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Nun Sense 

Sister Miriam Ward makes activism a habit

Published March 3, 2004 at 8:47 p.m.

At 5-foot-1, with her bifocals and short gray hair, Sister Miriam Ward may look diminutive and benign. But don't be fooled. The 78-year-old nun has been a determined peace activist since the early 1980s. She has spoken out against everything from government brutality in El Salvador to nuclear weapons to the Iraq War, parts I and II. Her bright blue eyes often flash with righteous indignation -- especially when she's talking about the Palestinians, which she could do for hours.

Ward, who belongs to the Sisters of Mercy, was a religion professor at Trinity College until the school closed in 1999. She now teaches part-time at St. Michael's and lives in Burlington's New North End -- on, appropriately, Cross Parkway -- with Marmete Hayes, a fellow member of the Christian peace group Pax Christi.

The suburban home, which Hayes shared with her husband until his death, serves as headquarters for Pax Christi's Burlington chapter. Sitting in the living room, where a cross with a dove hangs on the wall and copies of The Nation are piled neatly on a table, Ward discusses her frequent visits to the Middle East.

When asked if she's ever seen any violence in her travels, Ward's answer is as polite as it is chilling. "Oh my, yes," she says, recalling an incident she witnessed several years ago in Jerusalem. "There was this young Palestinian kid, probably 14, 15 years of age walking in front of me," she explains. "He was so skinny, he was very thin. He was walking along, and there were four soldiers who stopped him, and they started questioning him, and they started kicking him. Each one took turns with their heavy boots, kicking him."

Ward says she got out a map, pretending to be lost. "I had the map up in front of me, but I was looking out over it, to see, to really witness, what was going on," she says. "Finally I just decided, ‘I can't stand here any longer.' So I walked right up to them." Ward claims that when she reached the soldiers, they let the boy go. But in her mind, the damage had already been done.

"As he went up the hill," she says, "he turned around and looked back, and I said to myself, ‘That is the making of a terrorist.' That's what went through my mind. Because that kid looked back, and in his eyes was ‘I'll get even with you guys.'"

For Ward, the anecdote stops there, a snapshot of injustice with an attractive, black-and-white moral clarity. But for many Israelis and their American allies, the story continues when the terrorist boards a bus or enters a nightclub wearing a bomb. Ward rarely speaks of suicide bombers or the damage they cause, an omission that often angers her critics. Even so, her willingness to stand up for her beliefs has earned her respect.


Though Ward gladly speaks at length about various causes, she's clearly uncomfortable discussing her personal life. It just doesn't seem as important to her as giving voice to the voiceless. But her journey from small-town Vermont girl to international activist reveals important clues about her uncompromising style. And it's one heck of a story.

Ward was born in New York State and moved with her parents and siblings to Proctor, Vermont, when she was an infant. Although Proctor is a small town, during the 1920s and '30s, when Ward was growing up, it resembled a kind of global village. "On my street there were Portuguese, Swedish, Polish, Hungarian and Irish… and Italian," recalls Ward, whose great-grandparents came from Ireland. Many of those recent immigrants worked in the marble industry. Their ethnic differences could sometimes cause tension among the neighborhood kids, but Ward's mother would scold her and her eight siblings if they caused any trouble.

"My mother was always for the underdog," the nun remembers. "When the kids would start saying, oh this ethnic group is better than that one, she'd say, ‘You say you're an American, and don't get into the Irish and the Polish.'"

Ward was 11 when her mother died. Because her father was a railroad man, the children were farmed out to relatives -- Ward and a younger brother to an aunt and uncle, who also lived in Proctor. They later moved to Middlebury, where Ward met some Sisters of Mercy. She joined the religious order when she was 17 -- a common practice then, though the rules have since changed. Contemporary postulants must complete college, or have the equivalent life experience.

"Well I didn't have any kind of a direct revelation from God to call me to be a nun, no," she reflects. "I just always wanted to belong to a religious order… I could see all the things you could do that you couldn't do alone. And that's proven to be true."

Through the convent, Ward completed her Bachelor's degree at Trinity in 1955, and taught in Catholic elementary and high schools in Montpelier, Burling-ton and Barre. Though it wasn't until 15 years later that Ward became involved in "activist" causes, like many other nuns, she was already working with kids outside of the classroom.

When she taught at Christ the King school in Burlington, she found clothes and shoes to dress the poorer students, and ministered to their families. "We always visited the homes for any death in the family, any illness," she says. "There are many more ways of dealing than just in the classroom."

When Ward went to a student's house in the 1950s, she wasn't allowed to walk alone; before the Vatican II council loosened restrictions on clothing and behavior in the early '60s, nuns were required to travel in pairs.

Regulations also still mandated that nuns wear habits -- for years, Ward even wore one when she coached high school girls' basketball in the 1950s. Ward admits that, though she's thankful for all the other changes, she found it hard to break the habit habit. "I was probably one of the last ones to take it off when I was teaching at Trinity," she says. "It was just more convenient."

In response to that sartorial freedom, Ward has created a sort of uniform for herself. "I have four basic suits and that's all I wear," she reports. Right now she's dressed in a blue shirt and sweater, a wool skirt and sensible black shoes. Around her neck she wears a blue porcelain cross pendant that resembles a dove, and on her finger the silver band all nuns wear, symbolizing that they're brides of Christ.


As restrictive as it was in many ways, convent life offered opportunities that Ward might not have had as a civilian. In 1960 she completed her Master's in Theology at Providence College in Rhode Island, and five years later she finished her Ph.D. in Religion at the University of Ottawa.

Through her university work, Ward met scholars who invited her to visit the Middle East to see firsthand the sites she had studied. She eventually traveled there with a Lutheran minister from Ohio, who encouraged her to run her own trips as a way to cover her expenses. In 1971, she began leading pilgrimage and study tours to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey. She's since conducted 27 tours, and has continued her own studies at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, the University of Aleppo, Syria, and the Univer-sity of Chicago. "My sister says, ‘Join the convent and see the world!'" she jokes.

Ward first began to comprehend the modern conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in 1973. "I went over one summer and did an archaeological survey of the Galilee," says the nun, "and so that was supposedly strictly biblical, but in doing that you're rubbing elbows with all kinds of people, and you get to see what's going on there on the ground." She cites that firsthand perspective, as well as her mother's lessons about sticking up for the underdog, as reasons why she eventually began speaking out against the Israeli occupation.

She also credits her in-depth study of the Bible. In 1965, after finishing her dissertation, Ward began teaching both the Old and the New Testament at Trinity. "You can't study the prophets of the Old Testament without… getting into justice issues," she says. "I mean, that's what they were doing. We think of people who prophesy as predicting the future, but they were really pronouncing on the present, their present."

In the early 1980s, Ward started pronouncing on her present. She helped found Pax Christi Burlington, which addresses justice issues through a faith perspective. She also joined the Interreligious Task Force on Central America, and she traveled to El Salvador and Hon-duras as part of a human rights delegation. But her passion has always been the Middle East.

Ward is currently focused primarily on the controversial barrier the Israelis are building, ostensibly as a defense against suicide bombers. The Israelis call it a "security fence;" Ward and other activists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause -- including those in Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, an organization she helped found in 2001 -- call it "the Apartheid Wall."

"Why should there be a checkpoint between this Palestinian village to this one?" she asks rhetorically. "And not just a checkpoint, a roadblock, where there's heaps of rubble piled up so that no vehicular traffic can go through. So no ambulances can go through. If you have an ambulance that can get from this Palestinian village up to this roadblock, then they've gotta take that patient out, carry the patient across the rubble into another ambulance… And then they can get to a checkpoint where the soldiers can say, ‘Unh-unh, you can't go.' And the person can die.

"And this has happened," Ward continues. "Women have given birth in the most horrendous situations. Babies have died afterwards at the checkpoints. All of these controls over Palestinian life, it's nothing short of destroying the entire fabric of their society."


These charges don't sit well with Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Burlington's Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. He claims that Ward is not telling the whole truth. "I like Sister Miriam," he says in a phone interview. "Sometimes she scares the hell out of me. I don't think her views about the Middle East are fair. They are terribly one-sided."

But Ward insists that she is motivated by concern for Jews as well as Palestinians. She believes that ending the occupation is in the best interest of both parties and is the only way to stop the mounting violence.

"What they're doing is not as bad as what was done to them in the Holocaust," she says. "No way." But at one point, Ward seems to compare the two. Speaking about an Israeli settler attack on a Palestinian village, she likens the event to Kristallnacht, the infamous 1939 Nazi pogrom in which 26,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Chasan concedes that Ward has good intentions. "I think Sister Miriam considers herself a friend of the Jewish people," he says, "and there are some Jews in town who are passionate co-workers with her." Chasan even echoes Ward's own comments about the biblical prophets. "She bears prophetic witness in her own way," he says.

But, Chasan continues, "I think that it's compromised by her one-sided approach to pain in the Middle East… Being a little bit of a lightning rod myself, I can empathize with her, but I would tell you just the same that sometimes she makes me wonder if my people are as worthy as other people."

Chasan's concerns are frequently repeated on the editorial pages of publications when Ward writes one of her countless op-eds or letters to the editor. In a letter to the National Catholic Reporter, Eugene Korn, a former director of Interfaith Relations at the Anti-Defamation League, called Ward's moral reasoning "twisted." And last April, in a letter to the local daily, a South Burlington man wrote this in response to Ward's March 19 op-ed: "Once again we were treated to a Sister Miriam Ward diatribe against her favorite enemies -- Israel and the Jewish people."

But Ward's supporters argue that she is courageous for speaking her mind. "I've just always admired her so much for her willingness to stand up for her beliefs," says David Conrad, a retired University of Vermont professor who has known Ward for 30 years. His first memory of her is seeing her on a tractor; Conrad points out that in addition to her other interests, Ward was the chief gardener of Mount St. Mary's two-acre vegetable plot, and the founder of the Mt. St. Mary's Community Garden on Mansfield Ave.

When Conrad and Ed Everts interviewed 10 peace activists for a Chittenden County Historical Society oral-history project last year, Ward was one of their picks. "It was an obvious choice," Conrad says.

Kimberly Ead, director of the Peace and Human Rights Project at the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington, calls Ward a "fireball" and an inspiration. "Sister Miriam is one of the hardest-working women I know on social-justice issues," Ead says. She admits that Ward's style is "direct, blunt and uncompromising," but argues that the issue merits an uncompromising approach. "We as Americans and global citizens cannot compromise on human rights for anyone," she suggests.

But Ead also attests to Ward's kinder, gentler side. When Ead's group hosted a Palestinian speaker, Ward invited both women over for tea and cookies. "She's not only issue-oriented," says Ead, "She really cares about other people."

Ward doesn't get caught up in the debate over her style. She just moves on. These days she's likely to be found answering email, doing a Power Point presentation, or operating the camera during the Vermonters for a Just Peace weekly public-access television show. She's also writing a book about her experiences, though she says it will be a record not of her life, but of the fight for justice in which she's taken part.

"If Amos were around today -- Amos was known as the Shepherd from Tekoa, right outside of Bethlehem -- and he could see what was going on," she says, "he would be denouncing it."

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Deputy publisher Cathy Resmer is an organizer of the Vermont Tech Jam. She also oversees Seven Days' parenting publication, Kids VT, and created the Good Citizen Challenge, a youth civics initiative. Resmer began her career at Seven Days as a freelance writer in 2001. Hired as a staff writer in 2005, she became the publication's first online editor in 2007.


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