DUBUQUE, Iowa, June 20 — In all their years as Franciscan nuns, the Hennessey sisters have led lives of intentional simplicity: simple food, simple dress, simple quarters.
Now they are about to abandon the simple life in a convent for the austere life in a prison. Sister Dorothy Marie Hennessey, who is 88, and Sister Gwen L. Hennessey, who is 68, have been sentenced to six months each in a federal prison — the maximum penalty — for trespassing at a United States military school that trains Latin American soldiers.
The judge, federal Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth, offered Sister Dorothy Marie six months' house arrest in the convent instead of a prison term, but she refused. "I'm not an invalid," she said. "I'd like to have the same sentence as the rest."
Sister Dorothy Marie Hennessey, left, and Sister Gwen L. Hennessey will serve six months in prison for trespassing. Sister Dorothy Marie, who is 88, rejected a judge's offer to serve her sentence under house arrest. (Mark Hirsch for The New York Times )
Tiny and stooped as Mother Teresa, Sister Dorothy Marie sports a button saying, "Stand Up for Peace in Central America." The button is a keepsake from the 1980's, when devastating wars stoked by United States money and weapons embroiled El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.
The 15 Hennessey siblings — Sister Dorothy Marie is the oldest — grew up on an Iowa farm. Sister Gwen said she did not know where Central America was until their brother Ron, a Maryknoll priest, was assigned to Guatemala as a missionary in the 1960's. Father Ron Hennessey wrote letters to his family. In the 1980's his letters described Mayan Indians in his parish being terrorized and killed by Guatemalan military squads. "Help stop this madness," he wrote. By then, Father Ron had befriended Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, and when the Archbishop was assassinated, Father Ron was at the funeral in the cathedral when the Salvadoran military fired into the mourners.
The Central American wars smoldered to an end by 1990, just about the time that another Maryknoll priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, started leading small groups of protesters to the gates of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. They demanded that the Army close the school.
The protesters point to trials and investigations that concluded that the school's graduates participated in atrocities, including the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the massacre of an estimated 800 Salvadorans in and around the village of El Mozote, El Salvador. Among the school's graduates are Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama, Raoul Cedras of Haiti and the late Roberto d'Aubuisson of El Salvador, all connected to human rights abuses in their countries.
Maj. Milton F. Mariani, an Army public affairs officer at the school, said: "Over the 54 years that the School of the Americas was open, 61,000 students came through its classrooms. There are some unfortunately that came through here for what could have been a two-week or yearlong course, that went on years later to commit crimes against the societies of their countries.
"That is a fact," Major Mariani said. "But it is not because of the training they received at the School of the Americas, but in spite of the training they received here."
The protests grew until last Nov. 19, when more than 8,000 people massed in a cold rain outside Fort Benning. The Hennessey sisters were among about 3,500 people who trespassed onto the base in a mock funeral procession, carrying crosses. Sister Gwen's cross bore the name of a 4-year-old said to have been killed in El Mozote. They recited the names of the dead, planted the crosses in the grass and were herded into buses to be fingerprinted and processed.
They expected to be released, as in previous years, with a "ban and bar" letter warning them to stay off the base. But the protesters were surprised when 26 among them who already had "ban and bar" letters were charged and prosecuted, most for "illegal re-entry onto a United States military reservation."
In December, a month after the protest, the Army did close the school. In January, the Department of Defense reopened it under another name: the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. A bipartisan group of members of Congress has proposed House Resolution 1810, which calls for closing the school for good.
Together, the Hennessey sisters have logged decades as peace campaigners. Sister Dorothy Marie walked across the United States to protest against the cold war with Russia. Sister Gwen carried picket signs against nuclear weapons. But the only time they have been incarcerated was when Sister Gwen did a few hours in a county jail for a sit-in at Senator Charles E. Grassley's office to protest American aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
The sisters have not been told where or when to report, but they expect it to be soon, in Pekin, Ill., the closest federal penitentiary to their convent in Iowa. Of the 26 other protesters — including two other nuns, both in their 70's, a Baptist, a Mormon and two Jews — three are serving sentences in Georgia.
As the Hennesseys walk through their convent now, other nuns in their order, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family of Dubuque, offer prayers and blessings.
"Aren't you a little bit worried?" said 103-year-old Sister DeVota Rensch, reclining in her room, her knotted fingers entwined in a rosary.
"We have to take it all in stride," Sister Gwen said. "Pray for us." In her narrow room, under an icon of Archbishop Romero, Sister Gwen was reading a book sent by a well- wisher, "How to Survive a Federal Prison Camp: A Guidebook for Those Caught Up in the System."
Sister Gwen will leave her job caring for nuns with Alzheimer's disease at the convent. Sister Dorothy Marie will not finish assembling the letters of her brother Ron, who died of a heart attack in 1999 after 34 years in Central America.
She cannot bring the papers to prison. "They said the only thing you can take into prison with you is your glasses," Sister Dorothy Marie said, "but I hope they let me keep my hearing aids."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company