By Mary T. Yelenick
The night of September 29, 2020, Sr. Ardeth Platte – having spent the hot summer working daily in her garden at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, D.C., supplying people in need with fresh produce; and having, just two days, earlier delivered a rigorous online presentation for a school of theology; and the previous day having stood on the street corner holding a sign calling for the end of nuclear weapons – curled up on her mattress on the floor of the tiny room she shared with her longtime co-activist, Sr. Carol Gilbert.
When Carol tried to rouse Ardeth a few hours later, eager to share news about the most recent ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (“TPNW”), she was stunned to discover that Ardeth – who was still wearing the radio earphones she usually wore when retiring to bed, in order to keep up with global news – had quietly slipped away.
At the age of 84, Ardeth Platte had lived a life of selfless devotion to the cause of peace. Over the course of her 66 years as a member of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, Michigan, she had been a teacher, school principal, director of alternative education, member of the City Council, and Mayor pro tem of Saginaw Michigan. Sr. Ardeth had served the poor, and had advocated for local environmental issues. She worked for more than a decade as coordinator of the Home for Peace and Justice in Saginaw. Eventually, she and Sr. Carol turned their focus to issues of nuclear abolition, and joined the Catholic activist community of Jonah House, in Baltimore, Maryland.
While living at Jonah House, Ardeth participated in four “Plowshares” actions at various nuclear-weapons facilities, including Andrews Air Force base, seeking symbolically to transform “swords into plowshares,” pursuant to the admonition set forth in the biblical Book of Isaiah. Each of those four Plowshares actions drew its inspiration from one of the various aspects of creation threatened by nuclear weapons: water, air, space, and land.
Those actions also entailed spilling her own blood, symbolically representing that of the hundreds of thousands of people already killed by nuclear weapons.
In 2002, Sr. Ardeth, Sr. Carol, and Sr. Jackie Hudson, dressed as weapons inspectors, entered onto the Rocky Flats “Minuteman III” nuclear missile silo in Colorado. (This action became the focus of the documentary film “Conviction.”) The trio was arrested, convicted on felony charges, and jailed, with Ardeth being imprisoned for three years in Danbury, Connecticut (where she became the inspiration for a character in the book, later a Netflix show, “Orange is the New Black”).
Ardeth and Carol also took part in other anti-nuclear actions, including at the Y-2 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for which they were also jailed. Over the course of her life, Ardeth spent more than six years incarcerated for actions opposing nuclear weapons.
When not in prison, Ardeth persisted in actively speaking, protesting, and agitating against nuclear weapons. Her tireless work led to articles about her in “The New York Times,” “The Washington Post,” “The New Yorker,” and numerous other publications.
In recent years, Sr. Ardeth was an active member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (“ICAN”), spending weeks as an ardent campaigner at the United Nations in New York working to advance the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (“TPNW”), which was approved in July of 2017. After ICAN was awarded the Nobel Prize for its work on the TPNW, Ardeth and Carol traversed the country, addressing student and community groups, displaying a replica of the Nobel Peace Prize medal, and explaining the significance of the TPNW. They also visited global military bases – from Colorado to Buchel, Germany –
hand-delivering to base commanders a copy of, and explaining the significance of, the TPNW.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Ardeth had also participated regularly at protests at the Pentagon, and been arrested at “Fire Drill Friday” climate-change actions in Washington. She had also been arrested for participating in a peaceful protest at a Senate office building, calling for an end to the forced separation of refugee children from their parents. When the pandemic forced the cancellation of her travels, Ardeth turned to internet media sources, continuing to advocate fiercely for the social justice, and the global abolition of nuclear weapons.
At the time of her death, Ardeth was eagerly awaiting the crucial 50th ratification of the TPNW, triggering its provisions – which occurred, with the ratification by Honduras, just three short weeks later. A number of anti-nuclear advocates only half-jokingly attributed that ratification to Sr. Ardeth’s advocacy in higher places.
Ardeth Platte was indefatigable. Purpose-driven. Creative. Inspirational.
Above all, Ardeth was kind. She was interested less in proselytizing, than in having deep conversations – with listening being as important as speaking. She had at her disposal more facts and figures, and had more deeply plumbed the depths of the moral issues surrounding nuclear weapons, than had most of those with whom she engaged in conversation. And yet she did not dismiss those whose beliefs did not align with her own. Instead, she shared what she knew and believed, and invited others to do the same.
As she told “The Denver Post” in 2017, “I refuse to have an enemy. I simply won’t.”
While, at the age of 84 – having been subjected to multiple arrests and incarcerations over the course of her life – she suffered from a very painful and debilitating arthritis, she never complained. Instead, to deflect others’ concern when they observed her involuntary winces, she would simply crack a joke, her gentle eyes gleaming. Her smile, and her deep joy, were infectious.
In the end, Sr. Ardeth passed from this earth – which she had worked so assiduously to improve – in the same manner as she had lived: raising a ruckus. Because she died at home, the 911 call resulted in the responding police unit cordoning off the room where she died. As Sr. Carol later stated, only half in jest, “Even in death, Ardeth ha[d] to make a scene, making our bedroom a crime scene.” One can only imagine the deep chuckle, and crinkled-eye smile, which that observation elicited in heaven.
Mary T. Yelenick is a member of the Pax Christi International delegation at the United Nations. She is also a member of the Pax Christi USA Anti-Racism Team (PCART).