When Ardeth Platte was released in 2005 after more than two years in federal prison in Danbury, Conn., she made a confession. Smiling, her eyes crinkling, she admitted to me that the nice soft sheets on the beds on the outside felt truly wonderful.
The then-69-year-old Dominican nun was happy to be free, but wholly unrepentant. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein might say, the dogma lived loudly within her, and if going to prison periodically was the price of living her faith, so be it.
Platte and fellow Dominican Sisters Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson became local celebrities 18 years ago when they snipped a hole in a chain-link fence to gain access to the grounds in Weld County where a Minuteman III missile containing a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb was poised for war.
Once inside the restricted area, the women sang, prayed and painted crosses on the structures in their own blood, which had been tested in advance to ensure that it would not endanger anyone who might come in contact with it. They had brought it to the protest in small baby bottles.
As if it were a movie set, right on cue troops arrived at the scene, crashing through the fence in their military vehicles and arresting the three pacifists. The women were charged with two felonies: damaging federal property and obstructing the national defense.
“It was a holy act,” Platte said.
I covered the nuns’ trial in federal court in Denver in 2003, and if you think Amy Coney Barrett and her seven kids are the very embodiment of some kind of unassailable holy spirit, you shoulda been there.
The sisters never for a moment denied what happened. They simply insisted that it wasn’t a crime. In fact, citing the international precedent established at the Nuremberg Trials, they said they were there to stop a crime against humanity.
They were convicted on both counts. Platte’s sentence was 41 months in federal prison; Hudson got 30 months; and Gilbert got 33 months. They also were ordered to pay the federal government $3,080 in restitution for the property damage, most of which was caused by the military police busting the fence when they responded so urgently to reports of three diminutive women singing and praying next to a missile silo.
When the sentences were announced, the sisters smiled and said they would continue to pray for their prosecutors and ask God to bless all the judges who had sentenced them – and given their long history of being arrested for peaceful anti-nuke protests across the country, that was a considerable workload for the Almighty.
They viewed their sentences not so much as punishment but as an opportunity to serve the poor, who make up the vast majority of both inmates and guards in prisons. They organized the prisoners and taught them to care for each other and to build their psychological resilience through the long days of humiliation and discomfort.
When the nuns, who had all taken vows of poverty, refused to pay restitution to the government war machine, supporters worldwide instead raised more than $600,000 to feed the poor in their name.
The government declined to accept the alternative restitution. The women stood their ground.
Once they completed probation and were free to travel, the nuns returned to Colorado frequently to rally their supporters in the cause of world peace.
One time I asked them if they worried that the FBI might tap their phones. Oh, Gilbert told me, she was certain they were tapped.
“Our phones were tapped years ago when we were in Michigan,” she said. “We would like to think our spirits may someday impact some of the folks who are listening.”
The comment was meant to be both sincere and ironic, and I couldn’t keep from laughing.
I loved being in their company. A lapsed Catholic, I was more accustomed to the nuns from my childhood who broke yard sticks over the heads of naughty boys and spent too much of their time talking about what it would be like to spend eternity in hell.
The “sistas” as I often called them were brave and indomitable, loving, funny and generous beyond measure.
One of the last times I talked to Platte was in 2017. She and Gilbert were on a reunion tour in Colorado 15 years to the day after they got arrested in Weld County. Hudson had died of cancer in 2011, but the nuns were certain she was with them in spirit.
On that trip they stopped by the office of Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, who had prosecuted them in 2003 when he was U.S. Attorney. He declined to see them, so they left him a note saying their visit was “an act of love.”
The tour also turned into a glorious celebration.
Just days before their arrival in Colorado, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. The sisters had spent weeks working with the group, lobbying world leaders at the United Nations to persuade them to sign on to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. (The United States refused, though 69 other countries signed.)
They visited the Minuteman site and solemnly left a copy of the treaty not far from the spot where they were arrested.
Platte, wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m already against the next war,” told me the Trump administration had made their work more urgent. Nuclear anxiety was heightened, she said, especially on college campuses where the sisters were treated like rock stars.
Gilbert said they would never give up teaching, demonstrating, peacefully protesting for a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how many times they would be arrested.
“This is our vow,” she said.
Platte, who for decades had been vilified, prosecuted and punished, nodded in agreement.
“I refuse to have an enemy,” she said, smiling, and then, as always, she told me she loved me.
Ardeth Platte died in her sleep on Sept. 30 on nice soft sheets in the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, D.C. Gilbert said she was listening to the presidential debate on NPR when she went to bed. She was still wearing her headphones when her body was discovered the next morning. She was 84.
I’ll miss her. We all will.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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