By Kathy Schmugge
CHAPIN — Longtime peace activists, Sisters Gwen and Dorothy Hennessey, ages 70 and 89 respectively, have found that witnessing to peace has its price.
In July 2001, the Franciscan sisters, who are also biological sisters, once again slept under the same roof for six months, but they were not at their home. They were behind bars inside a federal prison.
Their crime was trespassing during an annual protest at the School of the Americas, a U.S. Army base located in Fort Benning, Ga.
The sisters came to Columbia to share their experience at Columbia College and Our Lady of the Hills Oct. 23. During their talk at the church, Sister Gwen, the oldest of 15 children, spoke about their parents and their simple witness to the faith while managing a farm in Ohio. Their brother, Ron, also followed the call to religious life, he was a Maryknoll priest who ministered in Central America.
Before their arrest, Sister Gwen was working with the poor and Alzheimer’s patients. Sister Dorothy was ministering to people with AIDS. The judge offered them a house arrest, but the sisters refused saying they wanted the same treatment others received for the crime.
“When you speak out, you are going to make some friends and some enemies,” warned Sister Gwen who credits her family for her outspoken personality. She spoke of her father who she remembered silently praying on his knees every day and her mother who did not preach but showed the family how to live by example.
“Even though we did not have much, my parents never refused anyone food or a place to stay. I guess you would have to blame them for the way we turned out,” said Sister Gwen with a smile.
The military base the sisters were protesting has been the center of controversy for some time. Most of those who attend come from Latin American countries in turmoil. Even after its name change to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and declaring its stated goal as “strengthening democracy, deepening the rule of law and honoring human rights,” some remain skeptical.
“Where there is smoke, there’s fire,” said Bruce Pearson, a Quaker who attended the sisters’ talk. He referred to the school’s many notorious graduates such as Manuel Noriega of Panama, Rios Montt of Guatemala and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia.
The sisters are convinced that atrocities are committed by graduates of the schools by the circumstantial evidence and the firsthand accounts of some missionaries. Those who defend the school say its purpose is to protect the people from governments or groups who commit crimes against humanity and to curtail drug activity. Its supporters feel the school should not be judged by past graduates, who become corrupt.
After more than two decades of debate, with little resolution between the two sides, the sisters proudly stand firm. They have been working tirelessly to get the school closed for many years and are a testimony to the fact that one is never too old to stand up for one’s convictions.
The sisters continue to give talks and even after imprisonment would not miss the annual protest.
“I admire what you are doing too,” Sister Dorothy said to one participant who spoke about her activities for peace. “It takes all of us to do something for things to change.”
For Julia Pearson, who has attended more than six protests, the march is a pilgrimage. “Our conversion is incomplete and continuous. I go every year to the school to renew my commitment to my faith.” While living in Ohio, Pearson shared in an intimate way the loss of a laywoman from her town who was killed in the El Mozote massacre.
“My action for the time being is prayer,” said Jennifer Chandler, a parishioner from Our Lady of the Hills.
In areas of justice and peace, these sisters have a fighting spirit worth imitating.
“If we can put out one fire anywhere, we can eventually put out many,” said Sister Gwen.
Such a statement uttered by an 89-year-old ailing nun can serve as a banner to show that one person can make a difference.