Sister Dorothy Stang’s memory lives on in Chicago high school

By Joyce Duriga
Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sister Dorothy Stang’s memory lives on in Chicago high school

Pat Tomich leads participants as they joined the Sisters of NotreDame de Namur in an evening remembering the life and vision of Sister Dorothy Stang on Feb. 12. The event took place at St. Pius V Church in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Sister Dorothy was murdered Feb. 12, 2005, on an isolated road near the Brazilian town of Anapu. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Mary McCann Sanchez looks over a mural after the event. The mural was done by students at the Dorothy Stang Popular Education Adult High School in Chicago. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Angel Siena Rivera, a student at the Dorothy Stang Popular Education Adult High School, gives his testimony on how Sister Dorothy fought for the rights of poor farmers to have an education in Brazil and how he and his fellow students are "taking back our education." (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Diana Salgado, a student at the high school, listens to speakers on Feb. 12. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
A man walks past a mural students at the Dorothy Stang Popular Education Adult High School made as a tribute to Sister Dorothy. The mural is on a wall in the Pius V church basement. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Elena Aguirre-Sznajder, co-founder and co-director of the high school, speaks at the memorial for Sister Dorothy on Feb. 12. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
(Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Ana Maria Garcia gathers brochures following the service. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Ten years after she was murdered in the Brazilian rainforest, the memory of Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Dorothy Stang lives on in Chicago.

On Feb. 12, a group of about 90 people gathered in the hall underneath St. Pius V Church, at the corner of Ashland Avenue and 19th Street, to remember the religious sister and to celebrate the Dorothy Stang Popular Education Adult High School. It was one of several events held around the country on Feb. 12, the 10th anniversary of her death.

Sister Dorothy, who taught at two Chicago-area Catholic schools — St. Victor in Calumet City and St. Alexander in Villa Park — was recalled by friends as someone who knew early on that she wanted to be a religious sister and that she wanted to serve the poor in other countries.

Sister Dorothy was a native of Dayton, Ohio, but had lived in the Amazon region for nearly four decades and was a naturalized Brazilian. She worked closely with the Brazilian bishops’ Pastoral Land Commission in favor of land rights for poor people and for sustainable development in the region. Because of her work, she had been receiving death threats for nearly four years. Ranchers were later convicted of ordering her murder.

Back in Chicago, a year before Sister Dorothy’s murder, a group of volunteers approached Notre Dame High School for Girls, which was sponsored by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, seeking accreditation of its adult high school for Latinos.

Founders of the school were responding to a need they heard in the community from Latinos who weren’t able to finish high school for one reason or another and who told them they couldn’t get ahead in life because they didn’t have high school diplomas.

Notre Dame liked the idea and the school began, only to later be named the Dorothy Stang School for Popular Education.

Pat Tomich, an associate of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who also volunteers at the school, said the adult school has two sites — Josephinum Academy on the North Side and Casa de Juan Diego in Pilsen.

“They participate in a curriculum that is designed for adults based on their life experience and the Paulo Freire model of educating from the grassroots and becoming literate in your world and you bring about social change,” Tomich said. “There are only two of these kinds of high schools in the country.”

Students attend classes four nights a week for a year and earn diplomas accredited through Josephinum High School and De La Salle Institute. Students must be 25 years old or older, have nine years of education in the United States or another country and read, write and speak in both English and Spanish.

This past year, through financial support from the School Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the program began offering child care to students. Faculty, administrators and board members volunteer their time and the program relies on donations to keep going.

Around 350 people have graduated since the school opened, said Elena Aguirre-Sznajder, cofounder and co-director of the school.

The founders knew they wanted the program to be bilingual.

“The problem was with English- Spanish. In a sense we want people to learn English and to be able to function but we don’t want them to lose the Spanish,” Aguirre-Sznajder said.

With a lot of immigrants language can be a barrier to success, said the teacher, who is also an immigrant.

“You are what you talk. You come to a place and people don’t understand you or your language is very weak and your self-esteem is like down there,” she said, gesturing downward.

But they also want the students to still communicate in Spanish, read books in Spanish and hold on to the culture.

At the end of the Feb. 12 service, several graduates and current students of Dorothy Stang High School gave testimony on how the school has helped them.

Angel Siena Rivera spoke of how Sister Dorothy fought for the rights of poor farmers to have an education in Brazil and how he and his fellow students are “taking back our education.”

“Our education is important. It’s something we’re going to have to fight for,” he said.

He told the gathering that classes are small and students help each other out.

“A lot of us accomplished things that we didn’t think we could handle,” he said.

For more information on the high school, visit


  • st. pius v
  • dorothy stang popular education adult high school
  • st. victor

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