Elizabeth McAlister: Former Catholic Nun Sentenced for Vandalizing Nuclear Submarine Base

elizabeth mcalister former nun

Facebook/Kings Bay Plowshares Elizabeth McAlister

Elizabeth McAlister, 80, is the Catholic activist and former nun who was convicted for trespassing at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in St. Marys, Georgia. She and six others, who are part of an activist organization called the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, were protesting against the use of nuclear weapons when they snuck onto the base.

The seven group members were all found guilty in federal court in October 2019 on four charges including the destruction of property and conspiracy. McAlister served 17 months behind bars while awaiting trial, and she was the first of the group to be sentenced on June 8, 2020. A judge decided to grant McAlister credit for time already served and gave her three additional years of probation. She is also required to repay more than $33,000 in restitution.

McAlister has been an activist for most of her life, and this was not the first time she ran afoul of the law.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. McAlister & the 6 Others Poured Blood & Spray Painted Anti-War Messages at the Nuclear Naval Base

McAlister and the other six members of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 illegally entered the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay on April 4, 2018. They chose that date to correspond with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., fellow member Patrick O’Neill explained in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.

The base houses several Trident submarines, which carry ballistic missiles. According to Military OneSource, Kings Bay is the only location in the Atlantic fleet “capable of supporting the Trident II (D-5) missile,” a powerful missile used for “strategic nuclear deterrence,” according to the U.S. Navy. The Archdiocese of Baltimore reported at the time of McAlister’s arrest that the Navy’s Trident submarines carry about half of the country’s nuclear warheads. The break-in was described as an act of symbolic protest.

The seven people who broke into the base included McAlister, O’Neill, Stephen Michael Kelly, Mark Peter Colville, Martha Hennessey, Clare Therese Grady and Carmen Trotta. The group cut through a padlock to get inside, of which there was video evidence taken by McAlister herself. According to the federal indictment, McAlister, Trotta and Kelly entered a restricted area where, according to the group’s website, they believed the Navy stored the nuclear weapons.

McAlister and the six others brought bottles of their own blood, which they poured on various sites around the base. They used spray paint to write anti-war graffiti on the Strategic Weapons Facility, Atlantic, Engineering Services Building. The group also used hammers to bang on a missile display. McAlister and the others were on the base for about two hours before they were arrested after midnight on April 5, 2018. Several months later, the organization shared photos from that night on Instagram.

McAlister was booked into the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, Georgia. She refused to accept bond conditions and remained behind bars for 17 months. She was released in September 2019 after a judge decided she did not need to wear an ankle monitor.

All seven of the defendants were charged in federal court. On October 24, 2019, they were found guilty on four counts:

  • Conspiracy
  • Destruction of property on naval installation
  • Depredation of government property
  • Trespassing

2. McAlister Did Not Apologize for the Protest at the Naval Base

McAlister was the first of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 to be formally sentenced because she was willing to have a virtual hearing in light of coronavirus restrictions. Days before the hearing, attorney Ramsey Clark wrote a letter to Judge Lisa Wood to make the case against imposing jail time. He argued that the group’s intentions were morally admirable and that the individuals were nonviolent and “peace-loving.” The letter reads in part:

The Seven were convicted of three felonies and a misdemeanor at their jury trial last October, but their intent was to uphold international laws and treaties that prohibit the development and use of weapons with the capacity for indiscriminate mass destruction. One such measure is the Nonproliferation Treaty, which our government signed during my term as U.S. Attorney General. The U.S. has, however, repeatedly violated this treaty, and is currently committed to a massive upgrade of its nuclear arsenal.

The action of the Seven also complied morally and legally with the Nuremberg Principles, which state that individuals have a duty to act to prevent crimes against humanity. As a U.S. Marine veteran who was stationed in Western Europe at the end of WW II and who attended the Nuremberg proceedings, I can attest how crucial it is for individuals and governments to adhere to the lessons of Nuremberg. The seven sincerely believe that they were acting to prevent the greatest crime against humanity from being committed: that of global nuclear annihilation.

Before the sentence was passed down, McAlister explained to the judge that her actions were part of a lifelong effort against the development and use of nuclear weapons. The Religion News Service quoted part of her statement: “I have spent much of my adult life trying to speak out about the threat to all life on Earth that comes from our weapons of mass destruction and our national policies to continue to try to build more and more deadly and destructive weapons.” She did not apologize, stating that she had to follow her conscience.

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Southern District of GeorgiaElizabeth McAlister’s sentencing document.

Wood granted McAlister credit for the 17 months and nine days she had already served in detention before the trial started. According to court documents, McAlister will be on probation for the next three years and must receive permission from her probation officer before she is allowed to travel outside of her home district.

McAlister was also ordered to pay restitution of $33,503 to cover the damage at the Naval base. Court documents suggest McAlister’s co-defendants will likely share in paying the restitution once they are sentenced. She is required to make monthly payments of at least $25.

3. McAlister Is a Former Nun & Was Excommunicated From the Catholic Church After Choosing to Marry a Catholic Priest

McAlister is the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants. She and her six siblings, including a twin sister, grew up in New Jersey. According to her bio on the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 website, McAlister said her opposition to the Vietnam War caused “many family disagreements but we were blessed at being able to continue to laugh, love, visit and to talk with one another throughout.”

McAlister became a nun after graduating from college and was part of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary order. She taught art history at Marymount College, and McAlister said it was during this time in her life that she began participating in rallies to protest the Vietnam War.

This was how McAlister first met Josephite priest Philip Berrigan. In his 2002 obituary, the New York Times described Berrigan as “one of the most radical pacifists of the 20th century.” He became a priest after serving during World War II. He spent several years behind bars over the course of his life for his anti-war protests, which included vandalizing draft board offices. In 1968, Berrigan and a few others took hundreds of draft files from an office in Catonsville, Maryland, and set them on fire in the parking lot.

Berrigan and McAlister sent love letters to each other while he was in prison for the Catonsville incident. They declared themselves married in 1969 and made their union legal in 1973. Both were excommunicated from the Catholic Church for going against their religious vows. The couple had three children together named Frida, Jerome and Katherine.

4. McAlister & Berrigan Founded the Jonah House, Which Is a Community Dedicated to Nonviolence

liz mcalister philip berrigan

The Jonah HouseElizabeth McAlister and Philip Berrigan

McAlister and Berrigan founded a community in Baltimore called the Jonah House in the 1970s. The name comes from the Bible story of Jonah, who, the story goes, was called on by God to preach to the city of Nineveh and urge the residents to ask forgiveness for their sins. Jonah did not want to go, and as punishment, he was swallowed by a whale during a storm at sea. As the story goes, Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale and after repenting, God had the whale release Jonah on the shores of Nineveh.

McAlister and Berrigan explained to the New York Times in 1973 that the story of Jonah reflected human nature. Berrigan said, “Jonah has a deep meaning for all of us. He was reluctant workman—he went kicking and screaming—he was about as reluctant as Christians in this country are to do anything.” McAlister added, “It means there is hope for all of us. If Jonah can make it, we all can.”

The Jonah House website also explains in the “about us” section, “If God could use Jonah for the works of justice, there is hope for each of us. Are we not all reluctant prophets?” The group is dedicated to nonviolence, resistance to war and advocating for the “abolition of all weapons of mass destruction.” According to the Religion News Service, Jonah House members also work to help the poor as part of the nationwide Catholic Worker movement.

One of the couple’s daughters, Frida, explained to America Magazine in a 2011 interview what growing up at the Jonah House was like. She described attending demonstrations in Washington, D.C., finding food at wholesale markets and sharing it with neighbors and learning about the Bible from their father.

5. McAlister Has Been Arrested Multiple Times for Civil Disobedience But Regrets Only a Shoplifting Charge From 1973

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Kings Bay Plowshares 7Elizabeth McAlister

McAlister has been arrested multiples times since the 1970s. In 1971, she and husband Philip Berrigan were charged as part of the “Harrisburg Seven.” The group was accused of plotting to kidnap National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and “conspiring to raid draft boards in nine states, [and] blow up heating pipes in Washington utility tunnels.” But the case resulted in a mistrial in 1972.

In 1973, McAlister was arrested for shoplifting from a Sears store. She was caught stealing an electric saw, a packet of sandpaper and a package of picture frame hangars. According to an archived report from the National Catholic Reporter, McAlister was issued a $100 fine and ordered to serve one year of probation. McAlister told People magazine in 1984 that the shoplifting case was the only conviction on her record that she regretted.

At the time of that interview, McAlister was serving time for vandalizing the Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York. She and six other Plowshares members used hammers to damage a B-52 bomber and smeared their own blood over the plane. McAlister said they prayed, celebrated their act and waited to be arrested. She was eventually sentenced to three years behind bars.

By 1984, McAlister said she had been arrested more than 20 times for acts of civil disobedience. In an interview with America Magazine in 2011, daughter Frida said her parents spent a total of 11 years apart from each other and their children due to stints in jail and prison.

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