A Change of Habits

When Kate, Brigid, Rita, and Jane McDonald joined the Sisters of St. Joseph nearly 50 years ago, they knew that nuns worked hard, lived modestly, and wore long cloaks. The sit-ins, marches, and street protests didn't come till later.

In the chill of the early morning, Jane McDonald squats on the sidewalk in front of Alliant Techsystems, the largest munitions manufacturer in the nation, and sets up her usual display. She lights a candle and affixes a poster next to a small plastic leg--a child's prosthesis. Nearby stands the three-foot-high bombshell casing her sister Brigid hauls around in her car for these weekly protests. Two other McDonald sisters, Kate and Rita, are also among the clutch of about 30 people, most of them gray-haired, waving signs and chanting. "Peace, conversion without loss of jobs!" they shout in staccato bursts, admonishing the company to stop making land mines and bombs and "convert" to nonlethal products.

As Alliant employees pass by on their way from the parking lot to the company's squat Hopkins headquarters, Jane greets each one. "Good morning," she says, brushing back her white hair and fixing a smile on her gently wrinkled face. The workers usually ignore her, but today a stern-looking man in a business suit kicks the prosthesis into the street as he walks by. Jane chases after him. "I've never seen such lack of respect," she scolds him. "Don't you know this is a prosthesis a child has to wear because of what you make in that building?" The man turns to face her. "You're a moron," he hisses. "God have mercy on you," she replies as he walks on.

It's not an idle phrase. Jane and her sisters, who range in age from 63 to 75, have something of a special relationship with God. More than 40 years ago Jane, Brigid, Kate, and Rita McDonald donned virginal wedding dresses, marched down a chapel aisle, and promised themselves to God. As members of the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, they committed their lives to the order's three-centuries-old mission: hospital work, direction of orphanages, visitation of the sick and poor, and instruction of young girls.

For the first several decades of their life in the convent, the sisters lived a semi-cloistered existence, dressing in habits and teaching at Catholic schools or working at Catholic hospitals and orphanages. But beginning in the early 1980s, their evolving spiritual beliefs led them to join another group, Women Against Military Madness (WAMM). They've been on the front lines of the Twin Cities' protest community ever since, enduring everything from verbal abuse and threats to arrest and imprisonment. Over the past 17 years, in addition to protesting outside the corporate headquarters of local weapons makers, the four sisters have blocked the doors to the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, rallied in opposition to the Gulf War, participated in "die-ins" in front of the Pentagon, marched into the U.S. Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, and even staked out the steps of the St. Paul Cathedral. And they've never backed down, even when their beliefs publicly pitted them against family members and their own church.

"They're all like Irish elves," explains 67-year-old Marv Davidov, the elder statesman of Minnesota protesting. "They're youthful and have an interior life. They're powerful women who went through a great transformation and liberated themselves."

Adds Eric Skoglund, who at 34 is one of the youngest members of the Alliant protesting crew: "I sort of use the nuns as PR. When I discuss that we have half a dozen nuns with my friends, they say: 'I wouldn't mind getting arrested with the nuns.' There's sort of a mythical feeling towards nuns. It almost seems like something from the past."

 

The first time I met the McDonald sisters, Jane was pounding on her drum, Kate was reading prayers for a new world order, Rita was standing over a chalk silhouette of a land-mine victim, and Brigid was singing to the tune of "My Darling Clementine": Dear Alliant, we're defiant/ We'll be back with many friends/It's like David and Goliath/And you know how that one ends!"

At first it was hard to tell the sisters apart, what with their short, slight frames, gray hair, and brassy alto voices. But in watching them at work over the course of a year, I've come to see them as four very different women. At age 63, Jane is the youngest of the four. She cries easily, and has been known to burst into tears when she hears about an animal that has been mistreated. Her belief system borrows from Wicca and Native American religions, and she's a grandmother to neighborhood children and stray cats. Brigid, three years older than Jane, is the most spirited of the group, far more prone to laughter than to tears. Though she idolizes Luciano Pavarotti, she prefers bluegrass to opera. Kate, who is 69, favors oversize glasses and outfits that give her the look of a prim but fashion-conscious Catholic schoolmarm. For the past two decades, she has worked with homeless and abused women. Rita, age 75, could easily pass for the baby in the group. She is forthright about her views and is willing to take on anyone she believes is wrong (she has even gone so far as to chastise a judge in open court). She also loves to dance at weddings and has been known to break into an Irish jig while cleaning house.

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