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The 1980s were a unique time for the indigenous people of Maceio, in northeastern Brazil. After centuries of oppression, they organized to win basic rights to land, education, and healthcare. 

As a longtime missionary and educator with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SNDdeN), Sister Mary Alice McCabe, SNDdeN witnessed much of that history. She later documented more than 60 oral accounts from that era for a book, Our Struggle was a Sacred Struggle.

Speaking to Emmanuel students in the Sociology department’s popular Crimes Against Humanity class via Zoom, Sister Mary Alice said she did that to help ensure memory of those crucial days live on.

“I have followed the story of these people for three generations now,” she said. “It’s important for the new generation to know about the struggle, so they have the same love for the land that their grandparents did.” 

Sister Mary Alice arrived at Brazil in 1970 with a dedication to social justice and a mission of ministering to rural and disadvantaged communities. She described the state of Maceio’s indigenous people back then as essentially slavery: living on land they farmed but did not own, paying 50% of their sustenance crops as taxes, and prohibited from growing cash crops. 

An illustration from Sister Mary Alice’s book “Our Struggle was a Sacred Struggle” depicts how coconuts were one of the cash crops that were off limits to the indigenous people of Maceio.

Brazil was military dictatorship from 1964-1985, and agrarian reform was a contentious issue. More than 400 dissidents were killed during that period and an estimated 20,000 were tortured, according to data presented by the Crimes Against Humanity instructor, Professor of Sociology Katrin Križ.

Sister Mary Alice said her advocacy began with bringing people together to talk and read scripture, with a focus on how it related to their daily lives. They cultivated connections with local leaders, with the goal helping to empower communities for collective action. 

“Our goal was drawing out wisdom, instead of pouring in knowledge,” she said.  

The Crimes Against Humanity course studies atrocities that are condoned by governments or de facto authorities, both in historical and contemporary contexts. Sister Mary Alice is one of two SNDdeN representatives who spoke with the class this semester. The other was Sister Marietta Brown, SNDdeN, who taught at a township school in post-Apartheid South Africa.  

“I thought it was important for students to see the life-changing and inspiring work of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in serving as allies to disenfranchised individuals and communities,” said Križ afterward.

 “The presentations of the Sisters are an important element of the course, because the stories of their lived experiences bring the struggles of the survivors of crimes against humanity closer to home and emphasize the moral imperative for all of us to work toward peace and justice in the United States and internationally,” she added. 

Sister Mary Alice was an educator and missionary in Brazil through 2017. While the indigenous people of Maceio won significant rights in that timeframe, she said there are continuing challenges over oceanside land rights and environmental contamination. 

Sister Mary Alice’s work in Brazil was recognized by Emmanuel College with an honorary degree in 2018.

Emmanuel College was founded in 1919 by the SNDdeN, which is an international Catholic religious congregation dedicated to education and social justice. 

A professor speaks with students in class
Professor of Sociology Katrin Križ speaks to students in the Crimes Against Humanity class about the oppression of indigenous peoples in Brazil. The class discusses atrocities both historic and contemporary, to illuminate the causes and encourage students to think critically.