fb-pixel

Ardeth Platte, Dominican Nun and antinuclear activist, dies at 84

Sister Ardeth Platte, seen here upon her release from jail in 2005, spent time incarcerated for her peaceful protests.
Sister Ardeth Platte, seen here upon her release from jail in 2005, spent time incarcerated for her peaceful protests.DOUGLAS HEALEY/Associated Press

Sister Ardeth Platte, a Dominican nun and anti-nuclear activist who spent years behind bars for her beliefs, and who was the inspiration for a character on “Orange Is the New Black,” the Netflix series about life in a women’s prison, died on Sept. 30 at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington. She was 84.

Sister Carol Gilbert, her roommate and longtime collaborator, confirmed the death. The evening before, she said, Platte had been listening to the presidential debate on NPR. When Gilbert awoke the next morning, Platte, who usually rose before her, was still in bed wearing her earphones, and NPR was still playing.

Advertisement



With the exception of arthritis, Gilbert said, Platte had no underlying health issues.

The two nuns drew national attention in the fall of 2002, when they were arrested, along with another Dominican nun, Jackie Hudson, for breaking into a nuclear missile site in Colorado. Clad in white hazmat suits emblazoned with the words “Disarmament Specialists,” they had used bolt cutters to snip the chain-link fence that ringed the missile field; made the sign of a cross on a silo lid using their own blood (drawn safely by doctors, following the practice of Plowshares, a Christian pacifist movement to which they belonged); unfurled a peace banner; and recited a prayer: “Oh God, help us to be peacemakers in a hostile world.”

Found guilty of sabotage, the three were fined and sentenced to prison terms the next spring. Platte, who had the longest arrest record, drew the longest sentence: 41 months in a Connecticut prison. There, she impressed inmates with her basketball skills — despite cataracts, she could shoot three-pointers with ease — and she practiced yoga with Piper Kerman, whose 2010 memoir, “Orange Is the New Black,” about her year in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking, was the basis for the Netflix series.

Advertisement



(Gilbert served her time in a prison in West Virginia, where Martha Stewart — whom she called “a real trooper” — was a fellow inmate.)

Despite these celebrity collisions, jail time was no cakewalk. The nuns were strip searched, shackled and held in cells smeared with feces. Though incarceration was never their goal — as they told Eric Schlosser, who profiled the nuns and other Roman Catholic anti-nuclear activists for The New Yorker in 2015, an action without jail time is known as a “freebie” — they saw its extreme hardships as an opportunity to minister to the poor.

“We were still writing to the women we have been incarcerated with,” Gilbert said. She estimated that she and Platte had spent 15 years of their lives in more than 40 prisons and jails.

After her release from the Danbury facility in 2005, Platte, then 69, told a reporter, “Whatever the judges and prosecutors and these systems do upon us is nothing compared to the suffering the government is causing across the world.”

“Conviction,” a documentary about the nuns, came out the next year.

In addition to being longtime participants in Plowshares, the nuns were members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which in 2017 won a Nobel Peace Prize for its work.

“Ardeth and Carol were partners in crime,” Schlosser said in a phone interview. “Renegades and lawbreakers and truly inspiring. They truly lived the gospel, and they did it with a wonderful sense of humor and exuberance and joy.” Platte, he added, “was fully alive, and part of that generation of women who grew up in a certain way, and wanted to be bold and free and make a difference without being dependent on men.”

Advertisement



Ardeth Platte was born on April 10, 1936, in Lansing, Michigan, and grew up in the nearby village of Westphalia. Her mother, Helen (Simonds) Platte, divorced her father, Herman, when Ardeth was a year and a half old, and she and her brother, Richard, were raised by their father and grandparents. Her father served in World War II, then worked as a handyman and, later, a missionary.

When she was 12, Ardeth was hospitalized with a life-threatening kidney infection and, she later told Gilbert, had an out-of-body experience. “She said,” Gilbert recalled, “‘Oh God, if you let me live, I’ll dedicate myself to you.’”

Though she was committed to joining a religious order, her father said she had to spend at least one year in college. She earned a degree in history from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a Dominican school, which determined the course of her life. “What drew her is our charism, which is veritas, truth,” Gilbert said. “She wanted to speak truth to power.”

Platte was Gilbert’s homeroom teacher and senior adviser in high school. They met again after Gilbert had joined the order and been sent to Saginaw to work in a poor parish. Platte was serving on the City Council there, working on a number of social justice initiatives, including a successful ban on housing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Advertisement



Like many Catholics, the nuns were compelled to activism by Vatican II, the early-1960s church council that encouraged its members to be more engaged with the world.

By the early ’80s, inspired by the Australian doctor and anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, they turned their focus to the nuclear weapons and bombers located in bases in their home state. For more than a decade, through hundreds of protests, legal challenges and sheer doggedness, they were among those who were instrumental in Michigan’s decision to close its nuclear bases in 1995.

“Ardeth was very keen on the law,” Anabel Dwyer, a Michigan-based lawyer who worked for decades on the nuns’ behalf, said in a phone interview. “She stood for the Nuremberg principles, the universal prohibitions against war crimes. Her resistance was based on the fact that nuclear weapons unleash uncontrollable and indiscriminate heat, blast and radiation and thus violate intransgressible rules of law.

”Obviously it was a moral question for her as well,” Dwyer continued, “but when she was in court she wanted to argue in terms of the law itself. She had a real instinct for justice on a large scale, for democracy as an act.”

With Michigan squared away, Gilbert and Platte then moved to Jonah House in Baltimore, a community of religious and lay people devoted to nonviolence. Platte was an enthusiastic participant in hundreds of actions, always clad in one of her anti-war T-shirts — and sometimes on crutches, as she was in 2010 for a protest at the Y-12 nuclear facility in Oakridge, Tennessee. Despite a broken ankle, she had climbed over the fence that guarded the complex.

Advertisement



Nearly three years ago, Gilbert and Platte moved to the Dorothy Day House in Washington. They worked on the Poor People’s Campaign, a social justice movement, and joined protests organized by Fire Drill Friday, the group started by Jane Fonda to raise awareness of climate change. All three were arrested on Dec. 21 last year, Fonda’s 82nd birthday, though only Fonda spent the night in jail.

“She became a friend, a staunch and fearless friend, who was there to welcome me when I got out of jail in D.C. following my own act of civil disobedience,” Fonda wrote in a Facebook post after Platte’s death.

Platte is survived by her brother, Richard.

“To think,” Gilbert said, “the day she died, another country had ratified the nuclear disarmament treaty” — that would be Malaysia, the 46th country to do so, a number that does not include the United States. “I was going to wake her up and tell her.”