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 1980 a handful of St. Joseph sisters attended a week of anti-military protests and prayer outside the Pentagon. When they returned, they went to a local meeting at the Newman Center, the Catholic student center near the University of Minnesota, and announced they wanted to join the local peace movement.

A man in a floppy hat with a bushy mustache stood up in the audience. "How about Honeywell?" Marv Davidov asked. A week later Davidov, who had served time in a Mississippi prison for marching in civil rights protests in 1961, was up in the attic at the St. Joseph House of Hope orphanage plotting and planning protests with a dozen nuns.

Since 1968 Davidov's Honeywell Project had been protesting outside the company responsible for producing a number of military weapons, including the metal canisters for the lethal cluster bomb. Eager for new recruits, Davidov and his cohorts found that the sisters made perfect protesters: They were single women who didn't have children or husbands to monopolize their attention, and they didn't work at jobs from which they could be fired for becoming embroiled in controversy.

When the McDonald sisters first joined the Honeywell protesters, they stood on the sidewalks outside the company's South Minneapolis headquarters voicing encouragement to their colleagues who were attempting to block the doors. One by one, though, they became participants. Kate was the lone holdout. "I was kind of a coward," she remembers. "I really didn't think I'd ever get to the point that I would risk civil disobedience."

That changed in April 1984, albeit somewhat unintentionally. Police had arrested 577 protesters at a recent major Honeywell demonstration--the largest mass arrest ever in Minnesota--and organizers were anticipating another large turnout. Kate intended to slip away early to go to work, but as she walked to her car she was snagged by a police officer. Along with 48 fellow protesters, Kate was ushered onto a bus and taken into custody.

Brigid, who was also taken downtown, allegedly resisted arrest. "Defendant began screaming and creating a dangerous situation. She attempted to pinch and kick officer. Defendant was restrained with force," reads the incident report. Recalls Sister Marguerite Corcoran, who was also arrested that day: "They were manhandling Brigid. Her face hit the retaining wall. I just blanked out. This other policeman grabbed me and threw me up against the fence. He would keep pushing me. Then he started walking back and forth across my toes. And I kind of lost it and I stomped on his foot."

Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza later dismissed charges against 68 of the 256 protesters who were arrested that day, saying they had not actually been trespassing. But although Kate's charge was among those dismissed, she was hooked. "Once you got into it and could see what can come of it when you land before a judge--that was so profound," she explains. "It helped you realize why you were there. There was no question from then on that you would participate."

The protest organizers usually met with police before major Honeywell demonstrations. (Bouza, whose wife was among those arrested at several protests, provided coffee and doughnuts at the events). But now the McDonald sisters began planning their law-defying activities more carefully. They attended seminars at which protest organizers taught them how to commit civil disobedience, how to deal with being handcuffed, how to interact with police officers, and what to expect if they were brought to trial. "The other demonstrators made it clear that we had no business doing civil disobedience until it was a part of us and we knew what we were doing," says Kate.

Sometimes when they were arrested, officials would dismiss the charges, saying that putting hundreds of protesters on trial was a logistical nightmare. Other times the sisters were forced to go to court and take their chances. Though they were often found not guilty, says Rita, on a few occasions "the jury was out for a long time and came back with tears in their eyes and said we were guilty."

In one instance the judge gave the sisters a choice of either paying a fine or writing a ten-page article about why they protested against weapons-making. Another time they were sentenced to community service. "We just went to our daily jobs and wrote it up. It's already community service," says Jane.

 

In 1990 Honeywell spun off its weapons-manufacturing business into a new company called Alliant Techsystems. In recent years many former Honeywell Project activists have gathered for weekly vigils outside its doors as Alliant has become one of the chief targets of an international campaign to ban land mines. (The publicly held company reported $707 million in sales of its munitions and defense systems in fiscal 1998.)

For the most part, the relationship among Hopkins police, the protesters, and Alliant has been cordial. Protest leaders and police officers often banter before large demonstrations. The company has allowed the protesters to seek protection from the weather beneath the building's awning. Alliant officials--who have provided a vacant parking lot for demonstrators to park their cars and hold rallies--are aware that many of the protesters outside the bulletproof windows of their executives' offices are nuns.

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