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Harrisburg: The Politics of Salvation


In 1849 a maverick priest in the town of Béziers, France, founded an order of nuns which he called “Les Religieuses du Sacré Coeur de Marie,” whose aim would be to educate young girls to work among the poor. Father Jean Pierre Gailhac was an eccentric and a social activist. He had chosen to be chaplain at the local hôtel-Dieu rather than preach or teach, and had also set up a rehabilitation center for prostitutes. Like the order he founded, Gailhac seemed destined for occasional trouble, and was even accused, midway in his career, of poisoning some nuns. Notwithstanding his personal tribulations, his order flourished, and a small mission was sent to the United States in the 1880s to establish a convent on these shores.

Its arrival was forlorn. The American sponsor of the mission, a rich Cincinnati widow, had died while the nuns were en route from France, and they were left stranded at the docks. A priest took pity on the sisters and offered them his house in Sag Harbor, Long Island. But their troubles were not over. The priest fell in love with the youngest of the nuns, who had not yet taken her vows, and the group’s mother superior had to return to France for further counsel. This episode is documented in the archives of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM) under the title “Les Tristes et Douloureuses Epreuves de la Maison de Sag Harbor.” Such afflications did not prevent the order from opening many distinguished schools and colleges throughout America, one of the most noted of which is Mary-mount College in Tarrytown, New York. It is at Marymount that Sister Elizabeth McAlister, recently convicted in the Harrisburg Seven conspiracy trial for smuggling letters into a prison, attended college and later taught.

Elizabeth McAlister is one of seven children of Irish immigrants who had come to the United States in the 1920s, and had set up a successful construction business in Montclair, New Jersey. Her childhood was peaceful, uneventful, and fairly prosperous. She had always loved to draw, and early in her college life she designed holy name day cards and place cards for the nuns’ religious holidays—the feast of Saint Joseph, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The only seed of nonconformism to be found in her early life is that she loved contemporary art and made abstract designs on these greetings which her order found “highly unacceptable” because of their avant-garde tenor.

The call for a religious vocation had come to Elizabeth in the most traditional way. Sometime in her freshman year, while in prayer, she received what she believed to be a call from God. It had come as a surprise to her and as a discomfiture to her parents, who looked upon the rules of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary as harshly restrictive. Until 1962 or so the regulations of this semi-cloistered order forbade the nuns from ever entering their parents’ house again after they had taken their vows, short of a death in the family. They were also prohibited from seeing any films, or reading any newspapers or any books beyond the slim collection of Saints’ Lives on the convent’s shelves. There was a single radio set in the convent on which the sisters were allowed to listen to only one program: Fulton Sheen’s. Older members of the RSHM vividly recall the great excitement with which they greeted a showing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which Joseph Kennedy, whose ailing daughter Rosemary was at the college, once brought to Marymount on a Tuesday of Holy Week as a special dispensation for the community.

Elizabeth McAlister, a tall, long-limbed girl with blue eyes and thick dark brown hair, was an intense, compulsively disciplinary, exemplary nun who spent her early twenties perfecting herself in her vocation. She did not even chafe against such rigid convent customs as the “amende honorable,” a penance which she had to recite publicly, kneeling on the floor of the refectory at breakfast time to confess any small instance of misdemeanor: turning a light out too late, breaking a tea cup. It went this way: “Reverend Mother, I most humbly ask your pardon for all the pain I have caused you since I came to this house, by my disrespect and disobedience. I also ask pardon of the community for the bad example I have given them by my continued failings in the Holy Rule. I ask you all to pray for me that I may be sincerely converted and become a good and fervent religious.”

The order having shrewdly perceived Elizabeth’s talent, she was sent to Hunter College in 1962 to acquire a master’s degree in art history. The head of the department, Eugene Goossen, remembers her as “a person with fringes of great firmness and stubbornness, full of idées fixes, but with very radical tastes in art for a nun.” Religious orders are noted for overworking the few specialists they have. Returning to Marymount in 1963, Elizabeth taught Medieval, Renaissance, Oriental, and American art within the same semester. Her greatest pleasure was to lecture on her favorite twentieth-century masters—Jackson Pollock, Joan Miró, Barnett Newman, David Smith.

In those early years Elizabeth was still dressed in the vestments that had been traditional to her order since the nineteenth century: a floor-length habit of blue serge, over which hung a highly starched white linen pèlerine which reached halfway down to her waist. On her head she wore a serretête, or cap, of white muslin to which she pinned the enormous coif of starched white linen that framed her face. Over the coif she wore a third layer of white veiling reaching to the waist, and a fourth layer of black veiling would be added when she attended chapel. She rose at 5:30, and until 1968 her daily schedule would remain the following: a period of meditation at 6 A.M., mass at 6:45, and three more hours of meditation and prayers interspersed throughout the day.

During the political turbulence of the 1960s, persons like Elizabeth McAlister underwent transformations that were unnatural in their intensity. The revolution in the Church, the boiling pot of the Sixties’ dissent induced in her a mysterious personal growth of terrifying rapidity. Elizabeth had been against the Vietnam war since 1965, and in May of 1968 she was on the verge of joining Philip Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine in their foray on draft board files in Maryland. She desisted from so acting only the night before, with characteristic dutifulness toward her order. Her desire to join her friends in civil disobedience was “an instinctive yes-saying trust” which she could not have explained to her community, at that time, in rational terms. But the compulsive rigor and dedication that she had brought to her nun’s vocation were now put to the uses of the Movement.

A characteristic image of the 1970 Elizabeth McAlister: She drives with a friend down the highway toward a Movement meeting, high beyond the speed limit, the window open. She is now clothed in a brief-skirted sport dress; on her lap is an open copy of the New Testament which she looks at frequently during her voyage. It was during such a trip, on January 12, 1971, as she was getting into a car in a parking lot in Newark, New Jersey, that seven FBI men walked up to her and said: “You’re under arrest, Sister Liz.” “Please,” she replied, her Irish temper rising, “my name is Elizabeth—my friends call me Liz.” They read her the charges: conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up heating ducts in Washington, D.C. “Over, over,” the agents radioed when she had entered the car, “we’ve got the package, over.”

That same evening a posse of FBI men came to arrest Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani scholar living in Chicago. In Baltimore, the FBI went to the apartment of Anthony and Mary Scoblick, and to the apartment shared by Fathers Joseph Wenderoth and Neil McLaughlin. The best known of the Harrisburg Seven, Father Philip Berrigan, was told of his indictment at the Federal Penitentiary at Danbury, Connecticut, where he is serving a six-year sentence for the destruction of draft files in 1967 and 1968.


The indictment brought against these seven persons in January, 1970, relied solely on conversations reported by an FBI informer, Boyd Douglas, a convict with a long record of lying and of violence, and on letters exchanged at Lewisburg Prison between Elizabeth McAlister and Philip Berrigan. The charges against this predominantly Catholic group—whose vast indiscretions were caused in good part by their political innocence and previous isolation—were ironically Catholic in nature. The charges implied, as does the old Church teaching, that one can be as guilty for thinking sinful thoughts as for committing thoughtful sins. The indictment blurred all distinction between discussion and agreement, between conversation and action, and invaded that most private and sacred part of man which is his fantasy life. And it had been triggered, in turn, by the fantasies of the angry spy master, the late J. Edgar Hoover, who was seeking to reestablish his prestige at the wane of a long career.

When Hoover appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations on November 27, 1970, to make the allegations that led to the Harrisburg indictment, it was his first visit to any Senate group in fifteen years. He had come under the pretext of asking for additional funds for the FBI which had already been voted to him by the House. Hoover announced, that day, “an incipient plot on the part of an anarchist group” which, led by the imprisoned Berrigan brothers, was planning to blow up government heating systems and kidnap a high government official.

One must sense the full measure of Hoover’s desperation. He had made several previous attempts to force an indictment of the group, but neither the White House, the Republican Policy Committee, nor the Internal Security Division had wanted to make his charges public. Hoover’s stubborn determination to obtain an indictment seems to reflect his frustration at the Justice Department’s failure to indict Daniel Berrigan under the fugitive law. Berrigan had evaded the FBI for nearly four months, had mocked and derided it. But the Attorney General wisely saw fit not to enlarge this priest’s well-publicized martyrdom.

The Justice Department is reported to have been appalled by Hoover’s public revelations of November 27, and dead set against an indictment at the time because of insufficient evidence. The group was simply one of several that were continually being watched and followed by the FBI. But Hoover’s Senate appearance forced Justice to take very swift face-saving action. The first handwriting and fingerprint analyses on documents compiled by the informer Boyd Douglas and the FBI were undertaken on Monday, November 30, the first available week-day after Hoover’s allegations of Friday, November 27. A grand jury was convened in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the very next day, on December 1, and held hearings from December 20 into the second week of January. On January 12 a hasty and sloppy indictment was handed down after the case was put to the grand jury by Assistant Attorney General Guy Goodwin, Justice’s most passionate hunter of political dissidents. To correct the legal imprudences of this first indictment, a shrewder superseding bill was issued on April 30.

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