Prisoner for Peace

Sister Betty McKenzie, CSJ

It was Good Friday and the year was 1986. A particularly energized protest was taking place at the Honeywell Corporation in Minneapolis and Sister Betty Mckenzie proudly added her voice and actions to the project, which waged a civil disobedience campaign for decades against the company's armaments production. “My protesting at Honeywell was what propelled my activism in peace and justice,”says Betty. She speaks passionately of the need in correcting the corrupted actions of corporations such as Honeywell and the importance of civil disobedience or as she puts it, “civil obedience.” “I felt it was something that needed to be done and something that I could do. It was kind of exciting really,” Betty says. Though the excitement didn’t stop with the protesting itself: Sister Betty, along with several others risked arrest for the cause. An arrest that would mark only the beginning of Betty’s progressive career in peace and justice activism as well as her continued list of arrests and prison time.

Betty’s activism in peace and justice had not always been so mobile, in fact she did not even grow up in a particularly religious or politically charged family. She spent one year at St. Catherine University before she knew that she was called to enter religious life. “It just sort of struck me,” says Betty, “I knew it was what I needed to do.” Her father was not especially supportive of Betty’s choice, though none of her family opposed it either. She was fervently convinced that this was the life she needed to live and that nothing would stand in her way. She found her calling as a Sister of St. Joseph and her initial vocation as a teacher. She taught for the majority of her life and began with teaching seventh and eighth grade all subjects: Math, Science, English and Social Studies and then some. Overall, she greatly loved her position in teaching though she expressed certain discontentments in not doing as much as she would’ve liked to do. "I wasn't good at doing all of the things they said you should do when teaching reading. What I did was I made the kids read,” Betty states, “ I did not like the technicalities of teaching the kids reading." This desire to escape conformity in order to make a profound and holistic difference later shaped much of her activism work.

After teaching for several years, Betty took some time off where she spent time in the Derham community and then the St. Kate’s Accounting Office. She then taught English as a second language in Frogtown from which she retired in the year 2000. From this point on, she dedicated her work the the peace community. She was involved in several civil disobedience actions in the Twin Cities including the previously mentioned Honeywell Project, but she was also largely involved in the protests at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Georgia, a combat training facility for Latin American military officers. For this activism, she intentionally “trespassed” by crossing the state lines, an action that assuredly lead to arrest and 6 months in prison for her and 10 others at the time. Sister Betty was 71 at the time and the median age of the prison was 40. “I found these people interesting,” Betty says, “they were just so easy to relate to, and thoughtful, really thoughtful. I think about them quite often.” The humility and peace with which Sister Betty spoke of her time in prison astounded me and spoke to her infallible ability to find beauty and truth in all situations. She spoke fondly of one woman who graciously searched for an extra mattress and blankets for her. After thanking her, the woman said, “Well let’s face it, we’re the only family we’ve got here.” “I think of her quite often, says Betty. “I was always sad to see them go. I knew it was for the best but, I missed them.”

Sister Betty speaks often of her love and appreciation for solitude and found that in her time to read and write poetry in prison, as well as to read and respond to letters. “As a civil disobedient prisoner there, we received a lot of letters from everyone and I decided early on, that I would answer every letter,” says Betty. “I wrote every afternoon. We got letters from all over the country and all over the world really. The ones that really got me were the ones from South and Central America… they just kind of did me in emotionally... because they were thanking us for what we did.” Again her humility rang true as she states, “I didn't think we did that much…All we did was cross a line and didn't go back…. I knew we were risking prison but that was okay, it was what we needed to do.”

Now Sister Betty wishes she could spend more time in the Peace community though she does actively participate at the Peace House in Minneapolis, where I had the pleasure of meeting Betty for the first time. The Peace House is a drop in day shelter for persons experiencing homelessness inspired by the late Rose Tillemans, a fellow CSJ. At the peace house, Sister Betty engages with the community weekly and says, “I love going there because the people that go there are down on their luck and probably have been all their lives. Many of them have grown up in abusive homes and mostly their jobless and also they've got time so they come and spend some time at Peace House from 10am-3pm. They come to a place where they're respected and they have to be respectful. They come to meditate which is a serious time… 45 minutes of just thinking about a topic and talking about it.” She speaks often of the fulfillment she finds there in the simple act of listening to the individual stories that live and linger at the peace house.

“Peace work is important, it is crucially important even,” says Betty. “But I think there's something more important. And of course, you couldn't have peace without it… and that is loving people which is to me, the most important thing in my life right now. That is, loving everyone and everything. It's not always that easy but it is extremely important and by that I mean looking for the good in people and celebrating it and encouraging it. You can always find something good in people. Always.” Sister Betty Mckenzie is a woman of remarkable strength and conviction whose life speaks volumes to the weight and importance of Catholic Sisters’ place in women’s history. She lives her mission most fervently even as she is now limited in mobility, she continues to work actively in the peace community. Her passion for peace and justice coupled by her warmth and genuinity struck me upon my first encounter with her a month and a half ago in that candid meditation circle at the Peace House. She was then and continues to be for me, a revitalizing breath of life, a gentle awakening to that fire in my core that calls me to act, to seek justice in an unremittingly unjust world.

Hilary Stein

About Hilary Stein

Hilary Stein is completing her last semester of undergraduate education at St. Catherine University. She dedicated herself to an exploration of the liberal arts through a double major in french and studio arts. As a photographer, Hilary is interested in the permanence and historical weight that a photograph can hold and in the immediacy of its communicative ability. She became involved with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet during her sophomore year and quickly recognized that their stories need to be shared and valued. As she began to engage in conversations she increasingly realized the significance and gravity involved with the visual and written documentation of their lives, as the number of sisters are significantly diminishing and with them, their rich and important histories. What began as a modest inquiry became for a mission to understand and record the stories of these revolutionary women in order to share and communicate their legacy. During the Spring of 2014 she was paired with Sister Betty McKenzie, CSJ; a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet.