To Sister Ardeth Platte, who died on Sept. 30 at 84, antinuclear activism was a form of public worship.
Explaining to a federal judge in 2002 how she – alongside protest companions Sister Carol Gilbert and Sister Jackie Hudson – entered a Colorado nuclear base, tapped on a silo with a hammer and used their own blood to smear a cross on a 100-ton missile lid, Platte said: “Every movement of our body was a liturgy.”
It didn’t stop the court from sending her to prison for obstructing national defense and damaging government property. But Platte wasn’t traumatized by her 41-month sentence or any other she had served. By 2017 she and Gilbert estimated they had spent more than 15 years total behind bars and been arrested about 40 times, by their own tally.
“I was in long enough to see so many deaths, suicides. One woman guard went home from work, put a gun to her head and killed herself. Another man committed suicide by hanging right on the prison grounds,” Platte said in our unpublished 2017 interview. I came to know Platte and Gilbert while living with Sacred Heart sisters they knew at Anne Montgomery House in Washington, D.C.
At the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut, Platte used her sentence for ministry by being a chaplain for all faiths, advocating against the unfair sentencing of mostly poor women of color, and helping prisoners study. Her friendship with fellow inmate Piper Kerman inspired the character of Sister Jane Ingalls in Kerman’s book “Orange is the New Black,” later turned into a Netflix series.
Platte felt she had more in common with actor Beth Fowler, who plays Sister Ingalls in the series – and who once hoped to become a Dominican – than with the fictional character. “They put words in my mouth I would never say… I mean, even in the book where Piper says I tied myself to a flagpole. False! I went into a missile silo,” she smilingly told me in 2017, although she did recommend reading the book, which she found accurate about prison life.
A Michigan native with the broad accent to prove it, Ardeth Platte was born on Good Friday, April 10, 1936. Her mother left before she turned two and her father placed Platte and her brother with relatives while in the Navy in World War II.
She almost died at 12 of an intestinal infection, and under an oxygen tent pledged her life to God if she made it through. A high school valedictorian and star basketball player, she entered the religious order Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids in 1954 after freshman year at Aquinas College, a Grand Rapids Catholic liberal arts school.
Drawn to helping impoverished residents in her adopted hometown of Saginaw, Michigan, she administered Upward Bound, a federally funded low-income college preparation program, one summer, and later became principal of St. Joseph’s High School. She walked with the poorest at Civil Rights marches and protested Vietnam.
Platte ran for Saginaw City Council at the urging of many disadvantaged residents. Her term from 1973-1985 included time as interim mayor. This allowed her to see firsthand how power structures enforced rather than alleviated poverty.
“It’s all based on death-dealing, not life-giving. I could see everything taking food from the mouths of the poorest… When I do an action regarding nuclear weapons, it relates to poverty, to contamination, to climate disaster, to all of it,” she said in 2017.
She was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999.
‘Swords into plowshares’
Platte’s anti-nuclear activism started in 1983. From 1990 to 1995 she and Gilbert moved next to Strategic Air Command bases at Oscoda and then K. I. Sawyer, holding mock war crimes tribunals. Their “Faith and Resistance” retreats shared ways to conduct successful nonviolent actions.
Although they encountered accusations of being anti-military, the sisters ministered to military people. “[Members of the military] cried and shared stories in our living space after the first Gulf War. We even inherited a dog from one going to South Korea,” said Gilbert. “Our love has grown for military personnel,” said Platte. “We do have a draft, it’s called an economic draft. They join because they need jobs.”
Michigan’s bases were decommissioned after the Cold War, and the sisters moved to Baltimore’s Jonah House in 1995. Named after the Old Testament biblical prophet who served time in the belly of a whale (aka the U.S. prison system), Jonah House teaches civil resistance, modeling how to conduct die-ins at the Pentagon, or what to do when arrested.
Some members of Jonah House also participated in Plowshares, a direct-action antinuclear movement named after the biblical passage in which prophets Isaiah and Micah state, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Platte and Gilbert joined ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. Platte’s final life’s work encouraged nuclear weapons states such as the U.S. – on course to spend US$1.2 trillion over the next three decades – to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
‘Peacemaker in a hostile world’
After 23 years at Jonah House, Platte and Gilbert moved to the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington. This “community of hospitality and resistance” also teaches direct action. There Platte gardened daily, sharing vegetables with neighbors while preaching peace.
They attended actor Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays – ecological protests in Washington, D.C. Fonda cited Platte as “a staunch and fearless friend.” They also remained in touch with Martha Stewart, whom Gilbert befriended at Alderson Federal Prison Camp.
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On Sept. 29, Platte went to bed to listen to the news. Her headphones were still on when Gilbert tried to wake her the following morning to celebrate that Malaysia had ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Platte had slipped away in her sleep.
Sister Ardeth Platte consistently lived the prayer all three activist sisters spoke in 2002 when surrounded by military police in Humvees at the Peterson Air Force Base, weapons aimed: “Oh God, help us to be peacemakers in a hostile world.”
This article is based on a 2017 interview with Sister Ardeth Platte OP and Sister Carol Gilbert OP, and recent conversations with Sister Gilbert.