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.

Once a month, though, the family would pile into the family car and drive to St. Paul to visit Rita. To the young McDonald girls, their older sister seemed to have a fascinating and important life. As the years passed, four of them would follow Rita into the order. First came Kate, who had moved to Los Angeles after attending a yearlong program at a local business college. In 1950 she was living with two friends, working for the health department, and dating a man who wanted to marry her, when she decided she wanted to come back to Minnesota and enter the convent.

"Rita had already joined, and it seemed like she was doing something worthwhile," Kate says.

Brigid was next, joining the Sisters of St. Joseph at age 20 after working at a bank and as a nurse's aide. "Religious life seemed like a meaningful life, so I started thinking I'd try it out," she says now. "I guess I thought a missionary was a good thing to be--that was kind of the highest thing you could be. If you wanted to do any kind of church work, this was it."

The McDonald sisters insist they never talked with each other or with their priest about becoming nuns. "Our pastor didn't care for the sister vocation: 'Oh, they'll work you to death,' was his take," Brigid recalls. "It wasn't pushed from the church or parish side, either. It was just an idea for me."

In the fall after her high school graduation in 1954, when Jane joined her sisters, their father was distraught. "This is worse than the army," she recalls him saying. "The army took my sons and the convent is taking my daughters."

 

At the convent, after spending nearly three years in the novitiate learning theology and prayers, each sister received a mission. Rita was sent to the order's orphanage. Kate was assigned to hospital work. Brigid was told to teach first grade, and Jane became a cook.

By the late 1960s, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church was in the grip of a reform movement. Sisters were no longer required to wear the traditional long habit. Religious orders had to modernize and refocus their missions. It was during this time that the Sisters of St. Joseph, like many orders, began shifting from running institutions such as hospitals and colleges to providing social services for the poor. The McDonald sisters began working in the order's newly established shelters, runaway centers, nursing homes, and transitional housing for the chemically dependent, and they taught English to Laotian and Vietnamese immigrants. They also slowly began questioning what was going on outside their cloistered world.

Jane's attitude about the need for war began to change during the conflict in Vietnam. She recalls being invited by the school's history teacher to hear a guest speaker, a peace activist. "She just came into that classroom and into my life that day," Jane says of that experience. "I remember her talking about the economy and the large piece of the pie that goes to military financing, and that just seared my soul. That was my spiritual radical awakening."

Still, it would be years until Jane spoke openly of her new conviction. The turning point came in 1969, when her 18-year-old nephew, fearing he was about to be drafted, asked her what she thought about Vietnam. He wanted to become a conscientious objector. "I was in such a different place," she recalls. " It was a 180-degree turn to sit down with him and say: 'Our prayer and hope is that you do not go to war.'"

Not long afterward, Jane attended her first protest, outside the Minneapolis Federal Building. She wasn't ready to hold signs or shout slogans; instead she made cupcakes decorated with the Stars and Stripes and handed them out to her fellow protesters. After that, she recalls sporadically marching in street protests denouncing the draft.

Brigid's induction into the peace movement came as a result of her theology studies. For several summers in the early 1970s, she attended a Catholic college in Wisconsin where she heard teachers emphasizing Liberation Theology, a new doctrine that focused on the struggles of the poor and encouraged religious people to champion nonviolent resistance. "I had my theology stretched," she explains. "We were taught that the church was the living people, not the structure and not the doctrine. And that changed everything for me."

In 1974 she joined a sit-down on the railroad tracks outside New Brighton, where a group of peace activists led by Marv Davidov were trying to stop a munitions train from leaving a Honeywell plant there. At first, Brigid remembers, she felt foolish sitting on the tracks. But after listening to the other protesters, she realized that this was a way of life for people who had gone "all the way for peace."

When the train didn't come that day, Brigid was convinced the demonstrators had stopped it. But it would be several years before she took part in another protest. "I didn't start out in that radical way," she says today. "You just kind of gradually got into it."

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