National Catholic Reporter, Nov 10, 1995
To Mary Moylan, another casualty of war
by Rosemary Radford Ruether
Last spring I received word from friends that Mary Moylan had died.
She was found by friends dead in her apartment. My husband and I had been longtime friends of Mary from the 1960s. In these months after her death, I have been haunted by the thought of Mary Moylan, thinking of her life as a witness to justice and peace against governments that wage many forms of war against the poor and of her death, poor, alone, forgotten. I have wanted to piece together some of the threads of her life, to give tribute to her, not to allow her to pass into oblivion without some notice from one who remembers her with great affection.
Our family first met Mary Moylan in the mid-1960s, years before she became a member of the Catonsville Nine. We were living in the upper 16th Street area of Washington . Mary lived in a large house at the end of the next street, which went down into Rock Creek Park . The house was owned by an African mission society. Mary had gone to Uganda in 1959 to work as a nurse midwife. She lost her job and was told to leave in 1965 when she argued with the white administrator of hospitals that the Africans needed to be given more responsibility and better medical training. She remained in Uganda for several months to give closure to her time in Africa and returned to Washington where she was director of the Women's Volunteer Association.
The African missionary house where Mary lived became a center for progressive Catholics in that period, people like ourselves, interested in the reforms of Vatican II, in new liturgy and in social justice concerns. We were active in the civil rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. Mary's living room became a gathering place for many an afternoon of talk on these subjects, sharing food and drink together while our small children scampered around in the woods that led from the house down to the creek. Toward the end of the '60s, the Washington diocese sought to evict Mary and other residents from the mission house and take it over. Mary tried to resist their claims. Once more she saw the basis of her life being pulled out from under her by clerical power.
In May of 1968, not long after the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Mary told us of her decision to join a Catholic peace group led by Dan and Phil Berrigan that planned to do an 'action' for which members would be arrested and probably go to jail. They were going to burn records from the draft office in Catonsville, Md. Mary felt that she had to take a definite stand, to put her life on the line to express the principles of protest against the war in Vietnam that we had discussed so often. I remember feeling uneasy. We, with three small children, were not about to take such an action, and yet we couldn't argue against her decision. So Mary Moylan became one of the group that became famous as the Catonsville Nine.
In October the nine were tried and convicted, events that Dan Berrigan would make memorable as both a book and a play. All the attention was focused on the famous brothers, especially on Dan, so powerful in his ability to translate their deed into dramatic prose and poetry. For the Catholic peace movement, they were heroes, martyrs of our time.
But for Mary, her membership in the Catonsville Nine became increasingly enraging. She saw rampant clericalism and patriarchalism in the way the Berrigan brothers were the center of attention. She was angered by lack of equal regard for others, especially women like herself, who had taken the same risks but who remained in the shadows.
She blamed not only the media but also the two priest-heroes.
The appeals went on for two years. Then in April of 1970, the convicted were called to turn themselves in. Some, like Marjorie and Tom Melville, had decided to go to jail and get it over with. Mary told us she was considering going underground like Dan and Phil Berrigan. She wanted to show them that they were not the only ones who could take this further step of protest. She, too, could refuse to accept the unjust decree of the government and resist imprisonment. So Dan and Phil Berrigan went underground and so did Mary Moylan.
Phil's sojourn was brief. He was apprehended 10 days later. Dan Berrigan's four months underground became the center of media attention. FBI agents, many of them Catholics and graduates of Jesuit universities, were in hot pursuit. He slipped from one hiding place to another, made dramatic appearances and disappearances. Finally the FBI caught up with him on Block Island at the house of Episcopal lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow. More powerful poems, books and articles flowed from these stirring episodes.
Mary Moylan stayed underground and stayed and stayed. I assume there was some continuing effort by the FBI to find her, but no great attention by the media. Time went on and she slipped out of the minds of even many of those, like ourselves, who had been friends. From time to time, I would think of her, wonder where she was, what she was doing, how she was surviving. Finally, 10 years later she decided to surface, turn herself in, take her prison term. Staying in the underground itself had become an extended imprisonment. It was time to get it over with.
Mary received a three-year sentence, more than her original one in 1968. The world to which she emerged was very different from the one from which she had disappeared in 1970. The Vietnam War was over. All attention was focused on making reparations to the veterans, to the American dead who had not received due honor for their sacrifices.
Mary Moylan's decision to surface, to go to jail, was barely noticed. We tried to contact her several times in the Alderson women's prison where she was incarcerated. But friends told us that she was embittered, that she did not want to hear from former friends.
After a year and a half, Mary was given probation and left prison. She attempted some new involvements, a free people's clinic in Baltimore , but mostly slipped into a life. She became blind and was plagued by chronic alcoholism developed in her years in the underground. She remained bitter against her former comrades and refused to attend the 25-year anniversary celebration of the Catonsville Nine's action. When Mary was found dead in her apartment of unknown, probably alcohol-related causes, a few of us were notified. Small memorial services were held in New York and Baltimore . But most in the Catholic left to whom I have made inquiries, never heard of her.
What can I say of you, Mary Moylan, spunky fighter for peace and justice, shattered and ground under by the trample of events? Perhaps we should have had the foresight to warn you against trying to rival the Berrigans, to take your jail term in 1970 and get on with your life. But we did not know how to question these heroics. We lacked the experience to see that a gesture that provided a stage and pulpit for them would a black hole for you, an unknown woman. You deserved more help, more concern, more love from us, but it would have been hard to give it to you. Maybe we should have gone to the prison and insisted on seeing you, refusing to be put off by the word that you didn't want to see former friends. You, indeed, laid your life on the line for justice and were broken by it. Perhaps we need an alternative Vietnam memorial bearing the names of all whose lives were destroyed in protesting the war.
Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston , Ill.
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Catholic Reporter COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group
Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center , 325 E. 25th St. , Baltimore , MD 21218 . Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs