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.

"It has never been our intent to prevent any of the demonstrations or demonstrators to gather and express their opinions," says Alliant public-affairs director Rod Bitz, hastening to add that the land mines his company manufactures are "smart mines" equipped with a "self-destruct time limit" of 15 days and that as far as anyone knows, no civilian has ever been killed by one. "We recognize the right to free speech. I think one of the ironies here is that it's precisely a strong national defense that protects our democracy and preserves the right to free speech."

A month ago, on April 14, the protesters tested the limits of free speech one more time. That day the ranks of the regular Wednesday vigil swelled to about 100. Their aim: to draw attention to the fact that Alliant manufactures ammunition used by the U.S. military in its air strikes against Serbia. Though the protest leaders usually schedule their trespassing demonstrations at Alliant well in advance, in this instance they made the decision overnight. As a result, protesters and police alike showed up unprepared. Many of the demonstrators were unaware that an attempt would be made to block the doors of the company; Hopkins police had to scramble to deploy all on-duty officers to the scene. In all, 28 demonstrators were arrested, Jane McDonald among them.

Last week Assistant City Attorney Wynn Curtiss waived the protesters' scheduled arraignments and set a pretrial hearing for June 30. They face misdemeanor trespassing charges, which carry a maximum of 90 days in jail and/or a $700 fine. Curtiss says he hasn't decided whether he'll pursue the cases, especially given that the last time he took the demonstrators to trial, in September of 1997, he lost. (At one point during that proceeding, which lasted several days, Curtiss told the jury, "This is not exactly what I had in mind--prosecuting nuns.")

 

By the time the McDonald sisters embarked on their mission of protesting, Kenneth McDonald had passed away. The rest of the family, though, was relatively unfazed by the sisters' very public activities. "They were always rebels and stood up for what they believed in," remembers Margaret Borer, age 77, the oldest McDonald sister. Their mother, also named Margaret, seemed only slightly embarrassed by her daughters' antics, Kate recalls, and seemed most irked at their predilection for inserting feminine pronouns in biblical passages.

Whereas Rita, Jane, Kate, and Brigid (and even Margaret, on occasion) take to the streets to voice their opposition to war, their brothers are comparatively pro-military. K.J., who served in the state Legislature from 1976 until 1990, is a former district commander of the American Legion and a member of the VFW, the Lions Club, the Christian Anti-Communists Crusade, and the Rod and Gun Club.

"I'm probably a bigger mouth, a little more articulate than they are, and [have] a little more braggadocio," explains the 68-year-old former state representative, who is now semiretired and running a photography studio in Delano with his son Joseph. "There's less and less exchange on these lines over the last few years because it probably appears on both sides to be a fruitless effort to try to change each other's opinions. I do try to encourage them to look at our side and maybe be a little more objective. But we don't allow it to become a bitter argument in any way that would diminish our love and friendship."

An air force photographer during the Korean War, K.J. took pictures of his sisters when they were allowed to leave the convent to visit the McDonald farm. "I have a picture of all four of them in their habits, aiming shotguns up in the sky as if they were going duck hunting," he says. "They cringe when they look at that one."

In 1990, a profile of the sisters in the Carver County News provoked a cousin to write a letter to the editor in which he chastised the sisters for opposing land mines because of the danger they posed to children, while refusing to protest abortion clinics. (Though the McDonald sisters are troubled by abortion, they feel that reproductive freedom is crucial.)

"In a way, it hurt," Kate says of the letter. "But we kind of understand [our male relatives] by now. We remember that some of them are staunch Rush Limbaugh-type men and we really don't take it personally."

Conservative Catholics have challenged the McDonald sisters for their public stand, and some have questioned how they can be nuns and yet regularly break the law. But despite the cliché equating the law-abiding citizen with the good Christian, there's a long Christian tradition of challenging authorities and disobeying laws that are viewed as unjust, explains Father David Smith, director of the justice and peace studies program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "A lot of the sisters who are protesting started out their life presuming that the government knew what it was doing," says Smith. "At some point in their life, they came to an experience that started to change their minds."

The sisters, he goes on, are in the minority in terms of the commitment they've made. "They are supported by their religious community, but even some of their sisters would consider what they're doing as extreme. There's a range of feelings. In America religion is viewed as something private. To be a fully active Catholic, it has to involve all their public life."

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