The death of my sister calls me home to Ohio. The week of her funeral, I find myself driving down the country road to my brother’s farm, the one on which four generations of our family were raised.

My mood is somber, but my spirit is buoyed by the faith that resides in the loam of the soil as well as the humble lives that comprise this rural community known as Ft. Loramie.

Before turning into the lane at the home place, I pass another farm which, back in the 1940’s, produced an abundant yield of religious vocations: two priests and two nuns, one of which was Sister Dorothy Stang.

Raised on that farm amid corn, cows and chickens, Sister Dorothy would later become the subject of books, documentaries and even an opera. This public attention, at which she would cringe, followed the news of her death on February 12, 2005 when she was shot by assailants for her defense of family farmers whose livelihood depended upon the protection of the Brazilian rain forest.

Sister Dorothy entered the religious community of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1948. Beginning in 1951, she taught in elementary schools in Illinois and Arizona. In 1966 she accepted an assignment in Brazil where she continued to teach. In 1970, she began helping the peasants in her region make a living by extracting products from the forest without deforestation. She also sought to protect small farmers from criminal gangs working on behalf of large-scale land developers.

Glancing at the steeple in the distance, I recall serving Mass for her youngest brother, Fr. Cletus. I never met Sr. Dorothy face-to-face but, if given the opportunity, I would eagerly endeavor to learn how her rural upbringing, love of creation, commitment to the poor and passion for justice melded together to form the courageous spirit that animated her soul.

Did the memory of bells ringing from our parish church, for instance, echo amid the trees of the great forest she so loved? Did the moist soil of her family’s garden foreshadow the dew on stalks of maize in northern Brazil? When she pondered biblical passages about grains of wheat falling to the earth, did indigenous faces sprout alongside those of weathered Midwesterners?

In the course of our private conversation, would she quietly nod, knowing that one day a farm boy who cultivated corn on a field adjacent to her father’s, would render astonished praise to God upon learning of her martyrdom; of how she calmly read beatitudes from Sermon of the Mount to men poised with guns to kill her?

Here in Ohio, a regional saying often floats in the air: “To be close to the soil is to be close to God.”  In this neighborhood, another saying joins the local lexicon: “To be close to your neighbor could bring you close to a saint.”

A version of this article appeared in the Catholic Rural Life Magazine, Spring, 2024. Photo: Sr. Dorothy’s home place near Ft. Loramie, Ohio.

03 / 29 / 2024
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