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Federal Judge Makes World Safer, Sends Elderly Nuns To Jail
Published on Thursday, June 14, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Federal Judge Makes World Safer, Sends Elderly Nuns To Jail
by Stephanie Salter
IT MIGHT be fine and dandy with some of you that the government of the United States has thrown the book at an 88-year-old nun and her 68-year-old kid sister, who is also a nun. Then again, maybe you don't even know about this.

Last month, in Columbus, Ga., U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth apparently decided to make the world safe from religious women of conscience who peacefully trespass on federal property -- specifically, the military training facility at Fort Benning formerly known as the School of the Americas:

He sentenced Franciscan nun Dorothy Hennessey, 88, and her younger sister, Gwen, 68, who is also a Franciscan nun, to six months each in federal prison -- the maximum possible penalty.

I'd rather not be singled out. If you wouldn't mind, I would just as soon have the same (sentence) as the others

Since 1990, when Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois and a handful of other protesters showed up at the gates of the school (recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), it has been targeted by tens of thousands of demonstrators. Every October, adults, students and little kids gather at the entrance to Fort Benning to decry the school's deadly role in Latin American politics and to demand its closure.

Some of the protesters -- more each year -- "cross the line" and trespass onto the grounds. Usually, they carry coffins and name placards that represent the people who've died at the hands of SOA graduates.

The Hennessey sisters were among several thousand who crossed the line last October and got arrested. So were two other nuns from different orders -- Elizabeth Anne McKenzie from the Sisters of St. Joseph and Miriam Spencer from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. Faircloth slapped them with the maximum six months in prison, too. McKenzie is 71, Spencer, 75.

Proving that he is an interdenominational kind of guy, Faircloth also sent a Quaker couple from Ohio -- Bill Houston, 72, and Hazel Tulecke, 77 -- to federal prison. Like the nuns, Houston got the max, but Tulecke received a break: only three months.

Altogether, 26 peaceful trespassers were sentenced by the judge. Most (21) got the max, but two got off with a few years probation. One man from Mississippi, Steve Jacobs, received two 6-month sentences.

Merciful magistrate that he is, Faircloth told Gwen Hennessey that she didn't have to report to the federal pen at Pekin, Ill. -- the nearest prison to her order's Dubuque, Iowa, motherhouse -- until after she celebrates the 50th anniversary of taking her vows.

He also offered the older Dorothy the option of serving her sentence under "motherhouse arrest" in Dubuque. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Sister Dorothy told the judge, "No thanks" because she is not an invalid and wanted to be treated the same as her 25 co-defendants.

Two of 15 Hennessey siblings, Dorothy and Gwen told the Reporter that their peaceful civil disobedience was a kind of activist memorial to their late brother, Franciscan friar Ron Hennessey. He served for 34 years as a missionary in Latin America and was friends with Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero's 1980 assassination was master-minded by graduates of the School of the Americas.

Like their fellow convicts, the Hennessey sisters said they weren't looking forward to jail, but they planned to make the best of it.

Said Dorothy: "If there's time left after we get out we might want to go into prison ministry."

Just knowing that those two women will be off the street for six months should really make us all sleep better at night, don't you think?

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


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