Jesus was a carpenter, and the people in Nazareth knew him as one of the village’s young men. Then he heard the “still, small voice” of his Father and began his ministry.
Katey Feit grew up in my parish, St. Gertrude, on the Far North Side of Chicago. She was the product of a middle-class family, the third child of six, the second girl. She went to grade school at St. Gertrude and later trained to be a pediatric nurse.
In their quiet way
Today, when there is much about the Catholic church that is disturbing — the pedophile scandal, the way the Vatican is bullying nuns — I take heart from people like Katey who, in their quiet way, provide an example of living a good life.
In the mid-1980s, at St. Gertrude, my wife Cathy and I became members of a prayer group that included other couples with young children. One of the other members was Margaret Feit Clarke whose family was originally from St. Gertrude. She told me about her sister Katey who was in jail for protesting against nuclear weapons.
At the time, I was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, and Margaret knew that. She told me that Katey would be willing to be interviewed. So, after making some calls, I went to the federal jail just on the southern edge of the Loop and talked with Katey for about an hour.
Then, I wrote a story that ran in the Tribune in August, 1989. It talked about how, a year earlier, Katey had climbed an eight-foot fence topped with barbed wire in a farm field in rural Missouri and entered one of 150 nuclear weapon sites in the state.
The silo, covered with a giant cement lid, contained a 37-ton Minuteman II missile with 200 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Taking a nap
Katey prayed a bit. She planted iris bulbs and wild strawberry seeds. Then, since it took the soldiers an hour to show up to arrest her, she took a nap,
“I guess I felt pretty confident about being there,” she told me as we met in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago where she was serving a six-month sentence, the maximum term for a misdemeanor charge of trespassing on a military installation.
“I felt it was the right place for me to be.”
At the time of her arrest, she had been living — by her own choice — in poverty in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. She had regularly volunteered at a local soup kitchen, and had lived communally with the homeless at the St. Francis Catholic Worker House, also in Uptown.
She told me that she had tried “to keep my income as low as possible so I’d pay a minimum amount of federal taxes. And also to try to keep to a philosophy of simple living.
“The less I can take from society, the less I need, that allows for more for others.”
A countercultural life
She described the soup kitchen as “pretty much an anarchist volunteer organization. You can do whatever you want, whether it’s collecting food — some people go down to South Water Market and beg for food — or just doing cooking or showing up to clean up, or just even hanging out and talking to people.”
Hers was a countercultural life, an echo of the 1960s, a free-form existence outside society’s mainstream — an effort to put into action the nonviolent ideals of her Catholic faith, a set of beliefs she learned from her family.
“It was always understood that you lived out that faith,” she explained, “and people who were admired were people who took their faith and made it an active part of their lives.”
Not that it was easy for her parents and siblings to see her behind bars.
“The struggle for my family is they could understand what I was doing and why I was doing it, but I’m their daughter, I’m their sister, and they don’t want to see me in jail,” Feit says.
Why do it?
“A voice within”
“I knew this wasn’t going to turn the nuclear arms race around, and Missouri wasn’t going to up and decide to take 150 missile silos out of its soil,” Feit said. “You do hope it makes people think. But, ultimately, it was for me an act of conscience.
“There isn’t a state that’s responsible for nuclear weapons. It’s people. We each play a part in that. Going down there was an act of obedience to a voice within myself, and to my beliefs, and to my conscience, to what I believe the gospel tells us to do. And, acting on that, there’s an acceptance of the cost.”
Following the promptings of her faith didn’t end when she entered the jail. Indeed, she told me, at times, it was a challenge:
“The struggle [in prison] is not to categorize people in terms of ‘the guard’ or ‘the prison institution,’ but to recognize them as people and to try to build friendships, to try to create a spirit of nonviolence, to create a spirit of peace.
“I find it hard to do. I mean, how do you befriend someone who strip-searches you? How do you befriend someone who comes in every other day and goes through all your personal belongings, looking for contraband?”
That’s where the story ended. But, really, it didn’t end there. And neither did St. Gertrude’s connection with Katey.
Day in court
Five years later, I got a call at the Tribune from Charles Carney, asking me if I’d like to come to northern Wisconsin to cover the trial that he and four other Chicago-area people were facing for a protest at a U.S. Navy communications installation. One of those four was Katey.
(In the coming years, Charles would play basketball regularly with me at St. Gertrude, and another defendant, Marge Butzen, would become the parish business manager.)
So, in late 1994, I went up to Ashland, Wisconsin, for their day in court — and a frustrating day it was because the judge wouldn’t let any of them say anything into the court record about their motivation for trespassing at the military site. Finding them guilty, the judge bent over backwards not to put the five into jail, suspending their driver’s licenses instead.
Later, Katey married one of the other defendants, Mike Bremer, and they now live in a multi-cultural neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago
In recent years, she has stopped short of being arrested because she and Mike are parents to two young sons, Noah, 12, and Peter, 8. Nonetheless, both Katey and Mike have been frequent participants in protests against the Iraq War.
Sometimes, they bring their sons along.
Mike is a carpenter. Katey now works as a community health nurse and, occasionally, as a plumber.
Patrick T. Reardon
This article appeared in slightly different form in Reality, a Catholic magazine in Ireland, in November, 2012.