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Sister Gwen Hennessey papers

Identifier: IWA0491

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Scope and Contents

The Sister Gwen Hennessey papers date from 2000 to 2005 and measure 2 linear inches plus audiovisual materials. The papers consist of a brief autobiography covering Hennessey's childhood, her teaching activities, and her early activism. The bulk of the collection concerns Hennessey's arrest and imprisonment for demonstrating at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2000. Materials include: background information on the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (also known as both the School of the Americas and the "School of Assassins"), a copy of Sister Gwen Hennessey's statement to the judge at her trial, a letter Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) wrote supporting the Sisters prior to their trial, and a column Gwen Hennessey wrote from her prison cell for Footprints, the journal of the Sisters of Saint Francis in Dubuque, Iowa.

There are four videocassettes. The first includes local and national television news coverage regarding the Hennessey sisters' sentencing and incarceration [V298]. The second includes the Leave-Taking Prayer service for the Hennessey sisters, a presentation by Charles Lietky (Vietnam veteran and peace activist), and an interview with Father Ron Hennessey (brother of Gwen Hennessey) regarding his experiences in Guatemala and El Salvador [V299]. The third, The Hennessey Sisters and the Graduates of the School of the Americas, includes an interview with the Hennessey sisters covering their youth, their brother Father Ron Hennessey, and their political views of U.S. policies in Central America and the School of the Americas [V300]. The fourth, Bill Cullen Presents Sr. Dorothy Marie Hennessey and Sr. Gwen Hennessey is an interview with the Hennessey sisters about their activism against the School of the Americas [V301].


  • Creation: 2000-2005


Conditions Governing Access

The papers are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to the University of Iowa.

However, copyright status for some collection materials may be unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owner. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility and potential liability based on copyright infringement for any use rests exclusively and solely with the user. Users must properly acknowledge the Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, as the source of the material. For further information, visit

Biographical / Historical

Gwen Hennessey, the thirteenth child of Anna Killias Hennessey and Maurice Hennessey, was born on a farm in Buchanan County, Iowa on September 29, 1932. The Hennessey children, in order of birth, were: Dorothy, Monica, Tom, Miriam, Geraldine ("Jerry"), Jack, Catherine, James (who died at ten days old), Maurice, Jr., Dave, Ron, Marilyn, Gwen, Larry and Mary June. At the time of Gwen Hennessey's birth, her oldest sister Dorothy was already a Franciscan nun. Hennessey's sister Miriam would also take her vows and leave home before Gwen started school, and brother Ron would later become a priest.

Hennessey started attending a one room rural school at the age of four. She began high school at age twelve, graduating from St. Patrick's in Ryan, Iowa, at age sixteen. Hennessey remained at home the following year to help her mother. It was during this year that Hennessey's calling to become a Sister became more pronounced. Hennessey earned a degree in English literature and education at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa. She took her final vows on August 10, 1956.

Following her final vows, Hennessey was assigned to teach. Her teaching career would include positions in both Iowa and Illinois. In Chicago, Hennessey became involved with Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC) where she became active in the nuclear disarmament movement. She also attended Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago (JSTC) where she studied liberation theology.

Following Chicago, Hennessey helped start the Catholic Peace Ministry in Des Moines, Iowa. She then earned an M.A. at MST Mary Knoll School of Theology in New York. Hennessey's career included co-director of the Maura Clarke/Ita Ford Center in Brooklyn, New York, and a ministry with the Appalachian Office of Justice and Peace in southwest Virginia. Eventually Hennessey returned to Dubuque, Iowa where she and her older sister Dorothy served at Mount St. Francis.

Hennessey began attending protests at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas) at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1997. In 2000, Hennessey and her sister Dorothy were among 15,000 protesters, 3,600 of whom crossed onto the base at Fort Benning, Georgia. Charged with trespassing, a third degree misdemeanor, the sixty-eight year old Gwen and the eighty-eight year old Dorothy were sentenced to six months at the Federal Prison Camp [FPC] in Pekin, Illinois. After a month and a half at FPC Dorothy Hennessey, due to health reasons, was transported to the Elm Street Correctional Facility in Dubuque, Iowa. She also spent part of her time recuperating at the Franciscan infirmary at Holy Family Hall. Midway through the sentence, she was assigned to do community service at an AIDS house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Gwen Hennessey served her entire six months at the Federal Prison Camp.

In 2002, the Hennessey sisters became the 33rd and 34th recipients of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, presented by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport, and only the third and fourth Iowans to receive it. Dorothy Hennessey passed away in January 2008.


2.50 linear inches

4 videocassettes [V298-V301]. boxes

Language of Materials



Franciscan nun sentanced to six months in federal prison for trespassing at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Method of Acquisition

The papers (donor no. 846 and 855) were donated by Sister Gwen Hennessey and Victoria Brown in 2002.

Related Materials

The primary collection of Sister Gwen Hennessey's papers is held by the Sisters of St. Francis Convent archives in Dubuque, Iowa.

Lisa Mott, 2004.
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Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Iowa Women's Archives Repository

100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242 IaU
319-335-5900 (Fax)