Sister Ardeth Platte, OP, and Sister Carol Gilbert, OP, donated their collection of newspaper clippings, correspondence, and court documents to DePaul University Special Collections and Archives in multiple accessions. Originally, these materials were integrated into the Collection on Peace Activism. However, the size of the most recent donation, given in 2018, necessitates a distinct archival collection which will be known as the Ardeth Platte papers. Special Collections and Archives anticipates the newly processed collection will be available to researchers by summer 2022. I am in the midst of organizing the materials and found the story of Platte, Gilbert, and their friend and colleague, Sister Jackie Hudson, OP, a perfect fit for this month’s blog post in which we celebrate Women’s History Month and Catholic Sisters Week, March 8-14, 2022.
To live in the United States as an anti-war and nuclear weapons activist is a constant battle because those who value peace are at odds with a government that engages in war and military conflict around the world. Three Dominican nuns dedicated their lives to this fight. Jackie Hudson (1934-2011), Ardeth Platte (1936-2020), and Carol Gilbert (b. 1947) performed numerous non-violent anti-war peace actions as part of the Plowshares movement. They did not shy away from direct action to convey their beliefs. One of their most consistent and symbolic acts was breaking into military bases to write messages of disarmament in their blood on sites of weapon manufacturing to represent the lives lost in war.
Based in Michigan, Hudson, Platte, and Gilbert began their careers as educators and teachers. They were all members of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids; Hudson joined in 1952, Platte in 1954, and Gilbert in 1965. Platte was the principal of an inner-city high school which allowed her the resources to open The Alternative Education program for those pursuing their GED. She also established the Home for Peace and Justice in Saginaw in 1981, which was a gathering place for discussions about societal issues through a peacemaking lens. She was a city council member in Saginaw, Michigan for 12 years as well as an educator. Hudson was a music teacher in Catholic schools, but left after 27 years to be a piano tuner which allowed her more flexibility to be an activist. Hudson was a regional representative for the National Assembly of Women Religious (NAWR), a group of “religious feminist women committed to the prophetic tasks of giving witness, raising awareness, and engaging in public action for the achievement of justice.” (The Grand Rapids Press, Saturday, December 5, 1981). Gilbert was a junior high teacher and worked at the Home of Peace and Justice with Platte. She was outspoken against American involvement in Nicaragua. She twice visited the country through Witness for Peace to be in community with those who were experiencing the negative impacts of the American government. Interestingly, Gilbert first met Platte when she was a student in high school and Platte was her teacher.
A significant fight they were involved in was against the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan. It was just under two hours away from their home in Saginaw. They made their presence known consistently throughout the years by organizing protests and public demonstrations to spread their anti-nuclear message. Gilbert and Platte even moved to Oscada so that they could have more say as citizens of the town rather than outsiders. During their protests they would oftentimes be arrested and charged, but that did not deter them. Wurthsmith Air Force Base finally closed in 1993 with the help of their vocal opposition in public forums even though they faced severe consequences. Gilbert stated, “I don’t fear going to prison, I don’t fear loss of freedom to move about, I don’t even fear death. The fear that fills me is not having lived hard enough, deep enough, or sweet enough with the gifts that God had given me” (Conviction 2006).
Hudson, Platte, and Gilbert received many awards throughout their lives for their activism. Platte was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999 after being a candidate a couple of times. All three were honored with the Nuclear-Free Future Award in 2003 at the World Uranium Hearing in Munich, Germany. Unfortunately, they were in prison at the time for breaking into Minuteman Silo III in Colorado, so their award was accepted on their behalf by Sister Diane Zerfas, OP. As many times as they were praised, they were also criticized for their peace actions and opinions. Press coverage documented a variety of reactions to their activism. Articles in the Catholic press expressed the sentiment that they were too liberal and feminist; that they should be focusing on feeding the hungry instead of protesting on the streets. In fact the nuns had been balancing both for decades. They were also critical of Pope John Paul II’s stance on the involvement of women religious in politics, and these statements received a negative response. In 2008, they were even placed on the National WatchList and were labeled as terrorists by the Maryland State Police for their activism.
Hudson, Platte, and Gilbert all served prison sentences for their civil disobedience peace actions. They used their time in prison for reflection yet still maintained a strong connection with their communities. Gilbert reflected in 1986 from the Federal Correctional Institution in Alderson, West Virginia; she wrote, “Non-violence and the call to peace and justice is not something one takes off and on like a piece of clothing. It is a way of life. How we live the call is different for everyone…Know that I treasure your letters and wish I could respond personally to each of them.” (December 11, 1986). The three nuns along with six other demonstrators had a Hiroshima Day protest at Wurtsmith Air Force Base and were arrested. They understood that prison time was a part of their experience. Hudson said to The Grand Rapids Press that “It’s nothing that I look forward to. But I guess I would say that if it must be, then I am ready for it. If that’s the price, then I’m ready for it.”(December 1, 1987). Their longest sentence was for their peace action at the Minuteman Missile Silo III in Colorado. They cut the chain to the military base to paint a cross in their blood and hammer into the silo. For this act, Platte served 41 months in Connecticut, Gilbert 33 in West Virginia, and Hudson 31 in California.
The strength to oppose systems of authority requires an inner sense of peace and conviction that may come in the form of a faith-based practice, a personal code of ethics and morals, or a deep understanding of the human dignity in everyone. Hudson, Platte, and Gilbert recognized the power their actions would make – three Catholic nuns arrested for protesting war strikes a memorable image. In their work for global peace, these Dominican nuns drew upon their Catholic faith, their sense of justice, and their community of fellow activists to renew their convictions. These Catholic sisters extended their work beyond the walls of Catholic parishes and schools, serving their communities and placing themselves in unconventional sites to call attention to the injustice of war.