Dorothy's.
Marlene's 2008 email to friends gives a first-hand feel for the place, the people and Sister Dorothy's legacy in Brazil.
This is a brief account of these very special days in this place where Dorothy lived and worked. It is a world of lush rainforest, or floresta as they call it, with garrulous monkeys, gorgeous birds, rain and more rain, sun and more sun, thunderstorms, lightening and so much more in this treasure house of our planet's body…the great Amazon rainforest.
Going to the town of Anapu was indeed a sacred journey encountering not only Dorothy's resting place but also her spirit planted firmly along the whole long strip of red dirt called the TransAmazon Highway and in the hearts of the people she loved so much.
I think I understand a little better the urgency and love Dorothy felt for this beautiful, and yet continually oppressed people and ravaged land. Almost three years after her death she is still inspiring so many people especially the small farmers, the poor and the church people who continue her work. She is also feared, sometimes hated, by those who only want to use more and more of the resources of this fertile rainforest despite the devastation that results from logging and cattle grazing.
Many others here also share Dorothy's fate; many have their lives and families threatened, many have been killed and their houses burned. Few of the hired gunmen are ever brought to trial for such crimes. Even the trial of those who killed Dorothy is being appealed. This is not as important for Dorothy as for many others who are still being threatened, and for those who have been killed by criminals never brought to trial.
Dorothy is indeed present everywhere in this Amazon area and in the little town of Anapu in particular…in the trees and waters, the rain and river. The poor claim her, the cab drivers we met at the airport and the people we met on the buses all said they knew Sr. Dorothy. She rode in the cabs and on the buses as she traveled to their villages. In Anapu the people immediately spoke about their experience, their sadness and their loss of Dorothy. One day a man stopped us, pointed to the Sisters of Notre Dame and said, "Every time I see you I think of Dorothy." Many (including the Sisters) wear T-shirts with Dorothy's photo and her words about the rainforest ("The death of the forest is the end of our life."). She is everywhere. It was a privilege to meet the people she knew and loved, to visit her tiny house and the many cooperatives, chapel, and centers she managed to build and provide for the community.
I learned that Dorothy, though she would not make much of this, suffered very much physically and also emotionally, from the disappointments, manifestations against her and threats. Her death was truly a culmination of the life she lived – given for others. Stories abound.
When we first arrived in Anapu the bus left us off at the Parish Center where the Sisters were meeting with people who were planning how they would celebrate the third anniversary of Dorothy's death, February 12th. They stopped their meeting, as is the custom, and began singing, clapping and playing an accordion, guitar, drums and tambourines to welcome us. I was not expecting this nor ready for it. Once they greeted us, they asked us to say a few words. Sr. Mary Alice, who was with me for this journey, said a few words. Then I tried to say how special it was for me to be at Dorothy's place…but emotion overwhelmed me and my words were few.
The journey to the tomb where Dorothy is buried, goes over the river Anapu (tributary of the Amazon) and through the floresta. Every day in Anapu, I was able to go across the swinging, rickety wood plank bridge into the moist, green forest along the dirt path to the place where Dorothy is "planted," as the people say. I brought with me in my heart my family and friends, often saying your names in this holy place, asking for whatever her blessing is. It is very quiet there, a deep silence permeates the area – and yet the forest hums its own song – sometimes a bird sings, often a beautiful yellow-black butterfly circled around the tomb, around me, in and out of the trees. Some of the large palms waved back and forth and then stood silently guarding the area.
This location is the place where there are palm-covered huts and a large area where Dorothy and the Sisters had meetings with the people over the years. Today it needs to be restored and returned to good use, but in the meantime it stands as a sanctuary and a testimony to Dorothy's work among the people.
There is so much more…other encounters and experiences. But for now, this sharing of this special part of my time in Brazil is enough. ~ Marlene