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When lives of conviction lead to prison


Arom John the Baptist, who got into trouble when he criticized King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife and doing “many other evil things,” to the early apostles, who also seemed to have a propensity for offending state and religious authorities, to today’s protesters of government policies, getting thrown into prison for acting on one’s convictions is a recognizable thread that winds through the whole weave of the Christian story.

In the modern era, those who worked for civil rights, opposed the Vietnam War, took issue with the nuclear weapons buildup or worked against apartheid in South Africa often risked the threat of jail to dramatize a point.

Fr. Carl Kabat, an Oblate priest and anti-nuclear protester who has spent considerable time in prison for his activities, recently said, “The future monasteries of the Catholic church should be the prisons.”

Many of those who head to jail today in the United States because of actions that grew out of their religious convictions have an affinity for the life and writings of Dorothy Day (1897-1980), founder of the Catholic Worker movement who also was in and out of prison for her antiwar and pro-worker activities.

Then-Josephite Fr. Philip Berrigan and his brother, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, were among the first in the United States to provide the image of priests in prison garb when they were sentenced for burning draft records in 1968 in Catonsville, Md.

Since then, Philip, who eventually left the priesthood, has spent much of his life in prison for acts of civil disobedience in opposition to nuclear weapons and U.S. militarism. NCR correspondent Patrick O’Neill caught up with Berrigan at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., shortly after Christmas.

Franciscan Srs. Dorothy and Gwen Hennessey, who were sisters before they entered religious life, knew they would probably end up in jail when they decided to cross the line into Fort Benning, Ga., during a protest against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas.

Dorothy, 88, and Gwen, 69, were among 26 men and women who received sentences ranging from two years’ probation to a year in prison for their nonviolent protests calling for the closure of the training school for Latin American military officers. Graduates of the school -- now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- have been involved in human rights abuses throughout Latin America.

Dorothy was sentenced to six months in prison after declining the original sentence she was given: six months of “motherhouse arrest.” She said she wanted to receive the same treatment as her codefendents. Gwen was also sentenced to six months in prison.

The Hennessey sisters, who are members of the Franciscan community in Dubuque, Iowa, entered the federal correction institution in Pekin, Ill., July 17. Concern over Dorothy’s health precipitated her transfer in August to the Elm Street Residential Facility in Dubuque, where she stayed until Jan. 14. Gwen was released from the Pekin prison the same day.

Excerpts from their prison diaries, sent as letters to friends, follow.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002