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 …

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