Meet the McDonald family of Watertown, one of Carver County’s most interesting families.
Descended from Irish immigrants, Kenneth and Margaret McDonald raised a family of 11 children, four boys and seven girls.
Of the sons, Kenneth James, more commonly known as KJ, gained political prominence as a conservative Republican. He was first elected to public office as mayor of Watertown, then elected to the Minnesota Legislature, serving from 1977 to 1991.
And of the seven girls, four became Catholic sisters. Unlike the boys in the family, these four sisters — Rita, Kate, Brigid and Jane — held liberal beliefs. In the 1970s and 80s, they became well known as anti-war protesters, frequently showing up at anti-war rallies, and protests at Honeywell and Alliant Techsystems.
When protesters were rounded up and arrested, the sisters were among those in the holding cells.
When Ron Peluso, creative director of the History Theatre, first learned of the McDonald sisters several years ago, he knew it was story that needed to be told by the theater. The result is “Sisters of Peace,” written by Doris Baizley and directed by Barbra Berlovitz.
The show is the second in the series of “Her Story Theatre,” at the History Theater in St. Paul.
“We were honored of course,” Jane, 83, said in a recent telephone interview. All four sisters live in St. Paul.
“You feel kind of vulnerable but we know it’s not so much about us, but the bigger peace and justice movement channeling through our lives. We’re honored and humbled that the the theater thought of us.”
The sisters are no strangers to media attention — four liberal Catholic sisters who are sisters, marching for peace, protesting war and the industrial military complex. In 2009 they were featured in the student documentary “Four Sisters for Peace,” by the Center for International Education in St. Paul.
The McDonald sisters grew up with a father who had served in World War I and brothers who had all served in the military. “We grew up in shadow of war,” Jane said, “and we grew up believing in war. The radical change for me was that war was not the answer.”
Each of the sisters joined the Sisters of St. Joseph, and went to different missions. In 1963, Jane was moved from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Holy Angels in Minneapolis. At the time, the war in Vietnam was breaking out. As a teacher meeting and working with youth, she began to learn “that the priorities of the money was unevenly distributed to war at the expense of education and childcare. The priorities just didn’t seem to be the right priorities. Instead money was going to the war machines and a war-based economy.”
For Jane, hearing the youth and especially the slogan, “Hell no, we won’t go!” was especially affecting. “It touched my heart,” Jane said. “The Vietnam war was being televised and we saw the body bags coming home. The media played a part, with the citizens catching on. The younger generation’s energy took hold, and caused my conscience to do a 180-degree turn. We do need some defense, but the priorities are really off kilter.”
“A lot of citizens stood up to Honeywell making cluster bombs and weapons of mass destruction,” Jane said. “We protest the violence and the war-based economy, but we are advocates for peace.”
As for being arrested, “it’s always a concern,” Jane said, “but I felt good in my conscience. It never felt good but we had a conviction.”
Brigid said she was shocked, and “very surprised how they felt about us,” when learning of the theater’s intent to write a play based on their story. The four sisters participated in a year of on and off again interviews with the playwright, and were supportive because “We felt it was part of the peace movement,” Brigid said. “You always have to have the cause in front of you. The play helps getting it out there.”
The four sisters were able to read and react to each of the play’s drafts, helping to refine their own and brother KJ’s characters. Brigid described her brother KJ as being very articulate and persuasive. “He was a good politician, but I didn’t like his politics,” she said with a laugh. “We argued, but it was fun. The Irish call it bantering.” But despite the many heated discussions, the siblings remained close. “It’s in the genes on both sides of the family to stick together.”
She was surprised at the final script. “They took what we said in interviews and made it very authentic. I know that some of the conversations are embellished for theater, but we did make some changes. They had me using using some words I wouldn’t ever use. And they made me sound angrier in the earlier versions. I don’t think I’m angry. I’m sassy.”
Playwright Doris Baizley is familiar with the Twin Cities theater community, having won a writing prize through the Playwright Center. She wrote the History Theatre play, “Peace Crimes: The Minnesota 8 vs. the War,” about Vietnam War conscientious objectors in the Twin Cities. She also wrote the play “Sister Kenny’s Children,” about Sister Kenny and the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis. Baizley teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and is a story editor for documentary movies.
She first met the McDonald sisters in May 2016. “I ended up with so much material,” Baizley said. “Their thoughts, feelings, beliefs. They were really rich sessions. Then I did a lot of reading about them They showed up in a lot of public places in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”
“They were very understanding of me making up conversations, very generous with my taking dramatic license,” Baizley said. “They came from a family without many resources ... and every one of these four women, educated themselves, and had the real will of doing important work. I think they stand for something for aging women. We’re not anyone’s cliche of a little old lady.
“I have students who will write stage direction. ‘There’s Joe and Mary and an old woman.’ I’ll say, ‘What is an old woman? Don’t give me a generic stereotype.’ Old women are not granny in the attic. They have a powerful presence; they are active and accomplished.”
Baizley said the McDonald sisters thought her portrayal of KJ was fair.
“KJ was a Republican and the opposite of them in their beliefs. The sisters decided we should just do the tough conversation about their beliefs ... that you can disagree and it can be deep and everyone knows how outspoken they are,” Baizley said. “But it’s their right to do it, and to not to stop loving the person. They said, ‘We won’t let an argument last over 24 hours, and we’ll always play cards with each other.’”