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Jim Kenyon: Despite House Arrest, Vt. Activist’s Faith, Beliefs Remain Unshakeable

  • "The garden has never looked so good with me being on house arrest," said Catholic peace activist Martha Hennessy, 62, as she worked in the vegetable gardens outside her Weathersfield, Vt., home Tuesday, July 3, 2018. While awaiting trial on federal charges for entering the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia last April to protest the nuclear missile carrying submarines housed there, Hennessy is restricted to her home and the surrounding gardens, except for a scheduled daily walk to the mailbox, two masses at St. Mary's in Springfield each week, and occasional trips to New York City where she volunteers at Maryhouse Catholic Worker. She faces the possibility of serving more than 20 years in jail. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After a splash of cold water to wash off the sweat from a morning working in the garden, Martha Hennessy dries her face in her Weathersfield, Vt., home, Tuesday, July 3, 2018. Hennessy is a former occupational therapist, and she said she grows 70 percent of her own food. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Martha Hennessy wears an ankle bracelet at her home in Weathersfield, Vt., Tuesday, July 3, 2018, that tracks her movements while under house arrest for entering the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia in April without permission to protest nuclear weapons. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Martha Hennessy is the granddaughter of social activist and founder of the 'Catholic Worker' newspaper Dorothy Day. While working in her office in her Weathersfield, Vt., home, Tuesday, July 3, 2018, Hennessy is reflected in a portrait of her grandmother taken by photographer Richard Avedon. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, July 07, 2018

With the Upper Valley in the grips of an extended heat wave, Martha Hennessy stayed home while her husband and grandchildren cooled off a couple of miles away at Stoughton Pond in Perkinsville on a recent afternoon.

Missing out on the family fun wasn’t her choice.

Hennessy, 62, has been under “house arrest” since late May when the federal government tethered an electronic monitoring bracelet to her left ankle. Under bail conditions set by a U.S District Court judge in Georgia, Hennessy can’t leave her property on Cady Hill Road in Weathersfield without the government’s permission. She’s not even allowed outdoors between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Once a day — at 3:15 p.m. — she’s allowed to walk to the end of her driveway to the mailbox across the road. Twice a week, she can attend services at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Springfield, Vt. — providing she wears her “federal jewelry.”

On the bright side, with all the time Hennessy is spending around the house this summer, her vegetable and flower gardens have never looked better.

What’s this all about?

The best place to start is probably with federal court documents, which provide details of Hennessy’s arrest:

With darkness settling in on April 4, Hennessy and six other Catholic peace activists crept undetected onto the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, a 17,000-acre installation in southeastern Georgia, after cutting the padlock on a perimeter fence gate. They then climbed through holes they cut in the concertina wire and chain-link fence to reach a “restricted area” of the world’s largest nuclear submarine base.

Inside the compound, they hung banners opposing nuclear weapons and posted an “indictment” charging that the U.S. government’s “ongoing building and maintenance of Trident submarines and ballistic missile systems constitute war crimes.”

A Kings Bay spokesman told The Washington Post the seven protesters also smeared what appeared to be red paint on buildings and signs around the base before they were apprehended without incident. No injuries were reported and no military personnel or “assets” were at risk, the spokesman said.

According to a statement released by fellow activists, the four men and three women, all between the ages of 55 and 78, had made it onto the base “carrying hammers and baby bottles of their own blood.” (It’s unclear whether the fluid smeared around the base was blood or red paint.) Their actions were intended to follow the prophet Isaiah’s command to “beat swords into plowshares,” the statement read.

Hennessy belongs to what’s known as the Plowshares movement, which The New York Times described in 2015 as a “loose, mostly Christian group of pacifists that seeks the global elimination of nuclear arms.”

The Plowshares movement dates back to the 1980s. In 2012, Sister Megan Rice, an 82-year-old Catholic nun, and two male pacifists entered the U.S. nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in similar fashion to what the “Kings Bay Plowshares 7,” as the group has become known, did in Georgia.

Hennessy, who spent nearly two months in jail before getting out on bail, faces four federal charges. If convicted of all four, which range from trespass to conspiracy, she could spend more than 20 years in prison.

What is Hennessy, who grew up in Weathersfield and worked for 30 years as an occupational therapist in the Upper Valley, doing taking the anti-nuclear cause to such extremes?

For legal reasons, she was hesitant to talk in-depth about the events of April 4 when we sat down at her dining room table while her family was off swimming. But she acknowledges being at Kings Bay.

“I worked for 30 years, and I paid taxes,” she said. “I feel that I own a share of that base. I helped pay for it.”

Social activism runs in Hennessy’s blood.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement that goes back to the 1930s, was her maternal grandmother. Day, who died in 1980 at the age of 83, was a “saintly woman who gave her life to peace and to the poor,” the Times wrote in a 2011 editorial.

Day helped start the Catholic Worker newspaper that has long been a voice — although not always in step with the Catholic church’s hierarchy — for social justice.

Having read a bit about Day, I asked Hennessy what she thought her grandmother might have said about her “faith-based, nonviolent” acts of civil disobedience.

“She would be grateful that I’m trying to address issues of war and poverty,” Hennessy replied.

But breaking into a nuclear weapons site and defacing government property?

“Probably not,” Hennessy said.

Hennessy’s parents, who had nine children, moved to Weathersfield from New York in the late 1950s, when she was 2. At 14, she watched her then-20-year-old brother get shipped off to Vietnam. “Growing up with my grandmother, I understood war to be immoral and ineffective,” she said.

In 1979, Hennessy was among the demonstrators arrested while attempting to occupy the two nuclear power plants under construction in Seabrook, N.H.

Over the last 40 years, Hennessy’s penchant for civil disobedience has put her on the wrong side of the law numerous times. She’s been arrested during demonstrations against the Guantanamo Bay military prison and the U.S. government’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists.

Since World War II — and the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan — the “U.S. has not been held accountable for its war crimes,” she said.

Hennessey worked for a while as an occupational therapist at the VA medical center in White River Junction. She cared for veterans who went all the way back to World War II and others who recently had returned from Iraq.

“I saw the results of their trauma,” she said. “I saw what exposure to Agent Orange and other chemicals had done to their bodies and minds.”

Hennessy acknowledges that “following her conscience” has at times been hard on her family.

Hennessy and Steven Melanson, a carpenter and photographer, have been married for 38 years. She intentionally kept him in the dark about the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 so the feds couldn’t come after him for co-conspiracy.

After he returned from swimming with his grandchildren, Melanson talked candidly about his wife’s involvement with the Plowshares movement.

“As much as I support the whole idea of abolishing nuclear weapons, I don’t feel this is the best way to go about it,” he told me. “I worry about her safety. What she does is dangerous.”

If convicted, there’s a strong possibility that Hennessy will serve prison time. Sister Rice, the nun who broke into the Tennessee nuclear facility in 2012, spent two years in prison.

“For my own selfish reasons, I don’t want to spend the next few years here by myself,” Melanson said, standing in the custom-made kitchen that he crafted.

Last Monday, the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 legal team, headed by New Orleans attorney and law school professor Bill Quigley, filed motions in federal court to have all criminal charges dismissed in the case.

“If the defendants took their actions in North Korea or Iran, the U.S. government would hail their actions,” the defense argued. “The same U.S. government cannot be allowed to criminally prosecute them at home.”

Hennessy is expected to go to trial late this year. In the meantime, keeping her under house arrest is “pointless and cruel,” her husband said. “They’re just using it to punish her, and she hasn’t been convicted of anything.”

To beat the summer heat and maximize the time that she’s allowed outside the house, Hennessy is in her gardens shortly after 7 a.m. She spends the next few hours working the rows of potatoes, onions and carrots, for starters. “We grow about 70 percent of our own food,” she said.

She makes juice from grapes she grows. Apple trees that she planted 30 years ago provide welcome shade. Sheep dot the property’s steep hill behind the timber-frame house that her husband built in the 1980s.

“It’s paradise here,” she said, “and I’d rather be in paradise than jail.”

No doubt the federal government is eager to make an example of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7. Seven aging Catholic peace activists waltzing undetected onto a U.S. military installation can’t sit well with the image-obsessed Trump administration. This kind of security breach at a nuclear weapons site is scary and embarrassing at the same time.

The actions of Hennessey and her cohorts have brought much needed attention to the U.S. nuclear arsenal — and the tax dollars wasted on building and maintaining it. Kings Bay alone is home to six nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines designed to fire nuclear warheads. “Very few people even know this submarine base exists,” Hennessy said.

Even fewer people would have the conviction to put their freedom on the line as Hennessy has done.

“It’s not just my grandchildren, it’s everyone’s grandchildren” who the U.S. government’s nuclear policies put at risk, Hennessy said.

With an easily unhinged reality TV star in the White House, the possibility of nuclear war doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it did only a few years ago.

Under the conditions of her bail, Hennessy was allowed to travel to New York for a few days last week to volunteer at Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker movement’s home for the poor on the Lower East Side. Before her arrest, she split her time between Weathersfield and cooking, washing dishes and cleaning in the same “house of hospitality” where her grandmother lived and died.

Even with the federal government monitoring her every move, Hennessy still finds a way to do good.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.