Sister, sister: Nuns find their calling as peace activists

Published 5:19 am Friday, March 22, 2019

Every Wednesday evening about dinner time, on the Lake Street/Marshall Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi between Minneapolis /St Paul, you’ll find activists gathered for a peace vigil. The 20th anniversary of this event is from 5 to 6 p.m. April 24.

Among those gathered, many with signs and/or wearing buttons declaring their stand, you’ll probably find at least one of the McDonald sisters, Rita, Kate, Brigid and Jane. The sisters are four of 11 children who grew up during the Great Depression on a dairy farm in Carver County, Minnesota. They went on to become Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to nursing, social work, teaching and peace activism.

But they were never typical nuns. They don’t go to Mass every day and attend many other kinds of services. They don’t use the title, “Sister.” They wear colorful casual clothing including T-shirts with peace symbols on the front and jackets with buttons that proclaim “Feed Children, Starve War” or “Peace is Patriotic.”

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They have been arrested countless times while marching for peace and have been fined more times than they remember. It all began with Jane’s resistance to the Viet Nam War in 1969. By the early 80’s, Brigid, Kate and Rita had also become committed to protesting against not only acts of war, but also other forms of violence and prejudice.

The Honeywell Project, a long-term action group dedicated to getting the huge defense contractor out of the armaments business, and the Alliant Tech protesters are just two of the groups supported by the McDonald Sisters.

They have been active members of WAMM, Women Against Military Madness, founded by Minnesota women in 1982. The sisters felt right at home in a group that opposes nuclear arms and US interventions in foreign political conflicts. Just like the McDonald sisters, WAMM continues to seek peace and justice throughout the world.

Though the sisters have been retired from their professional careers for several years, they continue to share their beliefs through ongoing public activism, presentations in schools, colleges, churches, service clubs and community groups. They even sing!

Music was one way the big family entertained themselves on the farm. One of their brothers said that when the sisters came home for family celebrations, they were always “the life of the party!”

And as they carried their message to others, the four sisters incorporated old familiar tunes with word changes to inspire their listeners. In 2009, during a workshop with sixth through eighth graders at Southside School in Minneapolis, a documentary was created. Students filmed and interviewed the sisters, at their school and at rallies. One of the sisters announces at the beginning that the film is rated “R for rebellion!” Brigid tells of being arrested for civil disobedience. She calls it “civil obedience” because she believes that speaking out is her patriotic duty. The film closes with the kids and the sisters singing a song they are composing on the spot; you can even hear Jane harmonizing!

Kate speaks for all of the sisters when she says, in Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns, “I can’t imagine getting up in the morning and not having some driving force that really fits in with my belief system.”

Now, you can celebrate the McDonald Sisters’ story of love and compassion and their delightful Irish humor. The well-regarded History Theater in St Paul will present the play, Sisters of Peace from March 23 to April 14, 2019. For more information and tickets go to the History Theater’s website at