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Martha Hennessy - Witness Interview


May 26, 2019 – Martha Hennessy was born in 1955 in Staten Island, New York, the seventh child of David and Tamar Hennessy and the seventh grandchild of Dorothy Day. For her first two years, her family lived near the Peter Maurin Catholic Worker Farm where her grandmother, Dorothy Day would often come for a break from her work at the city house in New York. Dorothy was affectionately called “Granny” and spent as much time with the Hennessy family as she could. Dorothy was very busy with the work of the Catholic Worker, travelling, writing, speaking, and running a house of hospitality. The earliest memory Martha has of “Granny” was when she was perhaps three years of age. Martha says that Dorothy was a great storyteller and the grandchildren sat and listened to her long discussions. Martha recalls vividly lying on “Granny’s” chest, near her heart, and she could hear the resonance of her voice. Martha said: “It was my first understanding of the presence of God.”

After an elementary school education in Perkinsville, New York, Martha went to a regional high school and spent summers at the Tivoli, New York Catholic Worker farm on the Hudson River. The definition of family and community was expanded for her over those summer months of Pax Christi conferences, VietNam war protests, and round table discussions on the issues of war and poverty.

Martha married Steven Melanson, a carpenter. Their first son was born in 1977, and one year later, Martha, aged 23, served 3 months in prison for the protest of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. After the birth of their second child, Martha went to community college and earned an associate’s degree in occupational therapy and later a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy at Dominican College in Orangeburg, NY. Together, Martha and Steven raised their three children at the farmhouse which Steven built. They now have eight grandchildren. Martha completed a 25-year career working with school children and the elderly, her last job being in Amman, Jordan in 2013.

In October 2002, Martha’s grandmother Dorothy was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and Martha gave a three-minute speech that changed the direction of her life. The US was busy beating war drums against Iraq and Martha knew the criminal unleashing of such immense suffering would change everything. Since her childhood, Martha became aware of current events and understood it to be important to pay attention to the injustices committed by the state. From 2002 to 2005, Martha returned to reading her grandmother’s autobiography and other writings. A spiritual retreat which she made in 2008 marked the beginning of her understanding of the Gospel teachings and how they relate to Catholic practice in the 21st century.

Martha returned to the Catholic Worker community in 2007 through “Witness Against Torture” and the protests in Washington, DC regarding the torture and indefinite detention of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay Prison Camp in Cuba. In 2010, Martha began to live and work part-time at Maryhouse, the New York Catholic Worker where “Granny” died in 1980. Martha participated in nonviolent direct actions to protest the post 9/11 wars, the use of drones for killing, torture, and nuclear power and weapons. She has traveled to Russia, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Korea, and Palestine to understand the effects of United States military policy and war in other countries. She has spoken about the power of mercy and forgiveness around the world.

Martha currently faces serious prison time with seven co-defendants after a Plowshares action on April 4, 2018 at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary’s Georgia. Desiring to make real the prophet Isaiah’s command to “beat swords into plowshares” on the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Martha and seven others carried hammers and baby bottles of their own blood and attempted to convert weapons of mass destruction, hoping to call attention to the ways in which nuclear weapons kill every day, by their mere existence and maintenance. The eight activists used crime scene tape, hammers and hung banners reading: “The ultimate logic of racism is genocide - Dr. Martin Luther King”, “The ultimate logic of Trident is omnicide” and “Nuclear weapons: illegal / immoral.” They also brought an indictment charging the U.S. government for crimes against peace.

As Martha faces serious prison time with her seven co-defendants, she said that she feels the presence of her guardian angel that “Granny” taught was always with her. Martha cherishes some powerful words of her grandmother, Dorothy Day, that continue to inspire and strengthen her each day: “As you come to know the seriousness of our situation the war, the racism, the poverty in the world, you come to realize that it is not going to be changed just by words or demonstrations. It’s a question of risking your life. It’s a question of living your life in drastically different ways.”

This WITNESS interview took place at Maryhouse in New York City on January 15, 2019, in the very room where Dorothy Day spent her final years and where this Servant of God died on November 29, 1980.