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James L. BaileyNovember 04, 2002

Rarely in our society do individuals choose to risk going to jail because they are protesting what they consider to be unjust practices and institutions. But if they do make such a decision and are imprisoned, how does this affect them, their supporters, others who learn of it and even their cause itself? A case in Dubuque, Iowa, offers some answers.

In front of the gate at Fort Benning, Ga., location of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001), is a white line painted on the pavement. Demonstrators against the school are informed that if they cross the line, they will be arrested. At the protest in November 2000, two elderly nuns from the Franciscan Congregation in Dubuque, Iowa, (Dorothy and Gwen Hennessey, ages 88 and 69) were among the many arrested. They were later sentenced to six-month prison terms by a federal court in Columbus, Ga. The story made not only local but also national and international news.

S.O.A. Watch, founded by a Maryknoll priest, Roy Bourgeois, stages a protest at Fort Benning around Nov. 16 each year. This is the date on which six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter were massacred in El Salvador in 1989 by murderers trained at S.O.A.. The purpose of the demonstrations is to ask Congress to close the school. In its 56 years of existence, the institution has trained over 60,000 soldiers from South America in counterinsurgency techniques to be used against their own people. (For the full story of the school, see Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, School of Assassins: Guns, Greed and Globalization, rev. ed., 2001).

The Hennessey sisters have participated for some years in these S.O.A. Watch demonstrations. Their brother, Ron, a Maryknoll priest who works among the poor in Guatemala and El Salvador, made them aware of atrocities in Central America and also of the fact that the church often supported, or at least did not resist, the controlling military and oligarchy.

They knew the possible costs of their nonviolent civil disobedience. But in addition to their brother and the earlier examples of their parents, the sisters were also influenced by the Franciscan community’s intentional commitment to social justice. Gwen explains, If we don’t say anything, if we don’t speak, if we don’t try to change any of this, then we are just complicit in the whole dealthe violation of human rights.

Thirteen men and 13 women, all of whom had previously crossed the line, were chosen by lottery from among the 1,700 arrested. When their two names appeared among the 26 protesters, the initial reaction of the Hennessey sisters, and the entire Franciscan congregation, was genuine surprise.

Sr. Dorothy, who had never been in prison despite a number of arrests for demonstrating, remembers her initial trepidation in federal court. The first defendant to be called, she was offered a lenient house arrest at Mt. St. Francis in Dubuque. Dorothy, who thinks of herself as a timid person, was surprised at her own response. Because she felt deeply that she was doing the will of God for justice’s sake, she found herself saying, That’s very nice of you, Judge, but I’m not an invalid, and I want to get the same sentence as the rest get. She and most of the other 25 co-defendants were sentenced to six months in prison. The Hennesseys, and seven other women, were to report to the federal prison at Pekin, Ill., on July 17, 2001.

The initial surprise on the part of the members of the Franciscan Congregation at the indictment of Sr. Dorothy and Sr. Gwen swiftly changed to shock when they were sentenced. Judy Haley Giesen, former communications director for the congregation, voices what many were thinking. Sisters don’t belong in prison, she found herself saying, especially not sisters as old as the Hennesseys. Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, president of the congregation, believes the two sisters’ arrest and imprisonment had a powerful impact on people’s thinking. It was like ice water in your face, she says. Most people were thinking You know, sisters don’t just do things to get put in prison, so there must be something right about what they are saying and something wrong about what is going on at the school.

For the sisters themselves, their arrival at the Pekin Federal Women’s Prison was almost a relief, remembers Gwen, made more poignant when they discovered the kindness of the women inmates, who brought them small basic items, like toothbrushes, that are taken for granted outside prison walls.

Initially Dorothy and Gwen shared living space: an open cell with concrete dividing walls about six feet high that contained two cots, two lockers and two small footlockers, one small desk and one steel chair. The cell-blocks offered a visible barrier but no real privacy or escape from the unremitting noise. The public address speaker was a brutal thing, says Gwen, yelling at you all the time to do this or for someone to do this or someone to come do that. It was really degrading.

The prison community was also affected by their presence. When, because of concern for her health, Sr. Dorothy was transferred to the Elm Street Correctional Center in Dubuque, her unassuming and cheerful presence there made an impression on a number of the incarcerated young people. Most of them, and some of their parents, knew who she was. After breakfast one morning when others had left the dining area, a young man walked by the place where Sr. Dorothy was still sitting and said, Now I believe there is a God.

Back in Pekin, Sr. Gwen was able to experience what she termed God moments, particularly when she was allowed time to walk outside on the exercise track away from the inside noise. Every day, once she completed the kitchen work assigned her, she returned to her living space to read and respond to letters. During their six-month imprisonment, the Hennesseys received some 4,000 letters from all over the United States and beyond.

The letters were further evidence of the impact of the sisters’ act of conscience. Nearly all supportive, they spoke of the writers’ appreciation for the sisters’ courageous stance and hopeful witness. Some described their own imprisonments, often because relatives had been or were in prison or because of addictions, like alcoholism. Both Dorothy and Gwen were deeply touched by a letter from a Guatemalan Catholic group that thanked them for what they were doing. Yet both Hennessey sisters affirm that their own hardship in prison did not compare to the anguish and suffering endured by the mothers in Latin America who lost children or husbands to death squads.

It is likely that even the judge who sentenced Dorothy and Gwen was influenced by excerpts from the sisters’ prison diaries (as well as letters from other protestors), which were published in the local newspaper. That judge lifted the army’s post-Sept. 11 ban, which would have prevented the S.O.A. Watch demonstrators from marching through the city of Columbus itself on their way to Fort Benning. As a result, nearly 10,000 protestors participated in the march in November 2001.

The Hennesseys’ imprisonment obviously affected their Franciscan sisters in Dubuque. The congregation’s support, in turn, did much to sustain Dorothy and Gwen during their incarceration. Sisters offered constant prayers for Dorothy and Gwen. In the chapel, they tended the 26 lighted candles (one for each S.O.A. Watch person imprisoned), placed there during the worship service held on the evening before the Hennesseys departed for prison.

Every area group in the congregation of 420 sisters (20 areas in all) sent at least one letter to both Dorothy and Gwen each week. Sr. Angelicawho herself was struck by a rock thrown during a 1960’s march in Chicago with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.each day mailed a brief note or newspaper article to the Hennesseys.

Letters from Gwen and Dorothy were typed and posted so that all could learn what prison life was like. Ms. Giesen sent out excerpts to the media, and accounts of the sisters’ diaries were published not only in Georgia but also in The National Catholic Reporter.

The day of the Hennesseys’ release from prison was a dramatic occasion for their congregation. When Gwen arrived at Mount St. Francis, all the sisters and media representatives were gathered in the building’s foyer or outside on the steps. Bells rang as the car arrived. Wearing her blue prison garb, Gwen slowly walked up the steps toward Dorothy, moving through a gauntlet formed primarily by the press. Amid jubilant hugging and handshaking, the two sisters slowly walked into the chapel.

Their homecoming began with a prayer service that included the same text from Scripture (Is. 42:6-7) that had been read during the departure service six months earlier. The two candles representing the sisters’ absence from the community were extinguished. The bell was rung for each of the 26 prisoners of conscience now released and back in their home communities. Sr. Heiderscheit declared: Today, we sing our songs of homecoming. We extinguish the candles that have reminded us daily of your bondage. We welcome you back to us, to freedom, and to our way of life. Your journey these six months has also been our journey. You have indeed birthed in us questions that clash with the systems that bind.’

Though the Hennesseys’ half-year imprisonment proved a test for them and the entire Franciscan congregation, their interlude in prison did not discourage them or alter what they are about. They’re just always resolute on seeking justice in the world, and I don’t sense they’re going to be doing it much differently, says Ms. Giesen.

Their struggle requires long-term engagement. The nonviolent demonstrations against the school have been underway for nearly 15 years, with only small gains in the struggle for greater justice for the poor in Latin America. But Judy Haley Giesen recalls the advice of Michael Crosby, a Capuchin priest: If you feel that you are up against a system and it absolutely can’t be conquered, I guess what you need to do is to show up, to listen, to speak your truth, and to let go of the outcome.

Indeed, the Hennessey sisters showed up, listened and spoke truth against unjust systems and instruments of violence. And they, together with their Franciscan sisters, continue to wait to see what might happen. Ms. Giesen is convinced that the work of the Spirit permeated what happened. If Dorothy had received house arrest, it would have been business as usual and the entire episode would have faded from the limelight...but because of the compelling situation the story and the cause stayed in the public view. She concludes, The two sisters have been through the fire, and they made it; they’ve come home, and the world knows more about the issue.

At her sentencing Sr. Gwen made a statement to the judge: Today we cry out for those who are not afforded their dignity. Today we cry out for the voiceless. Today we cry out against unjust structures that teach oppression, rape and murder, those structures held up by U.S. tax funds, our corporate sin! In the name of God we must shut down the S.O.A. and all that it stands for. We are here on earth to build the reign of God (quoted in Nelson-Pallmeyer, School of Assassins, p. 137).

The Hennessey sisters persist in a way of living rooted in deep biblical convictions, prompting them day by day to seek to say yes to what offers dignity and life to exploited people and no to all that suppresses the poor and voiceless. And for them, the larger story continues. During the Nov. 15-17 weekend this year, both Dorothy and Gwen plan to be among the demonstrators for the annual vigil at Fort Benning, Ga. And because the sisters went to prison, an entire busload of individuals from Dubuque and many others will be there too.

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20 years 7 months ago
Reading this article gave me goose bumps. If our hierarchy (as well as the rest of us) had half the conviction of these two nuns, our Church would be truly prophetic.

20 years 7 months ago
Reading this article gave me goose bumps. If our hierarchy (as well as the rest of us) had half the conviction of these two nuns, our Church would be truly prophetic.

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