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HENNESSEY, Gwen (Sister)

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HENNESSEY, Gwen. Sister (Manchester, IA, September 29, 1932-- ). Hennessey was born on September 29, 1932, on a farm in Buchanan County, Iowa. Her parents, Anna Killias Hennessey and Maurice Hennessey, modeled generosity to the poor, sheltering tramps who needed food during the GREAT DEPRESSION. Several of Hennessey's siblings would go on to have religious vocations including her sisters Dorothy HENNESSEY Sister and Miriam who became Franciscan nuns and her brother Ron who became a missionary in Latin America.

Gwen graduated from St Patrick's school in Ryan, Iowa, in 1948. She took a year off from school to help her mother, then attended college at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, where she earned a degree in education and English literature. She joined the Franciscan order in 1956.

She took part in a protest march in the 1960s in Antioch, Illinois. African Americans were banned from the city, and Martin Luther King Jr. marched with her. She also assisted Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers, organize migrant workers in California. (1)

Hennessey taught in Chicago, Illinois, and studied at the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago (JSTC). While living in Chicago, she began to participate in the nuclear disarmament movement as a member of the grassroots activist organization, Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC) along with her sister Miriam. (2)

Hennessey returned to Iowa in the 1980s where she helped establish the Catholic Peace Ministry, in Des Moines, and continued to be active in a variety of peace related activities. She then moved to New York City where she earned a master's degree from the Maryknoll School of Theology in New York, and worked as co-director of the Maura Clarke/Ita Ford Center. She later worked at the Appalachian Office of Justice and Peace, before returning to Dubuque, Iowa. [3]

In the 1990s, Hennessey joined protests at Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the Army's School of the Americas, a facility for training Latin American soldiers. Protesters targeted the military training program because they believed instructors taught torture techniques to Latin American military leaders and soldiers. (4) Graduates of the program had been accused of several high-profile atrocities, including the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador. The school denied these claims and argued that it helped to spread democracy in Latin America.

Hennessey protested repeatedly at the school, beginning in 1997. In 2000, along with her sister, Dorothy, and 13 other women activists, she was arrested and convicted for trespassing. They, along with 3500 protesters, had participated in a mock funeral procession in front of the school. On July 18, 2001, Dorothy Marie and Gwen Hennessey of the Sisters of St. Francis of The Holy Family reported to the Pekin Federal Correctional Institute in Illinois. (5) She served the full sentence at the Federal Prison Camp [FPC] in Pekin, Illinois. Her sister Dorothy, at age 88, also refused a lighter sentence of house arrest, and was given a six-month jail term. She served for forty five days at the federal camp, then was moved to Elm Street Correctional Facility in Dubuque. She was later assigned to do community service caring for people living with AIDS, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (6)

In 1997, Hennessey was presented the Bishop Dingman Peace Award by Catholic Peace Ministry. In 2002, Gwen and Dorothy Hennessey were awarded the Pacem in Terris Award by the Davenport Catholic Interracial Council. The award was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that called upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. The Hennessey sisters became the 33rd and 34th recipients of the honor and only the third and fourth Iowans to receive it. (7)



1. "Gwen Hennessey," Wikipedia, Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Hennessey

2. "Sister Miriam Hennessey," (obituary), Quad Cities Times, October 28, 1990, p. 20

3. "Gwen Hennessey"

4. "Controversial "School of the Americas" Closes," ABC News, December 14, 2000, Online: https://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=81917&page=1

5. Raggi, Elizabeth, "Ladies of Mercy," Irish America Magazine, Oct/Nov.2001, Online: https://www.irishamerica.com/2001/10/ladies-of-mercy/

6. "Sister Dorothy Marie Hennessey, Peace Activist, Dies," The Archdiocese of Baltimore, Online: https://www.archbalt.org/sister-dorothy-marie-hennessey-peace-activist-dies/

7. "Dorothy Hennessey" ArchivesSpace at the University of Iowa. Online: https://aspace.lib.uiowa.edu/agents/people/1836