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.

By 8:00 a.m. the Alliant protesters have reconvened at the Baker's Square restaurant a block from the corporate headquarters, where they push together several tables and order breakfast and pots of coffee. One woman has nearly covered herself in buttons and the others take turns inspecting her collection the way travelers might admire a steamer trunk plastered with decals. "When I die," Jane leans over and whispers, "I want my casket decorated with stickers of all the causes I've been involved in."

Brigid orders apple pie for breakfast, but when she tries to encourage Jane to eat, her sister shakes her head and holds her mug of coffee to her chest. She's still upset about her confrontation with the man at the plant, and disturbed at how angry he made her feel. "That's twice someone has kicked the protest signs or the little prosthesis," she grumbles. "The first time it happened, a man kicked it and said, 'Get this shit out of here!' It just goes to your soul."

In her bright green pullover with the collar turned up and two scarves draped around her neck, Jane looks as if she'd stepped out of a United Colors of Benetton catalog. The sweatshirt is from the Native American prayer lodge where she worships every Saturday. Jane's soft white hair is pulled back to reveal dangly dream-catcher earrings. She wears silver rings on her short fingers and bangles on her arms. "We come here for our sake, too," she says, gazing around the room. "What motivates me is this beloved community. You get nourished by other people's courage and inspiration. In my own soul, I have to come."

Brigid nods. "As long as I can have fun while I'm doing this, I can keep on going. As someone said: 'If I can't dance, I won't be in your revolution,'" she adds, quoting Emma Goldman.

The two women brighten at the approach of a slump-shouldered man with bushy white hair beneath a crumpled hat and an overgrown mustache: Marv Davidov. "And here comes our comrade!" Brigid says.

Davidov looks at the tape recorder on the table. "It's all bullshit," he snarls in a voice made gravelly by decades of smoking.

"That's right. That's the degree behind our name: B.S.," Jane retorts. "Everything I learned, I learned from you."

"Yeah, well, it's all fucking lies," Davidov says. "I got a foul mouth," he adds. "Like Brigid." Displaying a toothy grin, he saunters off. The sisters wait until he is out of earshot.

"We have to do some bleeps on there," Jane says, pointing to the recorder. "I do not like that kind of language," Brigid concurs, her lips pursed. "I think he knows that," Jane retorts. "That's why he does it--to get our Irish up."

 

The sisters grew up in the midst of the Depression on a 160-acre dairy farm in Watertown, about 35 miles west of Minneapolis. Kenneth and Margaret McDonald were devout Catholics, and devout DFLers. At dinner, the sisters recall, the family talked politics between mouthfuls of pot roast and potatoes. When the meal was over, Kenneth McDonald would tell his 11 children, "Get down on your prayer handles," and they would kneel and pray the rosary together.

Milk prices were so low at the time that the family's herd of Holsteins wasn't very lucrative. But like most farm families at the time, the McDonalds managed to survive by being self-sufficient: They grew their own vegetables and feed, and Kenneth McDonald, an avid hunter, put meat on the table by shooting wild game. Still, in order to make ends meet, the older children were often sent to live with relatives. Brigid lived with her aunt and uncle for a while. Brother K.J., who would later become a state representative, was raised by another aunt and uncle who lived a mile away.

Kenneth McDonald had fought in France during World War I, and although he was critical of the army's inefficiency, he raised his children to believe in the "just war theory," the notion that war was necessary to defend the nation and maintain a democracy. In the early 1940s, as the United States prepared to enter World War II, the older McDonald children were eager to get involved. When Margaret, the eldest, graduated from high school in 1941, she went to work in Minneapolis welding military planes; she would later join the navy's WAVES (Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Service). Rita moved to Minneapolis and got a job cleaning and vacuuming B-25 bombers. Eventually all the McDonald boys would serve in the armed forces.

In 1946, 22-year-old Rita shocked her family when she announced her intention to join a convent. She wanted to pursue nursing as a profession, and a lot of nurses were religious sisters. The closest convent was the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, which ran six hospitals, two orphanages, and a home for unwed mothers, as well as the College of St. Catherine and nearly 100 parochial schools.

In joining the church's family, Rita was literally leaving her own; upon entering the convent, she was required to stop using her given name and take on another one. She asked her mother superior for the name Sister Kenneth. The consequences of the cloistered life were not lost on her younger sisters: Jane, who was 11 at the time, says the girls cried inconsolably when Rita left. "It was like she was going to Siberia," she remembers. "There were so many restrictions. She couldn't come home for five years. It was a real loss."

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